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Realistic Movie Sets Formed Of Rigid, Lightweight Thermoplastic Sheet

Realistic Movie Sets Formed Of Rigid, Lightweight Thermoplastic Sheet

Realistic Movie Sets Formed Of Rigid, Lightweight Thermoplastic Sheet

Brick is the most popular panel category in Provost Display's catalog of architectural elements for theatrical, film, and photographic backdrops. It is vacuum formed of Boltaron rigid, lightweight thermoplastic sheet.

Realistic Movie Sets Formed Of Rigid, Lightweight Thermoplastic Sheet

Realistic Movie Sets Formed Of Rigid, Lightweight Thermoplastic Sheet

The company also casts molds off of real items such as fire hydrants and wall-mounted radiators, and then vacuum forms front and back halves separately before heat-welding or adhesive bonding, to replicate three-dimensional items.

Realistic Movie Sets Formed Of Rigid, Lightweight Thermoplastic Sheet

Provost Displays specifies Boltaron thermoplastic sheet for its rigidity, light weight, scratch resistance and impact resistance, as required for vacuum formed architectural components.

Realistic Movie Sets Formed Of Rigid, Lightweight Thermoplastic Sheet

Whether it's the 1954-era brick buildings in the Martin Scorsese/Leonardo DiCaprio thriller Shutter Island, turn-of-the-century cobblestone roads in the movie Beloved, or the bare cinder block jail cell in a current day television crime series, set designers rely on lightweight, rigid materials to deliver the look and feel of the real thing.

Since building actual brick buildings or cobblestone streets on a movie set is not feasible, set designers turn to specialized suppliers like Provost Displays (Norristown, PA), which creates architectural elements out of a light-weight, thin-gauge, rigid thermoplastic.

Founded in 1950, Provost Displays uses vacuum forming to produce plastic panels for theatrical, film, and photographic scenic purposes. The company, which offers in-house design capabilities for custom jobs, has a full line of architectural panels - bricks, stones, building materials, windows, doors, tiles, etc. — as well as props.

In all, Provost carries more than 350 designs, including everything from manhole covers, rafters, and Egyptian panels to deer heads, radiators, and fire hydrants. Brick is the most popular option in the company's catalog. Sixteen brick products are available, not including custom options, ranging from antique brick, old brick, and mini brick to old, weathered brick. "For the buildings on the set of Shutter Island, we made more than 4,000 sheets of brick," says Provost's owner Ardia Dayton.

"Customers can use our materials to build practically any environment they can imagine," she adds. "It's realistic, easy to handle, and cost effective."

From Raw Material to Movie Set

The process begins with a 52-inch wide (1.3 m), 300-lb (159-kg) roll of 0.030-inch (0.76 mm) thick thermoplastic alloy from Boltaron (Newcomerstown, Ohio). The sheet is typically specified in white with a smooth, matte finish.

To create its products, Provost relies on vacuum forming, a process in which the sheet is preheated to a forming temperature, and a vacuum (approximately 25 inHg/635 torr) is applied below the sheet, while the sheet is pulled over the mold where it cools sufficiently to retain every detail of the mold's shape and surface.

The company, which has two vacuum-forming machines, builds its molds in-house. Brick and cobblestone molds are typically sculpted by hand from high density foam. "Once it's sculpted, we coat the foam with a two-part epoxy resin and reinforcements to create the mold," explains Dayton.

The company also casts molds off of real items, including a wall-mounted radiator and a fire hydrant. "We cast off the actual radiator using plaster," explains Dayton. Since the 3-D radiator includes undercuts (which would lock the formed sheet onto the mold), Provost forms the top half and then builds out the back. Similarly, the company vacuum forms its fire hydrant in halves, which are then heat-welded or glued with PVC adhesive to replicate the complete, three-dimensional prop.

In addition to its formability, Dayton specifies Boltaron sheet due to its tensile strength, scratch resistance and impact resistance (20-ft-lb/in (1059 J/m). The material was put to the test on the set of Beloved, when set designers turned an area in Philadelphia, Pa. into a slaughterhouse. Vacuum formed cobblestone panels from Provost Displays were laid over the existing street, strewn with dirt, and walked upon by actors, horses and rooting pigs for filming.

"We paint the sheet using a water-based latex paint," explains Dayton. "We then form it the following day, and during the vacuum forming process the paint bonds with the plastic."

"The Boltaron material is rigid and lightweight, and offers good forming characteristics with minimal thin-out on outside corners and within recesses," says Dayton.

"For example, we use it to vacuum form a scallop shell panel with a 12 in. (305 mm) deep draw, and it picks up every detail of the mold," she says, adding, "The more detail, the more realistic these designs look on the set." The deepest recess Provost has drawn is 18 in. (457 mm).

Finished panels are typically shipped flat and measure 4 by 12 ft (1.2 by 3.7 m), although the company can also produce 4 by 8 ft (1.2 by 2.4 m) and 4 ft square (1.2 m square) sheets. Portions can be trimmed using readily available tools such as scissors or utility knives, explains Dayton. Trimmed panels can be mounted to nearly any flat surface, including sheetrock walls, wood paneling, and theatrical flats using staples, adhesives, or screws with washers.

"For designs with a continuous pattern, such as brick, we solder the edges so that the panels interlock, and we also form corners," adds Dayton. "All of these panels are reusable and recyclable, and can be repainted and repurposed for alternate sets," she says.

Provost Displays Inc.


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