Adventures in Prop Building: An Interview with Austin’s Neil Sanchez

Neil Sanchez may not have known what he’d gotten himself into when he volunteered to be a part of the road crew for his daughter’s marching band back in 2013, but he’s certainly glad he didn’t shy away from getting involved. That first season, he was part of a team of parents who helped build and transport props for their fall show. The following winter, he was asked to build props for the winterguard show, and he hasn’t stopped since, even after his daughter’s graduation. Neil has become an in-demand prop builder in the Austin, Texas area, completing more that 20 major prop builds for teams with his home business “Guardfather Props.”

Neil with one of his most challenging projects, Westwood High School’s giant rocking chair.

Getting Started

Neil’s first solo prop build was for Rouse High School in 2014, where he constructed back drops, front sideline blockers, and a large movie screen for the winterguard shows. Thinking back on that project, Neil says “This was my first true, from scratch, prop build.  Building the props and seeing them displayed in front of a crowd was gratifying to me, but seeing the excitement of the kids when they were delivered and knowing I just took their show to another level is what got me hooked.  I truly do it for the performers.” The majority of Neil’s designs are made from wood, although he has started to branch into metal, PVC, and other materials. 

An Impressive Prop Resume

Neil’s list of clients include teams from all over the Austin area, and he’s been branching out to other areas as well. These include: 

  • 2014 Rouse H.S. Winterguard Show: Front props, backdrops, and large movie screen.
  • 2014 Rouse H.S. Field Show: Swinging Pendulums and Clock Hands
  • 2015 Rouse H.S. Winterguard Show: Tree Stump
  • 2017 Genesis Drum And Bugle Corps: 12′ Windows
  • 2018 McNeil H.S. Winterguard Show: Benches
  • 2018 Westwood H.S. Winterguard Show: 12′ Rocking Chair and Lamp
  • 2018 Westwood H.S. Field Show: 12′ Spinning Stars
  • 2019 McNeil H.S. Winterguard Show: 12′ Door
  • 2019 Westwood H.S. Winterguard Show: Benches
  • 2019 Westwood H.S. Field Show: Triangular Tree Frames
  • 2019 Rouse H.S. Winterguard Show: 6′ Table
  • 2019 Rouse H.S. Field Show: 45′ Suspension Bridge
  • 2019 Pflugerville H.S. Field Show: 12′ Rotating Phone Booth/Building
  • 2019 Burnet H.S. Field Show:  12′ Spinning Stars
  • 2019 Genesis Drum and Bugle Corps: 10′ Ladders
  • 2020 Rouse H.S. Winterguard Show
  • 2020 Westwood Winterguard Show
  • 2020 Akins H.S. Winterguard Show
  • 2020 Ancient City Ensemble Indoor Percussion Show
  • 2020 ORIGINS Winterguard Show

Westwood High School’s 2019 production “Believe” featured trees all over the field covered in different colors of vinyl that could rotate to change the look of the entire stage.

Most Challenging Projects

Neil has faced plenty of challenging projects over the years, pointing out that each one has its unique challenges, and there is almost never a cookie cutter solution to prop construction. He singled out the twelve foot rocking chair he constructed for Westwood High School in 2018 as one of the most challenging. This giant chair, placed on the center of a DPG floor designed to look like grandma’s vintage braided rug, was a stunning piece when it hit the floor at WGI World Championships during Westwood’s first trip to Dayton (and first appearance in Scholastic A Class Finals).

His two biggest challenges were making it look as close to a real rocking chair as possible, and finding ways for it to fold and break apart to be able to fit through door openings, while still maintaining the structure and stability for performers climbing, dancing and spinning on it. He even included a magnetic swinging rung to allow performers to exit the back of the chair throughout the show. 

A regular rocking chair for scale during the build process.

The rocking chair and lamp in WGI Finals!

Favorite Builds

The giant rocking chair is on Neil’s lists of favorite projects to date, especially because he felt like it was his “breakthrough prop” project, saying that “it challenged my construction skills like nothing before it, and it’s still a topic of conversation today.”

