A Relaxing Weekend of Props

Props from Hamilton and More Featured in New Exhibit Celebrating Design Elements Rarely Seen Up Close – I posted about this earlier in the week, and now it is getting more coverage. This March at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, props from Broadway, the Santa Fe Opera, as well as from films by Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, will be on display. Oh yeah, and some of my props, too.

Watch the Met Opera Stage a Sea of Blood – Find out how J&M Special Effects managed to flood the whole deck of the Metropolitan Opera with fake blood. This article has some striking photographs and video of the effect, and it delves into the kinds of logistics it takes for dealing with such a large amount of fluid.

How to 3D Print on Fabric – This video has been circulating the internet for the last week or so, but it is still too cool not to share. Uncle Jesse shares his techniques for 3D printing directly onto fabric to make effects like dragon scales and the like.

You Gotta Have Heart – Emma Pickles shares how she sculpted, molded and cast a squishy human heart. And she does it (gasp!) without any Smooth-On products! It’s actually a good look at using cheaper, more traditional methods and materials for creating a convincing prop.

Props and Fine Art From Movies, Television and Theatre

The following is the press release for an exhibition I am a part of:

Props and Fine Art From Movies, Television & Theatre and Working Objects: Props by Ross MacDonald Open at The Beard & Weil Galleries, Wheaton College, Norton, MA
March 1 – April 13, 2018

In film, television and theatre, a hero prop is any item intended to be held or used by one of the main actors. Examples of hero props might include Shylock’s money box, as used by Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice at New York’s Public Theater; the Red Apple Tobacco tin used in Quentin Tarantino’s film Hateful Eight; or the Mendl’s chocolate box from the film The Grand Budapest Hotel.

All of these objects, plus watercolors from La La Land, sketches from Moonrise Kingdom and other beautiful works of art, appear in Props and Fine Art from Movies, Television and Theater and Working Objects: Props by Ross MacDonald, opening in the Beard & Weil Galleries at Wheaton College in Norton MA, March 1 through April 13, 2018.

On March 1 from 5:00 to 6:00 pm, Haas Visiting Artist Ross MacDonald will give a talk about his work, followed by an opening for both exhibitions from 6:00 to 8:00. The public is invited to attend.

Curator Elizabeth Keithline commented that “prop makers are required to make objects that integrate perfectly into the action, both historically and aesthetically. Prop makers often have deep background knowledge on their subject, yet to create something that would take audience attention away from the action would be the worst kind of mistake. Hidden in plain sight, the props and artwork in this show often remained unnoticed by the audience, yet they drove plot completely.”

Props from the television show Boardwalk Empire by Ross MacDonald
Props from the television show Boardwalk Empire by Ross MacDonald

In the Weil Gallery, Working Objects

Ross MacDonald illustrates for Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time, Spy and Rolling Stone. He has authored and illustrated 4 children’s books, as well as the adult humor books In and Out with Dick and Jane, (with co-author James Victore) and What Would Jesus Craft?. MacDonald recently designed the bandana worn by Justin Timberlake in the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show.

Yet all the while he has led a secret double life designing and fabricating props for over 40 movies and television series. He has made everything from the book Bradley Cooper’s character throws out the window in Silver Linings Playbook, to the titular Book of Secrets for the second National Treasure movie; Jennifer Lawrence’s mop patents for Joy; baby’s favorite book in Baby’s Day Out; Nucky Thompson’s checkbook and Arnold Rothstein’s calling card for Boardwalk Empire; the morgue toe-tags in The Knick; the Pawnee town charter for Parks and Recreation; the Red Apple Tobacco tin in Tarantino’s Hateful Eight; Versace’s book in the latest season of American Crime Story and thousands of other props. For more information: https://www.ross-macdonald.com/.

Mendl's Chocolate box from the movie Grand Budapest Hotel by Annie Atkins
Mendl’s Chocolate box from the movie Grand Budapest Hotel by Annie Atkins

In the Beard Gallery, Props and Fine Art from Movies, Television and Theater

Annie Atkins specializes in graphics for filmmaking, which means that she makes any graphic pieces outlined by a period film script—like postage stamps and banknotes to help create Wes Anderson’s fictional State of Zubrowka in the Grand Budapest Hotel; or shopfront signs and fake passports for Steven Spielberg’s New York as depicted in Bridge of Spies. Other films she has worked on include Box Trolls, Wonderstruck and Isle of Dogs. For the Mendl’s chocolate box exhibited at Wheaton, Ms. Atkins also credits the artists Wes Anderson, Liliana Lambriev, Jan Jericho and prop master Robin Miller.

Buist Bickley – According to Crains New York Business, “Bickley is one of the most in-demand prop supervisors on Broadway.” Current productions include Spongebob Squarepants, Frozen, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dear Evan Hansen and Fun Home. In the February 4 Playbill, Bickley was quoted as saying “Picture frames, rugs, chandeliers, sconces, any picture on the wall—those are all props… I always say that the ceiling, the floor, and the walls are sets. Everything that makes it what it is, is a prop.”

