Guest author, Scott Gerwitz, shares his tale of creating a plane in 5 days!
Oprah walks on stage to taunt her audience, “What do we do to top last season’s giveaway? Do I take you to Philadelphia for cheese steaks? Or maybe we should all go to New York City?” She continues, “Maybe I ought to think bigger. Cause after all, this is my 25th season. And this is really my last chance to do something big. And if you want to do something big, you would want to take along your ultimate viewers. So I started to think where would I most want to go? Maybe I should take all of you… with me… to the OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD! WE’RE GOING TO AUSTRALIA!! WE’RE GOING TO AUSTRALIA!!!”
Photo by George Burns
Oprah is giving away a trip to Australia, and the production design team needed to create a large scenic element to support the announcement. When Oprah gave everyone a car, she brought it onstage. This time they continued the theme and brought on an airplane!
The time from the producers approving the design to taping was less than five days! To handle such a large task we had two separate shifts, each with 4 to 5 painters. I, Scott Gerwitz, lead one crew, and Christine Bolles lead the other.
As the carpenters began to make the plane’s armature we laminated 2” thick sheets of pink insulation foam. My first choice in laminating foam sheets is 3M Fastbond Contact Adhesive 30NF, or commonly referred to as green glue, as it is easy to apply and cleans up with water.
Do not use solvent based adhesive as it will eat the foam!
The glue is applied with a roller and brush. Apply a uniform, generous coat of adhesive to both surfaces. Only one coat is needed for non-porous surfaces. It typically takes 30 minutes for the glue to dry but fans can speed this time. After the glue feels dry to the touch, laminate the two sheets together. Because the bond is immediate, there is no ability to shift after bonding. Spacers such as dowel rods, or yard sticks can be used to help position the sheets before you laminate. 3M suggests a 3” wide roller to apply pressure over the surface to make sure all areas adhered.
The top half of the front of the plane was created with 18 sheets thick of 2” insulation foam. To help attach this mass of foam to the wood structure, wood was laminated into a few of the layers. This wood extended past the block of foam to allow it to be attached to the armature.
Then came the chain saw!
This was a very quick way to carve large surfaces. For safety purposes foam should always be cut with a mechanical method. Using hot knives is very dangerous. Burning foam releases a tremendous amount of toxic fumes. Because there are so many different fumes, it is difficult to determine what kind of respirator can even be used. The only safe option is using a supplied-air respirator. An electric chain saw is preferable to gas powered, mostly because it is lighter, easier to handle, and doesn’t create exhaust fumes. Safety must be your first priority! Gloves, safety glasses and dust masks are a must. Powering through the huge chunks of foam was a blast!
Another great tool is a chain saw grinder wheel. The one I used is from King Arthur’s Tools called Lancelot. The wheel is attached to an angle grinder and is a great addition to the chain saw; it can give a little more detail, and be used in harder to reach areas.
After the surface was roughly shaped out, we moved into sanding. Switching between belt sanders, orbital sanders and palm or sheet sanders. This step created another level of finesse to the surface as well as removed loose pieces of foam.
For the top coat we had the advantage of no one walking on, or touching the surface, so we could focus on just making it pretty. We used a 20 minute setting-type or powder joint compound. Powder joint compound is a stronger material than the pre-mixed compound, and has the benefit of a fast drying time. You can buy the powder in 5, 20, 45 and 90 minute, and it’s often cheaper than the premixed. Often times, joint compound does not like sticking to foam, so we first applied a coat of the 3M green glue to the foam. This creates a nice sticky surface for the joint compound to adhere. By using the quick setting compound we were able to apply multiple layers in one day.
After the joint compound cured, we started the messy step of sanding. This creates a tremendous amount of dust, so be sure to wear an appropriate dust mask. We then used 5 minute joint compound to fill divots and scratches found in the surface. One can spend days finessing for a perfectly smooth surface, but remember, we had less than 5 total!
Painting the plane was pretty straight forward. We primed and painted with a low luster white. The studio had a vinyl cutter to quickly create the plane logo and decals.
As soon as Oprah screamed, “WE’RE GOING TO AUSTRALIA!!!” the plane entered the stage. When the plane stopped the door was swung open to reveal John Travolta who was going to pilot the real plane for the trip.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t part of the crew to go to Australia. Though I did get the benefit of a bunch of overtime! The plane ended up having a second career. The show’s set decorator opened a Halloween haunted house. He used the plane to create a fantastic scary airplane crash!
Scott Gerwitz is a USA scenic artist living in Chicago, IL. He received his MFA from Brandeis University. http://www.morpheusmurals.com