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And then a truck drives through it…

Michael S. Eddy • April 2020How-To • March 24, 2020

The Bridgeport-based scenic company Global Scenic Services recently worked closely with scenic designer Clint Ramos constructing his set for the play Grand Horizons on Broadway. We caught up with Global’s Peter Falco and Rory Mulholland to, in their own words, walk us through the automation and scenic solution for the end of Act 1 finale where a U-Haul van is crashed through the kitchen wall of the set. [PLEASE NOTE: This effect was tested and performed at every performance with a dummy in the driver seat, never a person.]

Peter Falco: This was a unique one. When they first came to us and said they wanted to crash this van through the wall the first thing was, of course, well, how do we control this vehicle? Our first step was to actually reduce the weight of the van. We stripped that van down to nothing. The motor, the transmission, anything internal, all the back seats, the bumper, all gone. We got it down to just a shell. Then we actually mounted the van to a custom-made sled that connected back to a tracking system to our automation. Now we had control of the van with a custom-made sled. The automated system, itself, was a cable-driven system controlled by our automated winch. The automation system is STS. They’re a partner company of Global’s. It’s Silicon Theatre Scenery out of the Netherlands. We are the exclusive distributor of them for the Northeast. The winch we used is called the Meccano. It’s a five-horsepower winch, capable of about four feet per second. It was a 10 foot move that took two to three seconds for that van to come crashing through the wall, it looked and felt fast.

That was another thing we needed to do, control the speed. There wasn’t a lot of room backstage. As I said, we had about 10 feet of movement and to be able to ramp up, to accelerate and then decelerate in about three seconds, takes a lot of force and a lot of torque on the winch. So we needed that five-horsepower winch to get that van up to full speed in that quick and short of a distance.

The Act One wall before the truck enters

The Wall Sells the Effect

[Falco] We went through a lot of trial and error. The challenge that we found wasn’t breaking through the drywall, but it was the consistency of getting the certain look that Clint wanted. Clint’s fantastic to work with, he’s always challenging us. In this case, it was a challenge to making the wall break apart in a specific way. He didn’t just want it to knock out a sheet of drywall, which it did on the first attempt. He, and we, wanted it to be jagged edges and uneven with drywall dust and all these things, so it looked like an explosion of the van through the wall. 

So we pre-scored all the drywall on both sides. That pre-score and that cutting really forces that drywall to want to break in a specific spot, in a specific pattern. Then on top of that we’ve got two by fours and screwed them on the van in a specific location and drywall dust pockets All those things came together to make a cool effect of this random explosion that’s really actually very un-random. 

Rory Mulholland: On the drywall panels after we hand score them, then we also sanded it down and mudded it and then painted it. So you definitely wouldn’t see the scoring. We did that with every sheet for the entire run before it left our shop and loaded into the theatre. We went through two sheets a show. We needed about 260 sheets for the whole production run.

Intermission Repair

[Mulholland] The effect is the very end of the first Act, so at intermission they have lot of cleanup to do as part of the change. The wall was busted and they needed to reset the van backstage, clean up all the broken drywall pieces, and remove the walls panels that are clamped in place. Then once everything was cleaned up, they would fly the new wall down. That was up in the header. They then had a fresh undamaged wall for the next scene.

The Act Two wall repaired after the truck drives through the set

[Falco] The header was a development we came up with in the shop as we were looking to try to speed up that intermission process. Originally when they came to us, we were going to put on fresh drywall panel but we quickly realized that’s wasn’t practical. We talked about options like carrying in walls but working it through with Rory and our team here, we decided, hey, we have this header above so why don’t we just extend that, make it another eight feet taller and hide the new wall in the fly loft. Then at intermission fly that whole thing down and cover up the broken wall. Everyone loved that idea so that is how it gets “repaired” so quickly.

Between Shows Reset

[Mulholland] The reset between shows is actually a lot of work as the drywall needed to be reset for the next “crash”. We used aluminum clamps to hold the drywall in by basically pinching it in to a channel that we created. Then we delivered the front of the wall pre-scored, pre-mudded and pre-painted but with the rear not pre-scored. The needed to score the rear at the theatre. If we scored it the sheets would have not made it to the location without breaking. So they did all the scoring onsite on the back and then they had to clean up all that mess. It was a pretty extensive reset. 

[Falco] Yeah, definitely using the clamps really helped with the reset. The sheets actually came in from the back and push up against another very thin like edge and then there was an additional clamp on the backside that sandwiched those in and secured the panel. Once they reset they needed to finish the wall, so they put on the first layer of mud, let that dry, come in the next day, do a light sanding and then do their touch-up paint for the show.

Safety First

[Falco] There’s redundancies in our automation system as well as the winch, to really to deal with safety since there were actors onstage when the van came in and it hit the kitchen island, which also moved. Every one of our winches now has a secondary break so ensure that we can’t run through that. We work with a minimum of a 10 to one safety factor when we’re talking about things like what size cable to control this kind of effect. When you have a thousand-pound van travelling at four feet, five feet per second, what’s the force coming on that. That’s all things that we’re looking at to make sure that we’re well within the safety factors, that we know when we’re going to break this thing, so we are sure we can control it.

And as I said, it actually did hit the island. The island was a unique piece as well. The van physically hit the island and it was pushed. However the island was on its own track, though it was a manual track. That track let us control the movement of the island and make sure that it could only go so far. All the actors had their safety marks and the island stop before those. They knew they couldn’t take extra steps forward. It was all very, very precisely laid out with what the maximum extent to those travels would be. The island was built with a heavy steel reinforced frame to take that beating night after night. 

Controlled Debris

[Falco] Part of the shop tests were to figure out how to control everything. One of the key reasons for scoring the drywall, aside for the look of the crash was that it did help control how far the drywall would go. 

[Mulholland] I think the scariest part was when we started adding two by fours to the mix. Originally, we wanted a couple of loose pieces, but yeah, that was too uncontrollable. With the two by four, it always did something different. We had control over the drywall breaking with the pre-cuts and scores and we knew that the drywall would break in those scores, but every time we added a piece of two by four, it seemed to fly off in a different way. We knew we had to stop using two by four pretty quickly.  In the end the two by fours were attached to the van itself and stayed in place.

Looks Great, Now Load-in

[Falco] One of the things we should note just as far as a challenge, the real devil’s in the details, the van actually had to get cut up in about four sections just to physically fit into the theatre. It’s hard enough to make it crash through the wall, but in addition to gutting the whole thing, we had to figure out how it was getting it into the theatre. The whole thing was cut up along specific lines, the windshield removed, a custom bracket put in to be bolted back together, so we weren’t welding the van back together in the theatre. We had to make it all manageable so that it could roll up a ramp into the theatre.

Working Wipers

[Falco] Throughout it all, Clint wanted the windshield wipers to work. That wasn’t the most challenging thing, but when you talk about the detail work, and this again is one of the great things of working with Clint, was that it’s all the little pieces together that make the scene. It’s not just about this big van crashing through. It’s the fact that, yeah, the lights are flashing, that there’s a smoke effect coming out from the hood, that the windshield wipers are still going with wiper fluid spraying out. It was all these multiple details. All of those things, tied back through our automation console, triggered simultaneously, that just created the whole effect.  

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