Another of his favorites was his recent marching band prop built for Rouse High School’s 2019 production. He constructed a 45 foot long bridge as the centerpiece of the field show, complete with towers, ramps, and cables. Talking about that build, Neil says, “This was by far my largest single prop construction I’ve ever done and it was just fun to build and see it as the focal point for their entire show.” These huge projects are the talk of the neighborhood as he assembles them in his garage and driveway throughout the building process. 

A before and after of Rouse High School’s 2019 45 foot long bridge.

Working with DPG printed materials on custom props

While some of Neil’s projects are painted or natural wood, some are designed to incorporate printed elements such as vinyl, stretch fabric, mesh, and even coroplast. Some of these included coroplast stars on a spinning base for Westwood and Burnet High Schools, a superman style phone booth wrapped in vinyl for Pflugerville High School, triangular Christmas trees wrapped in vinyl for Westwood’s 2019 production, and printed mesh vinyl covering on Genesis Drum and Bugle Corps’ 2019 ladder props. 

Communication is key when working with custom prop coverings

Neil stresses that it takes a lot of communication between him, the directors, and DPG to ensure that his construction and the DPG products all come together flawlessly at the end of the project to meet the director’s expectations. “The role I find most critical in this partnership is providing a clear vision and dimensions on how the DPG products are to mate with my builds.  Any project that I know will require DPG products, I make sure I get solid dimensions to DPG as soon as possible. This allows plenty of time to proof out artwork and print the materials by the time I’m done with construction of the prop”, he explains. 

Pflugerville High School’s phone booth prop from their 2019 production.

Communicating with your prop builder

Neil has great advice from his experiences working with multiple directors and staff over the years. “Whoever you’re having build your props, make sure you communicate ALL your needs.   The most frustrating part of building props is having to make changes half way through a build or having to do modifications after they are done, due to a “surprise” requirement. This also could be costly to you, for those changes will likely cost extra. Share your show design with your prop builder.  Let them see the show concept and what you are trying to portray to the audience. This will help in their understanding of what the prop should look like and how it functions within the show. The one thing that seems to be the most overlooked aspect of a prop is the colorguard’s interaction with it. More than not, the prop seconds as a storage facility for colorguard equipment. The builder would like this information early so they can incorporate those “storage” spaces into the prop and make them look as subtle as possible to the audience  And the last thing that often gets overlooked….how are you transporting your props? The builder needs to know if the props require the ability to break down for transportation or possibly modify the design to accommodate your transportation vehicles.”

Genesis Drum & Bugle Corps’ mesh vinyl on wood props

Tips & Tricks of the Trade

Here are some tips Neil thinks are important for both prop builders and show designers alike. 

  1. If you’re the prop builder, don’t be afraid to ask questions or even challenge the directors about their prop requirements. 
  2. Safety is always the main concern. Sometimes the laws of physics don’t agree with the director’s vision. Be clear about why you can’t do something, and work to find an appropriate and possibly creative solution. 
  3. Be familiar with your association’s prop rules (BOA, DCI, WGI, UIL, etc.). Props are getting bigger, more complex, and more interactive each year. Governing bodies are adjusting the rules accordingly, so be sure to stay up to date. Check out WGI’s Rules here 

Built in equipment storage in McNeil High School’s winterguard bench props

Choosing the right printed products

DPG offers a wide variety of materials that can add color and pattern to your custom props. 

  • Traditional printed vinyl can be adhered in multiple ways, and is always a good option. Think about how you plan to adhere your vinyl, and be sure you leave enough bleed in your design to wrap over the edges of your prop structures. You can even get our vinyl with a sticky back for direct adhesion, and with a laminated non-slip surface.
  • Mesh vinyl is a great option for marching band and drum corps props, because it allows for wind to pass through without blowing the prop over. 
  • Field stretch fabrics can fit over untraditional structures to create interesting shapes on the field and floor. Leander High School’s 2019 production featured our field stretch fabric over a structure built to look like nuclear cooling towers. You are really only limited by your imagination. 
  • Coroplast is a rigid structure that can be printed in different colors and patterns to fit onto various structural pieces. It was the primary material that sat on the star props Neil constructed for Westwood’s 2018 production. 
  • Visit our website for more information about our prop offerings

Giant Coroplast stars cut to fit on a wood and PVC base.

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