Guest Author Evan Rapp
The basic concept of what we call Scenic Art will always be the same. As Scenic Artists we provide a solution to the needs of a client be that a set designer, or a company, and we as the artists have the responsibility to figure it out.
First, let’s take a moment to talk about my trajectory, and how I came to this place in my life. After getting a BFA, I worked with small theatres and set building companies, and trained some more at Cobalt Studios, before making my jump to ATOMIC. Now it’s all about the big companies, big bands, and BIG SCENERY!
ATOMIC, is a corporate scenery company, and employs around 100 people coming from various backgrounds. ATOMIC is broken up into a few different business units consisting of Production Services, Design, Set Construction, and Rental Solutions.
The process of developing a show is always different. However, we are structured in a way to streamline the process and make it as efficient and creative as possible. This is not an easy task considering the size of some of the shows we produce, but luckily we are well equipped as a team. When a client approaches us about a show, they would first speak with one of our Account Managers about availability and pricing. Next, our Project Managers would get involved with site surveys and drafting along with ironing out all the details along the way followed by Assistant Project managers developing drawings that hit the floor and the show can begin to be built. ATOMIC’s Set Construction team consists of metal, carpentry, soft goods, power, CNC, road technicians, and most importantly us here in paint.
I work on a team with Alastair Peters and Mara Rooney, and utilizing our unique backgrounds brings out our individual strengths to get the jobs done. Our role in the company is ever evolving in a way that is exciting and pleasing. Many of the shows that we work on travel to New York which has very stringent laws surrounding flame retardancy. Because of that, every surface must be covered and fire retardant is mixed into every bit of paint that makes it onto a piece of scenery. We have several employees licensed to produce affidavits to certify the scenery as flame retardant. We often find ourselves back painting flats, decks, floors, stairs, etc. It isn’t hard to fill the floor with a sea of black, often going through 15-25 gallons of paint in a day.
A typical day might involve starting off with two cups of coffee, laying out 4 by 8 sheets of plywood, spraying a coat of paint, prepping other scenery by filling staple holes and seams with Bondo or joint compound, sanding, masking off areas, lifting more heavy stuff to move scenery off the floor, mixing up paint, drinking more coffee, spraying more paint, and putting fans on things to dry.
Airless sprayers work well for covering large surface areas and work great for painting my shoes and legs too. We use HVLP sprayers for other applications that require a finer finish or working in tighter areas. HVLP works well for spraying trussing, metallic paint finishes, or getting tangled up in the hoses. We use any and every type of roller available for whatever works best for the project. Don’t be fooled, it is harder than it looks to roll on a nice finish coat of gloss paint.
I often get to use the tools around the shop to cut wood or MDF to make samples for the designers. That is one of the areas that I enjoy the most. Taking the information that I have and making something to use as a starting point for discussion with the designer.
We are always operating forklifts to move scenery in and out and using lifts to paint higher up. It’s quite exhilarating when you’re 25 feet in the air, swaying back and forth on a lift at 8 AM with coffee in one hand and a roller in the other.
Finding a rhythm is important and keeping my pace can be challenging when there is so much going on. But, it’s what we do day in and day out. The nice thing about working in this particular environment is that we work on so many different kinds of jobs. Certainly, we do our fair share of blasting through seemingly endless amounts of paint however, we also have the pleasure of painting in a more theatrical manner too. It isn’t always rolling nice finishes or backpainting a million masking flats.
It’s important to remember that ATOMIC was founded by a scenic artist and so that is ingrained in the DNA of the company. We get to work on summer festivals, touring gigs for big-name bands, occasional backdrops, and hard scenery to wazoo. Wood-graining, marbling, and metallic textures tend to be the most popular types of projects while we get to test our abilities with foam carving, tromp l’oeil, and other crazy things that designers can cook up.
The diversity of requests from our clients makes being a scenic artist at ATOMIC exciting and I’m thankful that I am able to flex my flexibility muscles in this workplace. I should also be honest in saying that I don’t always enjoy it at the time. Prep work can be rough and wood-graining an entire wall in a single day isn’t exactly a walk in the park but it’s the nature of the job and it comes with the territory.
We are after all, problem solvers driven by coffee and madness.
I sure might get worked up at times but then I try to imagine myself working behind a desk for 8 hours a day and I am instantly grateful for the craziness that can be requested.
One of the major movements in the world these days is the drive to be more eco friendly, safe, and efficient. At ATOMIC, we invest in keeping ourselves safe and remain committed to working towards being as environmentally friendly as possible. We use the proper PPE when working with paint, chemicals, and cleaning agents. We do a lot of spraying, so well-fitting respirators with replaceable charcoal cartridges and filters are necessary. We stock gloves for handling other types of chemicals, and our paint is solely water based with any excess taken away by a local waste disposal company, or donated.
Our paint shop is temperature/humidity controlled to maintain a stable atmosphere and the ventilation can control two halves of the shop simultaneously. We are closed off from the rest of the shop to ensure that we aren’t pulling in outside contaminants. We recently moved into a new space that utilizes well balanced LED lighting and our dehumidifiers run a closed-loop circuit to allow the most efficient use of energy. We are certified for using forklifts, writing fire retardancy affidavits, and CPR/AED trained. It is a wonderful feeling to work in a place that is dedicated to safety and protecting the environment and I’m proud to be fighting the good fight.
The list of clients we have worked with is enormous and I wish not to test my memory for fear of hurting myself. But there are a chosen few that I can remember clearly for both the good and the challenging. I’m sure that we can all say the same in this industry. At ATOMIC, we strive to take on projects of any scale. Large or small, we don’t discriminate.
These are a few shows that stick out in my memory.
WWE Wrestlemania was a big one with the “Elimination Chamber.”
It was big. It was bad.
It was a lot of black paint.
It looked amazing!
I got to paint a really fun prehistoric floor for the Walking With Dinosaurs tour. We used a Sherwin Williams DTM paint for floor and it has really held up great to the abuse of touring and dinosaurs! Besides the floor, the rest of the show was also insane. I highly recommend it if you have the chance.
We’ve worked with iHeart Radio for the past few years and there is always wood graining to do for the iHeart Country Music Festival. We do a lot for NIKE product release events. Those gigs can be anything ranging from sleek displays to busted up wooden flooring and marbled flats. I never know what I’m going to get when it comes to NIKE.
We painted a fun set for the Victoria’s Secrets Fashion Show two years ago. The designer had a very interesting picture in his head that we translated into a grungy wall that he wanted to look like something I can’t repeat here. Yep. That was a fun one.
The Robin Hood Benefit in NYC is a show we’ve worked on for over a decade. The scenery is always large to dress out the huge venue it takes place in. (Shout out of thanks to the Guild’s Forum for helping me with the bark effect this year)
Being a part of this industry has been a winding journey for me. I’ve tried other things only to get sucked back in. I’ve been amazed time and again by the work that we put out at ATOMIC. There have been numerous times after the show has gone out and we unwind and I sit back and ask myself exactly how in the hell did we manage to pull that off? In those moments, I am reminded of the incredible team of people that I work around. It only works because each and every one of us play our part and pour ourselves into these shows wholeheartedly. It’s exciting for me to look back and see how much I have grown in the past few years as a Scenic Artist. It’s exciting to understand the importance that Scenic Art still holds in 2017.
We Scenics are still a strange group of people on a wild ride, making a damn mess and solving problems like it’s going out of style. No matter what size shows you are working on, whether it is in the local theater or here at ATOMIC, you should be proud of your involvement. If you ever find yourself in little old Lititz, PA, stop in to say “Hi!”.