How one man turned an ordinary stage prop into a magical flying car. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos courtesy of Adam Astley.
The goal was to build a lightweight stage car for a school play.
You know the kind: cardboard, maybe, with a stencil drawing of a vehicle, two-dimensional, flimsy, but just enough to suspend your imagination during the middle of a young adults’ musical production. The sort of craft you could complete in an afternoon, maybe a weekend if you got fancy. Or, if you’re Richard Harper, the sort of project you attack head-on and immerse yourself in for the better part of four months.
“We’ve always built sets for the plays but usually it’s like a backdrop and flats and whatever,” explains Harper, head of the art department at HCMC’s British International School (BIS). Together with colleague Adam Astley, Harper has been tasked with creating set pieces for school musicals for years now. “But this is probably the first time I’ve built something quite like this,” he explains.
“This” is a lightweight, laser-cut antique car with functional wings, wheels and headlights, not to mention the impressive rope-and-pulley system beneath its chassis, used to give the appearance of flight. If that sounds odd, blame it on the script: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the 1968 film classic based on Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name, tells the tale of a magical car whose capabilities include – among other things – flight. When BIS high school students brought the story to life last month on their school stage, Harper’s car had to make believable the unbelievable.
“It just kind of got away with me, really,” Harper explains. “It just became a really interesting project. I like making stuff, I’m a sculptor. To me, this is a piece of sculpture. It’s not a stage prop. It’s a sculpture of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.”
The project began around mid-December. Intially, Harper considered a number of different configurations, spanning everything from the above-mentioned cardboard cutout to a Styrofoam creation to placing a lightweight shell around a Honda Cub. Eventually, his technological experience came into play and Harper designed the main body of the car in Adobe Illustrator. His designs were then laser cut and put together like a puzzle to form the basic shape of the vehicle.
From there, the rest of the project became a neverending series of ‘what if’s. What if the car had moving wheels? Harper installed small rubber tyres. What if it could fly like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang does in the movie? A lever – not unlike a car jack – went in at the back of the vehicle, using pins to prop up the rear of the car, followed by a rope system which propelled the front back onto a stand, obscured by black fabric. What if the car had wings? Yet another mechanism went in to send a pair of red-and-yellow appendages out on either side of the vehicle.
“I had some time on my hands over Christmas,” Harper explains sheepishly, crouching down to fit into the back of the car. During performances, he was the man behind the magic, pulling levers and flipping switches to make sure all of Chitty’s bells and whistles went off without a hitch. “I got a bit carried away.”
Astley, Harper’s partner in the remainder of the play’s set design, which included vibrant illustrations by Harper’s wife and children’s book author Khoa Le, also points out that despite all the additional tricks up Chitty’s sleeve, the car remains light enough to be manoeuvred by a 16-year-old student.
“The amount of weight reduction [is] worthy of Formula One,” says Astley. “Everything that gets built, we then try to cut holes in everything we can without making it weak.”
At its centre, the car rests upon a basic wooden chassis, which then supports the remaining lightweight pieces of the car. Rather than include interior design, actors stand within the car, making it easier for Harper to manoeuvre the vehicle up onto its stand during the flying scenes.
Beyond the mechanisms, a great attention to detail was also helpful in bringing the car above and beyond your average school play prop. Laser cut acrylic trim lines either side of the vehicle, while fine gold pinstripes decorate the rear of the car. Up front, Harper enlisted a friend to make a custom leather belt for the hood, while Chitty’s hood ornament bears the school emblem. It’s a touch so small that audience members would never be able to tell but at a certain point, Harper concedes, the car became more than just a stage prop for him.
Astley explains: “It was in Richard’s art studio to start off with, where the majority of the work was done, which is why he was able to work on it so often because it was there just staring him in the face everyday, daring him to add some more.”
“For four months,” Harper adds.
“Just kind of mocking him,” says Astley.
Harper shouts: “’Finish me!’”
It’s clear from this kind of tag-team storytelling, which flows throughout the grand tour of the BIS Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, that both Harper and Astley have upped the ante for future school productions. Now that students have given their final bows for this year’s school musical, the lingering question remains: what happens to the car?
“I did tell the boss that we should put it in his office,” Harper says.
For the time being, the pair plan to keep Chitty at the school on display, at least for a little while. Typically, stage props are broken down and recycled in later productions, but given the time and effort that went into this one there’s talk of repurposing the car into some other vehicle for next year’s production: perhaps the Millennium Falcon, Harper jokes, or the Batmobile.