Can't we just paint a pigeon blue?
December 9, 2010 10:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm directing a high school play and need to make a bluebird fly away on stage, but using a real bird is out of the question. How can I create this effect?

The drama class I teach is doing an adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck's "The Blue Bird" in February. The story is about these two children who go on a magical quest to find the Bluebird of Happiness, only to discover that it was at home all along.

At the end of the play, they have the blue bird in a cage, and the Fairy Berylune (who commissioned the search in the first place) wants to see it more closely. She opens the cage door and the bird flies away.

I have absolutely no knowledge of stage magic or special effects, so my only idea is to have someone in the flyspace with a fishing line, and I'm not sure we can even get anyone up there. Any ideas on how I can make this effect work?
posted by MShades to Media & Arts (17 answers total)
Best answer: What about something with a very small-sized blue spotlight? It's not a bird, but it could mimic the feel of the bird flying away. For slightly more verisimilitude you could try to use a projector with an image/animation of a bluebird.
posted by that girl at 10:26 PM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

I remember from my school theatre days that there were special gels you could get that could mimic shapes like leaves, watery effects, etc. Is there a bird shape, or something fluttery?

Wasn't Tinkerbell originally a flashlight beam?
posted by Sara C. at 10:28 PM on December 9, 2010

When I saw "The Lion King" onstage about ten years ago they had "birds" that were a kind of bird puppet/model on the end of a long stick, guided by people either onstage or in the balcony. It was more symbolic than literal, but it worked.

In this case the issue would be making it seem to come out of the cage, but I bet it could be worked out.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:34 PM on December 9, 2010

The symbolic route is almost always the way to go with these kind of effects (unless you're Disney and have a huge budget). The play already sounds pretty allegoric and fairy-tale-esque. No reason to have it be literal at all. I love the ideas already mentioned about having a small blue light or some sort of puppet operated by a dancer.

Or the cage could just be empty. If the people on-stage see a bird in it, so will we. (Though this might imply some sort of unwanted depressing message about the invisible bluebird of happiness.)
posted by Zephyrial at 10:47 PM on December 9, 2010

For $80, you could try a realistic, if somewhat larger than life, robot ornithopter.
posted by paulsc at 11:08 PM on December 9, 2010

A helium balloon?
posted by stereo at 11:11 PM on December 9, 2010

Shadow puppet?
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:41 PM on December 9, 2010

For more help on this topic, you want the Stagecraft Mailing List. Amazing resource of talented people who answer all sorts of crazy stagecraft questions.

I wouldn't worry about having someone up in the flyspace. You can always use a pulley or two and operate the effect on the ground from the wings. I might look into using 2 pulleys and a traveler track. Hang the traveler across the stage to handle the left/right movement of the bird. Then find or make a blue glowing object (something like this perhaps), and attach it to the traveler track with a thin line. Use a pulley at the attachment point, run the line along the track to the wing, and use another pulley to bring the free end down to the deck. Then, one person operates the traveler while another operates the line. With a little practice, you can have it bob and weave across the stage any way you like.

Personally, I like the projection route if you guys have a scrim available. I'd try to nail down a little bit more what type of effect you're looking for before you worry about how to achieve it. That's going to depend a lot on the style of the play and your direction. Perhaps the effect wants to be really abstract? Maybe we even want to see that it's obviously a theatrical device--so we see a stagehand waving the bird around on a fishing pole. Maybe we want Zephyrial's empty cage. Maybe we find that the bird is gone but the actor holds up the solitary blue egg that was left behind in the cage. Maybe the actor just stares intensely at the bird as the lights fade. Maybe the actor takes the bird out of the cage and sets it gently on the table, leaving the bird alone on stage in a tight spot of light as the actor takes the cage off. Or maybe the whole cast dresses up in bluebird costumes with giant wings and performs a rousing interpretative dance to music from Winged Migration.

These are all possible interpretations of that effect and there gobs of other possibilities. They all say something different about what's happening here. Play "Keep Your Eyes on the Prize" as the bird flies away and the play is a message about freedom. Play "On the Road Again" and it's a message about tenaciousness. Use the egg and we bring the circle of life into the mix. I don't know the play and I don't know your production, so I can't possibly judge what's appropriate, but the point is that the real question is "What do I want to show in this moment?" Once you've got that, making it physically happen is easy.

On preview: don't do a helium balloon. It will float up to the grid and then pop when it hits the lights. Remember that one the next time you need to portray Icarus though :)
posted by zachlipton at 11:52 PM on December 9, 2010 [4 favorites]

If you go with the "empty cage" bluebird, you can enhance it with sound effects. Somebody looks at the bluebird - it trills; someone interacts with it - it sings its bluebird song; someone lets it out of the cage - we hear a different song (probably better than a flapping effect) as the actors onstage track the bluebird's flight with their eyes ....
posted by zanni at 2:38 AM on December 10, 2010

SFX of fluttering wings, and the characters expressing dismay and trying to catch a (non-existent) bird?
posted by schmichael at 2:38 AM on December 10, 2010

Seconding the Stagecraft mailing list, but they'll want more information. Particularly about your budget and your venue. You can get a great effect with $100 and you can get a great effect for $10, but they'll be very very different effects. Performing in a classroom or a gymnatorium will have different options than in a 500 seat theater with a full fly system. You might also check out which has a larger contingent of people who work in the educational system (and students) than the SML.

For a more concrete suggestion, perhaps a tight spotlight on the empty cage while the rest of the stage goes dark and a bluebird call is heard. The audience will fill in the blanks for you. "I see an empty cage and hear a bird singing... clearly the bird has flown away."
posted by Morydd at 6:58 AM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I forget the name of this, but in Japanese stage presentations they will have people dressed completely in black from head to toe, and they then move around the items that are supposed to move. The audience understands you ought to ignore them.

I saw a production of "The Tempest" where this effect was used. It worked well.

So maybe you could have such a person moving the bluebird?

The only issue is, if this is the only instance of such a helper-person in the play, it may be jarring to the audience.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 6:59 AM on December 10, 2010

For a very ridiculous and literal interpretation, you can get a flying screaming slingshot chicken and paint it blue. Or a wind-up bat - wait - I went to look that up on Amazon and they suggested a plastic flying blue bird! It uses a rubber band wind-up mechanism and flaps its wings.

But unless your play is pretty slapstick, you probably should use one of the really great metaphorical interpretations mentioned upthread.
posted by CathyG at 7:13 AM on December 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've seen lights used for Tinkerbell in multiple productions to great effect.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:19 AM on December 10, 2010

I don't think the kind of prop you use matters, or even whether you use one. I wouldn't use one. The actors' job is to make the audience believe the bird is there, just as it is their job to make them believe everything else.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 10:19 AM on December 10, 2010

Response by poster: Some great ideas, thanks! I'll probably go with one of the light-based ones, as it sounds like the easiest and cheapest to do. And I will definitely check out the Stagecraft mailing list for future ideas.

I wish I could be comfortable leaving it up to the actors to make the audience "see" the bird, but I'm directing graduating seniors in high school who have taken this as an elective course and may or may not understand much of the direction I'm giving them, so I'd rather not put all my eggs in that basket....
posted by MShades at 8:19 PM on December 14, 2010

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