Krabby Patty from SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical provided by Buist Bickley
Krabby Patty from SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical provided by Buist Bickley

Jay Duckworth is props master at the Public Theater in NYC. In over three decades in theatre he has worked from an old Mule Barn up to Prop Master on Hamilton. He’s founded the Prop Summit for all properties people to meet, network and learn; given keynote speeches for KCACTF and USITT. He is currently curating the first Props Lab at USITT’s National conference, he is a contributor to Stage Directions Magazine and is a Professor at Pace University. Jay’s website, the Proptologist, can be explored here: https://www.proptologist.com/.

Eric Hart has been building props for theatre, opera, retail display and other industries since 2003. He is currently the props master at Triad Stage in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. His props were built for theatres both on and off-Broadway, New York’s “Shakespeare in the Park”, the Santa Fe Opera, and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, among others.

Eric also writes about building props and other things. He is the author of The Prop Building Guidebook: for Theatre, Film, and TV, and The Prop Effects Guidebook and writes regularly for his blog The Prop Agenda: http://www.props.eric-hart.com/.

Randy Lutz is the Properties Director for the Santa Fe Opera, where he has held various positions since 1979. Lutz often presents workshops at regional and national theatre festivals and conferences. Lutz serves as a responder for allied crafts and prop construction and design for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.

Under Randy’s direction, the heads on loan from the Santa Fe Opera were created by Anna Warren, Hannah Shoemaker, Robin Lu Payne, Eileen Garcia, C. David Russell, Chastity Collins and Nancy Allen.

Carl Sprague is a designer working for film and stage as well as special, site-specific projects. Career highlights include art direction on The Royal Tenenbaums, concept illustration for Academy Award Winners The Grand Budapest Hotel and Twelve Years A Slave. Carl is currently developing a feature adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1916 classic Summer.

Visit the Wheaton College event page for more details.

Talkin’ ’bout Props

What Does a Prop Master Do? A Conversation with Elisa Malona – Elisa Malona is the head of props for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.  In this great interview, she talks about how she got started in props, how her career led her to The Tonight Show, and some of her greatest successes and fails in churning out crazy props on a daily basis. You can’t see it on any of the photos, but my book is sitting on her bookshelf.

The Prop Master Behind ‘Arrested Development’ – Supporting Players – Now the story of a prop master who had everything. In this short episode of “Supporting Players,” we visit Todd Daniels in his prop truck while working on the set of Arrested Development, which recently finished filming its fifth season.

Glossary: Dunsels, Nurnies, Greebles, Gundans, and Fuidgets – Christopher Noessel goes into the history of these terms, used to describe various decorative details on models, sets, and computer screens in sci-fi films. If you delve deeper into the history of design and art, you can see these are all just modern forms of diapering, which is the use of decorative patterns to break up a plain surface.

How Altered Carbon’s costume designer created the fashions for its futuristic world – Sure, it’s clothing, but it is so futuristic it may as well be props. Right? Ann Foley talks about the design and fabrication of the outfits in this new sci-fi series, including the hard armor of the Praetorian Guards.

Video: Blood Knife

The companion videos for The Prop Effects Guidebook just keep on coming. This week I demonstrate how to build the most basic type of blood knife you can. A blood knife is a specially-prepared knife that administers blood as it “cuts” an actor.

Blood knife

I will be releasing more of these companion videos as we draw closer to the book’s release. You can watch all of them on YouTube.

The Prop Effects Guidebook is available for pre-order now at most major retailers.

Have You Seen These Links Before?

How a Wes Anderson movie prop maker helped develop That’s You! – Annie Atkins is one of Wes Anderson’s go-to prop makers, and has been featured on this blog before. She also designed the “props” for That’s You!, a new video game for the Sony Playstation. This article is an interesting look at how the skills and talents of a prop maker are still vital even in a purely digital environment.

Etching Brass Plaques – “Switch and Lever” produced a short video where they experiment with three different ways of etching graphics onto brass, and compare the results. Brass etching is something I’ve always wanted to try, but I’ve never gotten down to it. I’ve gotten down to brass tacks, but not brass sheets.

Vintage Ad Browser – Two interesting sites came over the S*P*A*M email list this week. The first is Vintage Ad Browser, a collection of over 100,000 print advertisements. They are organized by subject matter and by decade. I’ve always found ads useful for period research, not necessarily for the subject matter (which is often idealized), but for what is going on in the background. For instance, an ad for a stove will also have pictures of pots and pans, and serving bowls and utensils, so you get a quick sense of what was typical for the time period.

Cover Browser – The second site collects over 450,000 covers to books, comic books, magazines, video games, and more.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies