Blood, Guts, and Raw Umber: An inside look at theming London’s ‘Home of Halloween’

As a team, we in the Studios department of Merlin Entertainments’ London County Hall Attractions are responsible for the creation and maintenance of all theming, props, costumes, hair, and makeup across The London Dungeon, Shrek’s Adventure London and Sealife London Aquarium.

As a Scenic Artist and Propmaker working within that team, I may be biased, but I believe that it’s the paint finishes that really do make the finish; the final touches that transform a space, turning everything from MDF into old wood, vacuum formed plastic into old wood or even plywood into old wood!

Seriously, a lot of our scenic work really is painting wood to look like different kinds of wood.

The ‘Coronation Throne’
Victorian Street Notice Board
Wood graining in progress – Vacuum form barrels and fabricated barrel tops

In all seriousness, the scenic element plays a vital role in everything we create, and when it comes to paint, Rosco Supersaturated is our top choice. Whether it’s for our largest work like themed walls and traditional drop cloths,
or the tiniest details like irises on artificial eyeballs or labels on prop potion bottles, Rosco Supersat provides the richly pigmented colors essential to achieving that extra level of realism, fully immersing our guests in the
experience.

One of the standout features of Supersat is its water-based and animal-safe. We’ve even used it in animal enclosures, successfully recreating natural environments and organic textures for some of the animal habitats on-site.

Here are a few examples of what I’ve painted while using this product line:

Themed and textured wall
Painted drop cloth to match existing and themed walls
Recreation of one of London’s oldest remaining street signs
Rust effect on a hiding spot for an animal enclosure

For The London Dungeon, an attraction dedicated to revealing ‘the dark side’ of London’s history, Raw Umber takes the crown as our MVP (most valuable paint). In a place where nothing on display should be too bright or too clean, we use a Raw Umber wash to age nearly everything.

Royal Arms of England (1603- 1707) being aged with a Raw Umber Wash

Our most recent project at The Dungeon was the creation of a show centered around the execution of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII. In 1536, King Henry accused Anne Boleyn of adultery, incest, and conspiracy against the crown, resulting in her conviction and subsequent beheading.

This ‘Rotten Royals’ seasonal takeover show replaced one of the regular characters that guests encounter during their Dungeons tour. We faced the challenge of integrating the new set into an existing show space in a tight timeframe of less than a week. Fortunately, working in an environment that is ‘dark’ both literally and thematically is very forgiving; the low light levels do us a lot of favours.

‘Rotten Royals’ stage design by Pam Piercy

In Tudor England, it was a common practice to impale the decapitated heads of high-profile ‘traitors’ on wooden spikes or ‘pikes,’ which were then exhibited in public spaces as a clear warning to potential future traitors.

The stage for ‘Rotten Royals’ was decorated with a collection of these decapitated heads, each displayed on wooden spikes. The entire setting, including the wooden stage and the wooden chopping block, all themed and grained with (you guessed it!) Supersaturated Rosco paint.

Rather than spending hours painstakingly building up layers in a more traditional wood graining process, we were able to create a convincing wood effect simply by dry brushing dark, mid, and highlight tones of Burnt Umber, Raw Sienna, and Van Dyke Brown across a stained base layer.

Wooden spikes for displaying decapitated heads

With a turn-around time of only 3 days to make the decapitated heads, we had to find the best way to make them effectively and efficiently.

The heads were cast from existing moulds, previously created from a combination of life casts, hand sculpts, and older figurines.

In any other workplace, a room filled with decaying corpses, missing limbs, and body parts would be cause for concern, but for us, it’s simply a storeroom. We quite literally have skeletons in our closet!

The head mould

The initial step in the process was swirling a couple of layers of thin silicone rubber, tinted in light flesh tones, around the moulds. While it might be tempting to craft fake body parts entirely from silicone for the classic ‘gross and squishy’ factor, props made for immersive experiences need to be more resilient. Throughout our attractions, every item we create must be child-proof, actor-proof, and general-public-proof – three groups equally susceptible to damage and destruction.

On a practical note, while silicone rubber provides a fantastic wet-look shine initially, it attracts dust very quickly. When creating items meant for long-term display, as opposed to a limited-run or traditional theater production, a new set of considerations and challenges emerges.

To make the heads more robust and give them a solid structure, the silicone-lined moulds were then filled out with flexible urethane foam, a two-part expanding foam. This foam was tinted a darker red to suggest internal flesh and muscle. Rosco Supersated Iron Red is a great starting point for this colour match.

Adding extra wound details and gore to a fake decapitated head

The detail on the heads was achieved by painting into the skin, facial features, and fake wounds. This process proved once again that it’s the paint finishes that truly bring things to life, or in this case, death. To further enhance realism, we punched in facial hair and used wigs to disguise the fact that the heads shared the same faces, an unavoidable characteristic given that they were cast from identical moulds.

Crafting and inserting fake eyeballs added a spark of life to the heads, only to extinguish it by clouding them over with a simple matte glaze.

Moulded fake eyeballs with hand-painted irises

Lastly, we incorporated gore and ‘drippy bloody bits’ by thickening additional rubber silicone in contrasting shades of red. We brushed it around the ‘cutthroats’ and then allowed gravity to handle the rest.

We haven’t yet found a better permanent ‘freshly spilled blood’ effect than the long-discontinued Rosco Colourine in Red. However, any red glass paint can create a great wet blood splatter that maintains a fresh appearance while drying quickly. For more realistic blood pools, the key is to layer different shades of brown and red. Darker, almost mahogany shades work well for old dried blood, while ‘new’ blood requires brighter hues made from reds closer to the orange end of the spectrum.

The finished heads on spikes. Additional heads were created by artists Anna Snow and Laura Davis
Additional over the top silicone blood and gore added to the heads on spikes

‘Rotten Royals’ was conceived as a comedy, and as such, the theming leaned more towards pantomime-style rather than hyper-realistic. This approach aimed to make everything more over-the-top and larger-than-life rather than striving for total lifelike and gruesome realism.

It might sound like an oxymoron for a show about a brutal beheading to be a comedy, but the seeming contradictions are what I love about this job. Whether it’s striking the balance between historical accuracy and what people think things should look like; or jumping between creating tiny hidden details and producing the largest-scale scenic work, there’s always a brief to respond to and a problem to solve.

We’re pretty good at walking the line between horror and humor – it’s like they say, fear is a funny thing.

A less than ‘life-like’ prop crow with a beak full of gore
Scenic Artist Becca Spall

Becca Spall is a Scenic Artist and Propmaker based in London, UK. Since graduating from Guildhall School of Music and Drama she has worked freelance for a wide range of companies and venues including Museum of London, Barbican Centre, Punchdrunk Theatre Company, Shoreditch House, and Amazon Prime  For the past 5 years she has worked full time as a Studio Technician for Merlin Entertainments, based at The London Dungeon, Shrek’s Adventure London and Sealife London Aquarium. 

More examples of her work can be found on Instagram @MadeUpBS

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