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Baby’s Got a Brand New Bag

Jay Tollefsen • Feature • December 1, 2011

Jay Tollefsen at his workbench, prepping doll parts for the bloody baby-in-a-bag prop.

Jay Tollefsen at his workbench, prepping doll parts for the bloody baby-in-a-bag prop.

The annual production of Dracula at Actors Theatre of Louisville calls for gruesome props.

Holding a filthy sack, Dracula walks past the audience, toward the stage. The bag squirms and cries as he approaches his hungry brides. Dracula cuts the bag with a long knife; blood streams and puddles on the floor. The bag is thrown to his vampire followers, who feed on it hungrily.

This effect, in our prop shop, is called the baby-in-a-bag trick.

Actors Theatre of Louisville has been presenting Dracula annually since 1995 and we strive to improve it each year. When considering the 2011 production, Prop Master Joe Cunningham decided the baby-in-a-bag trick was one that could be improved. He enlisted me to help with the rebuild.

 The final pump assembly—the doll’s face (left) is attached with tape to the a metal coffee travel cup, and the pump draws blood from a reservoir and dispenses it (right) on top of the doll’s head when the unit is fully assembled.

The final pump assembly—the doll’s face (left) is attached with tape to the a metal coffee travel cup, and the pump draws blood from a reservoir and dispenses it (right) on top of the doll’s head when the unit is fully assembled.

Starting From Scratch
The prior bag had a rubber bulb hidden in the top knot of fabric, the fake blood was delivered by the actor squeezing the bulb. There were two problems with this method. First, the bulb could only hold and deliver a small amount of blood. And second, the device relied on the actor to squeeze it at just the right moment.

By replacing the bulb with a small battery powered pump, similar to what is used to empty aquariums, we decided we would be able to create a gorier effect. Cunningham purchased the pump from an online source and I incorporated the pump into a travel coffee cup, creating a spill-proof blood reservoir. Although this would have been enough to perform the trick, we opted to attach another screw-top cup over the top of the pump. We did this to protect the pump from damage in the event the bag is dropped, while allowing a point of entry for battery replacement. A tube draws the blood from the reservoir into the pump and another small tube directs the blood from the pump to the spot where Dracula will stab—colorfully called the stab zone. A loop of elastic was sewn into the inside of the bag to keep the tube in place.

We chose to activate the pump with a small radio controlled servomotor, which allows an operator to select the position of the armature on a motor. Servos are often used in radio-controlled cars, airplanes and boats, so we were able to easily pick them up at a local hobby shop. Attaching an arm that would turn 45 degrees, I was able to position the motor so it would push a momentary-on switch and power the pump.  

The doll parts attached to the servo motor

The doll parts attached to the servo motor

Animating the Parts
Since we were rebuilding the bag, we decided to improve on the fake baby within as well. The preceding bag was filled with a radio-controlled car. The car’s wheels were removed and replaced with oblongs of Plexiglass. The motion of the Plexiglass as body limbs was believable and our prop visually successful—but it was large, fragile and created a mechanical noise that was difficult to muffle.

To upgrade the prop, we once again turned to servomotors. At the hobby shop we were introduced to an array of small, durable and powerful motors. We chose high torque, metal-geared servos to animate the limbs of the baby.

Armed with our new servos, I created a base to mount them on. I cut a chunk of angle iron and then bolted each motor on. Then I screwed plastic doll parts onto the metal servo arms. The plastic hands and feet would be seen kicking and pushing against the sides of the bag.

A few concerns remained with the motorized baby parts. First, waterproofing (or at least fake-blood proofing) needed to be addressed. Applying a coating of spray Plasti-dip to the motor casings and wire inlets solved this dilemma. Then I proceeded to the next concern: sound insulation. By gluing dense foam around the motors and motor mounts I was able dull the sound emitted. The foam also assisted with our final concern—fall protection. For this we chose the material of foam floor mats, the type used in children’s playrooms. It made an ideal padding to encase the motorized baby. The final result could be dropped, was quiet enough for the sound department to cover the servo noises with their baby crying sound effects and after the show, the entire device could be rinsed off in a sink.

The pump switch, radio receiver and battery for the servo motors all fit nicely into an empty baby wipes container. I lined the lid, bottom and inside of the wipes container with upholstery foam to protect the most fragile parts of the prop.

I taped the receiver’s antenna (a length of fine gauge wire) around the inside of the box to maximize our reception. I then sealed the box with waterproof tape. I installed a jack on the side, to charge the battery within, and used a small rubber stopper to close the opening when the jack wasn’t needed. This kept the box sealed and watertight throughout the show.

We painted and treated the bag that would contain the baby parts to give it a look of age and wear. We secured the wipes box to the side of the pump with Velcro straps. A small chain attached the pump assembly to a coil of rope at the top of the bag. This way our Dracula could hold the entire mechanism in its place in the top of the bag and it appeared he was simply holding a rope that ties the bag shut. Once all this was accomplished we headed into blood tech.

In the Hands of Actors
Once the baby bag was in use by performers and stage management we began to see some challenges. The baby’s limbs sat in the bottom of the bag and their own weight reduced their ability to move. To remedy this I stitched in additional elastic straps inside the bag. The baby’s arms and leg could be slipped into these doll part placeholders, allowing more of the desired movement and giving us more consistent results.

Director McNulty asked if the blood flow could come from a higher point of the bag. A rebuild of the pump could place it higher, but after discussing the labor involved, we decided to make this adjustment to next year’s production of Dracula. To help out for this year, though, we cut the tube from the pump shorter, which brought us closer to the desired result.
The effect under full stage light brought on another challenge. Under the strong spotlights needed to highlight Dracula, the fabric of the bag became translucent—making the mechanics visible for some seats in the audience. By adding some fabric, essentially sewing in a liner, we were able to stop the light from shining clear through, keeping the inner workings concealed.

After multiple tests it was thought that our blood dripped down the fabric too quickly and pooled at the bottom of the bag. Cunningham taped a baby doll face to the front of the pump assembly directly beneath the end of the blood tube. This made the blood flow over the face, which was pressed against the cloth, giving us a more interesting movement of the liquid and more penetration through the fabric. I punched some pin-head sized holes in the very bottom of the bag and sealed the raw edges with Fray-Check, allowing blood to drip through at a faster rate, generating the pooling on the floor we desired.

In the end it was a very successful run and the baby-in-a-bag trick held up well. With the autumn favorite behind us, we’re able to file away our prop notes ‘til next year, when Dracula is sure to rise again.

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