Deville’s Workshop in the Junction looks, at first glance, like any other industrial space. A thick layer of sawdust covers most surfaces, and there are projects in various stages of completion scattered about. But if you take a closer look, something may catch your eye—are those giant eggs near the back? Is that a robot rigged to release slime? Perhaps you will notice the wall covered by a bomb, a bear trap, a baby crocodile, a laser gun, and a meteorite. But eventually, it becomes clear; custom prop and set builders Damian Zuch and Tina Tsai have one of the coolest jobs around.
Neither one of them planned a career in television and film. Damian, who had an education in Environmental Chemistry and Biology, was working in a lab testing nutritional supplements, and was ready for a change. “I did it for two years, and I was losing my mind,” he says. Nearly a decade ago, a friend who worked in film recruited him to help break down a set, and Damian decided to make a move to the film industry; “It’s the perfect place for a scatterbrain.” In 2008, he met Tina through a friend. Trained at OCAD, she was working in metalsmithing and jewelry-making and had recently gone back to school to study Library Science. When the pair started dating, Damian convinced Tina to come work with him, saving her, as she says, “from a life of drudgery.” The two freelanced and collaborated with friends in the industry, and in 2009 they opened Deville’s Workshop and struck out on their own.
The pair have had, as Damian describes it, “a two-feet first approach;” they’ve learned carpentry, welding, soldering, plumbing, mold-making, and pyrotechnics, and have made prosthetics, circuits, and just about anything else their clients can dream up. Theirs has been an informal and hands-on education, with a steep learning curve. Tina says, “YouTube, and playing. That’s the best way to learn. Getting the basics, safety-wise, off the internet, taking materials, and playing with them.”
As they gain skills and experience, it’s important to Damian and Tina to share their knowledge with others as well. Damian is quite active on instructables.com, a website where “Makers” (tech-oriented DIYers) can share step-by-step instructions on how to build, make, or rig, just about anything. “We get a lot of advice and feedback on prop builds from amazing Makers on forums and so I try to return the favour for other people… The Maker movement is geared toward people teaching each other to not be afraid to, for example, pry open a radio and learn how it works. It’s surprisingly addictive; once you learn a little bit you often feel the need to learn a bit more.” Damian’s Instructables page is a wondrous mash-up; there are how-to’s for charming furniture and home décor projects posted next to instructions for how to construct “a life-sized active volcano.”
The volcano was a career highlight for the duo. Built for the National Geographic Channel’s How to Build a Volcano, it was four stories tall, 150 feet wide, and erupted on cue. “A lot of the stuff we build gets blown up,” Damian says, with a wry smile. Another massive project involved working with a team to recreate a full-scale WWII-era German town for the History Channel series D-Day to Victory. The show features re-enactments based on testimonials from WWII vets, and the art department was charged with creating as historically accurate a set as possible. “We brought in masons, bricklayers, roofers, and shinglers, and built two-storey buildings,” Damian recalls. The town, built over two months on a military base in New Brunswick, was almost eerily realistic; footage from the program shows houses, factories, a church, cars, trucks, and tanks, all of which were blown to bits using period ammunition.
But the Deville’s Workshop team also works on horror movies, children’s programming, and prank shows, where the projects are wildly imaginative and realism is less of a priority. For Extreme Babysitting, a YTV show that pulls pranks on unsuspecting teenage babysitters, they’ve built a 6-foot-tall robot that crashed through a wall, a set of genetically-modified giant eggs that cracked and spilled yolk everywhere, and innumerable props designed to explode or spray slime. For a Jason Mewes film, they produced “a rotating floppy rubbery dildo alien gun,” and for a Christmas movie they made a set of reindeer robots—one with a more classic design, and one more slick- and modern-looking, made by a 3D printer. For another prank show, Tina built an “alien radio.” She put a handmade theremin inside of it, which created otherworldly noises when someone approached the unit. Unbelievably, most of their projects must be completed in only a few days, so the pair has become adept at figuring out how to execute wacky requests on the fly.
Toronto’s film and TV industry is keeping the team at Deville’s busy. Damian says, “We don’t ever stop working. We sleep on set a lot. I think that if you’ve got your head on your shoulders, Toronto’s an amazing place to be… There’s as much opportunity here as you are willing to open up to.” As their business has grown, so has their team, and Tina and Damian are happy to train those who join them in the shop. As Tina explains, “We’re just people who like to make things, and incidentally, we get jobs in film… It’s not like we went to school for, or wanted to be in film. It’s just more about the build for us.”
WORDS: RONIT RUBINSTEIN
PHOTOS: ANDRIJA DIMITRIJEVIC & PAUL STEWARD
VIDEOGRAPHY: BRAD SILVERBERG
MUA: JORDANA SAVARD
HAIR: MICHELANGELO FRESH
STYLIST: SOPHIE JOLIN-ROCH
ASST. STYLIST: AZIZ VIVANT