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NIDA's Head of Props: ‘Just make things, use your hands’

Each month we will be catching up with a different Head of Department at NIDA, to show you the artist behind the creative leader. February is Head of Properties and Objects, Marcelo Zavala-Baeza.


NIDA’s Head of Props: ‘Just make things, use your hands’

Each month we will be catching up with a different Head of Department at NIDA, to show you the artist behind the creative leader.

Marcelo Zavala-Baeza is a Chilean-born artist, maker and designer, and is now into his second year as Head of NIDA’s Bachelor of Fine Arts (Properties and Objects) course.

When he's not supporting and leading the talented students at NIDA, Marcelo is pursuing his passion for designing and making objects as a practising artist. He is currently in the midst of working on a Master of Fine Arts.

A Practising Artist

‘Next year I’ll exhibit my Master’s artwork,’ said Marcelo. ‘Time is limited in terms of working on that because of my commitments here at NIDA. I specialise in work with digital design technologies, manufacturing techniques and digital fabrication technologies, in particular 3D printing.’

For his Master’s body of work, Marcelo has been manipulating the 3D printing process live (as it is printing an object) to distort the final outcome, so that it represents his artistry and the way he feels about new digital technologies.

‘When you produce the files that are uploaded into digital fabrication equipment, normally you just wait and the “automaton” machine [3D printer] does all the work. As a maker, I see the machine as something that has taken away the time of making from the maker, so I’m trying to recover that time,’ he said. ‘I have an input as the machine is working, that way there’s no separation between the making and designing.’

Marcelo 3D prints

‘I want to be there, I want to spend time, as you would do with a chisel, as you would do with hand tools. It’s a hand tool as in it is a partner and a collaborator – something I can have a dialogue with, a bi-directional relationship. It’s not only one way, it’s not a production line. I can spontaneously interact with the machine-making process to achieve a unique aesthetic every time.’

The results are ‘failed’ 3D printed objects – in other words: works of art that Marcelo intends to bring to life with stories of their own.

‘What these stories might demonstrate is something I’m interested in exploring. Just by looking at objects – e.g. in a crime scene – you make up a story. I really enjoy that process, because for me objects are performance.’

A Complete Teacher and Innovator

Marcelo is able to bring everything he learns outside the classroom, in addition to his years of experience – he earned a degree in Industrial Design back in Chile and worked for a couple of years at Sydney Theatre Company as a props maker – and impart that knowledge on his students.

‘I see teaching as learning together with the students. What they are making from project to project is very different. That for me is interesting because it’s challenging. Every day students come to me with a question that I haven’t thought about before. It is quite dynamic and enriching.’

The Head of Properties and Objects can also be credited with introducing digital technologies – and, in particular, 3D printing technologies – to NIDA.

‘Before I came, NIDA didn’t have 3D printers or use 3D digital models much. They were mainly using 2D plans and handmade models. I believe that I’ve been influential in the use of digital technology to assist, make and execute projects and design  set, costumes and props,’ he said.

A Typical Day

Like many of the staff at NIDA, Marcelo considers there to be two periods in the academic year: student production periods and non-student production periods. The play production times necessitate, among other things, inter-disciplinary collaboration – something for which NIDA is renowned.


Photo: Marcelo led his students in the making of this stunning horse for the 2016 October student production Woyzek

‘When we’re in play productions mode, I typically come in and walk around the workshop and see what the students are making, what they need and mentor them. Then I may have to go into a venue to talk to other collaborators, both staff and students, to check progress and/or find out what props changes or modifications are required. During this period I’m working more with other departments than within my own department,’ he said.

‘During productions Props students engage with more people from different courses and different activities. We switch to a highly inter-disciplinary and collaborative mode.’

A Proud Head of Department

Aside from all the successful productions and outcomes Marcelo has overseen, he takes most pride from seeing the level of employment students achieve when they leave the building.

‘I’m very proud of the rate of employment that students within the Properties and Objects course attain, as it is really high. Within three months or less of leaving here, they are doing something related to what they studied and in a job they want.’

‘Many take a placement at a company and stay there because they impress; in particular at international companies. For instance, every time that I help a student find a placement in the UK, they have been offered a position there. That proves that the training here is valuable internationally and they can easily transition into the market. That makes me proud.’

A Piece of Advice

For aspiring Props students, Marcelo has some advice: ‘Just make things, use your hands. I believe in potential above merits. Sometimes students have boundless potential but they haven’t had the right opportunities to exercise that potential and therefore don’t necessarily have that merit or physical work to show for it. If they can get a clear idea of what they want to achieve or where they want to be – without focusing on money or movies – then I like that. They need to ask themselves: “What do I want to do with what I will learn here?” What interests me is their ability to articulate a clear answer to this question.

To register interest in applying for the 2019 intake for BFA (Properties and Objects), please complete an expression of interest form.

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