Bossing the World, 1921

The following article comes from the 1921 collected edition of “Our Paper,” put out by the Massachusetts Reformatory:

Bossing the World

by John B. Wallace

Certainly in comparison with the property man of the speaking stage, a motion picture property man can most properly be called a super-property man. Accordingly I feel that my action is justified when I dub Howard S. Wells, manager of the property department of the largest film studios in California, a super-property man.

He not only has charge of all the properties used by the dozen companies working out of the studios, but he must house and feed the companies that are out on location. He also has charge of the many motor trucks maintained by the company and must see to the transportation of the actors and supplies.

He is responsible for the issuance of the supplies from the immense warehouses in which they are stored. Under him are dozens of set dressers, warehouse men, truck drivers and laborers.

As soon as it is decided to film a certain story, the scenario—or a copy of it—is turned over to Wells and he makes a list of the properties required. The assistant director is also required to make a list and this is compared with that prepared by Wells. This double check is very important.

Suppose, for instance, that a company is in the mountains or in the desert. The absence of one property which the property man has forgotten or overlooked might cause a delay of several days. Such delays would run into thousands of dollars. The old days are past, and efficiency and accuracy are watchwords. He must be a man of infinite resource as well as of practical knowledge.

A set dresser—as the name implies—dresses the set—distributes the articles that belong to a set. He works under the direction of the assistant director. He comes in after the carpenters and painters have finished their work and is the last man on the scene before the actors and camera arrive.

Small articles that can be carried about by the actors, such as guns, suitcases, and so on, are called hand properties and it is the set dresser’s duty to keep a vigilant eye on these to see that they are on hand when required. Every article required by a director in filming a picture is charged against his company. A requisition is issued through Mr. Wells’ office for each property required. The requisition is placed on file and the article charged against the director ordering it. Every property thus issued must either be returned or a proper accounting be made for it.

Notwithstanding the careful check kept upon properties the leakage runs yearly into large figures. Actors are proverbially a happy-go-lucky folk with most inconsistent ideas of thrift, and the motion picture variety is no exception.

Breakage is another cause of loss, in certain plays, especially comedies, the destruction of properties is the action and although such articles are constructed as cheaply as possible the loss often runs into big money.

A walk through the vast storerooms is certainly illuminating to the uninitiated. One entire building is devoted to period furniture, another to draperies and another to bric-a-brac, which embraces everything from antique vases and statuary to oil painting copied from old masters. In one room are dozens of immense chandeliers and ornamental lamps. In another are swords, guns and side arms, dating from every period in history from remote ages to the present. A particular interesting collection at Universal City embraces every vehicles from the “one-hoss shay” to the modern limousine.

Wallace, John B. “Bossing the World.” Our Paper. Vol. 38. N.p.: Massachusetts Refomatory, 1921. 153. Google Books. Web. 24 Nov. 2015

Four Fun Friday Links

The Force Awakens Blog has posted photographs of 50 weapons and helmets from Star Wars: The Force Awakens in stunning high-resolution. It would be fun to make some of these in anticipation of the movie’s release (though most theatre chains have banned replica guns from their screenings).

I wrote a review of The Theatrical Firearms Handbook for the latest issue of Theatre Design and Technology. It’s an invaluable book for everything gun-related in theatre and film. If you are ever involved with a firearm on stage, you should own this book.

The New York Times has restored designer’s names to reviews of shows in their paper. This is very good news to anyone who has been following this story. Meanwhile, props people consider it a victory to be listed in the back of the program next to the brand of carpeting used in the lobby.

Eyeballs Studio makes a pretty stunning Dwarven Axe using mostly closed-cell foam and PVC pipe. It is amazing what you can accomplish with such cheap and readily-available materials.

Lucky Links for a Lucky Day

Happy Friday the 13th, everybody. Here are some great prop-related stories from around the internet.

The production team at the Clarice in Maryland recently recreated Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne statue using a mix of CNC routing, 3D printing, and theatre ingenuity. Watch this video to see how they did it.

Caleb Kraft and Platinumfungi decided they needed to recreate the flaming sword from the new Fallout 4 video game. Check out videos and photos showing their day-to-day process.

Duo Fiberworks has a nice tutorial on creating a rustic leather sketchbook from scratch. It’s a must for every Shakespeare play (h/t to Propnomicon for the link).

For your third video of the day, you can learn about Shawn Thorsson, the superhero of cosplay. You’ve seen some of his work before on this blog; now you can watch him at work in his shop and check out more of the pieces he has constructed.

Mythbusters is ending its fourteen-season run this January. This week was the final day of filming for them, and Adam Savage live-tweeted the entire day. It’s a sad day for television, since it was one of the few shows that got close to showing what we do in props. Thankfully, Adam is still busy as ever building props over at Tested.

Foam Firewood for Fighting

We just closed Deathtrap at Triad Stage. Anyone who has done or seen the show knows it has quite a few tricks, not to mention all the set dressing. One of the projects I made for the show was a piece of firewood that could safely be used to beat someone to death. I put together this video showing the process from start to finish.

I started off borrowing some techniques from LARPers; they build weapons out of foam intended for actual combat. I tried wrapping closed-cell foam around a piece of PVC, but that was too hard to hit someone with. I ended up using a core of polyurethane upholstery foam with three pieces of closed-cell foam around the outside.

The foam I used was a mix of anti-fatigue mats from Harbor Freight and Silly Winks foam from the craft store. Some people call this EVA foam. It’s more likely to be XLPE foam. I don’t think there’s enough of a difference to worry about, but it’s one of the things I’m investigating for the second edition of The Prop Building Guidebook.

Textured Foam
Textured Foam

To get the texture on the inside parts of the foam, I went over the whole surface with a wire wheel. Next, I scored the foam with a knife in the direction of the “grain” of the wood. One of the great tricks with this kind of foam is that when you score it, you can run a heat gun over the surface and the foam will open up, turning the scored lines into beveled grooves.


For the bark side of the log, I cut and tore apart chunks of thinner Silly Winks foam and hot glued them to the surface. I roughed them up with a surform and a knife; you can see that part of the process pretty well in the video.


Everything was coated with a layer of Rosco Flexcoat. This sealed everything in and gave a nice even layer to paint on. And as the name suggests, it remained flexible when dry.

When you watch the video, you will also see me adding some torn strips of paper towel with the Flexcoat on the bark side. This gave it a touch of texture and made it feel a bit more organic.

Finished Firewood
Finished Firewood

The whole thing was painted with a mix of scenic paint, acrylics, and Design Master, all of which remain pretty flexible when dry. We got the thing out on stage, and the lighting made it look very red, so I gave it another few coats of paint to make it look more realistic under the light.

Under natural lighting in the picture above, it looks very theatrical, but on stage it worked very well. The actor was able to beat the other actor without injuring him, and it produced a wonderful dull thud as he did so.

Proper Reading for Today

George Barris, creator of the 1966 TV version of the Batmobile, passed away this past week. He also built The Munster’s car and worked on the cars of many other shows and films. The LA Times had a great profile on his career a few years back that is worth revisiting today.

Roger Christian talks with Cinefex about his work on Star Wars and Alien. Christian created a lot of the props for Star Wars, such as the first R2-D2 prototype, Han Solo’s blaster, and Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. On Alien, he built most of the interior of the Nostromo space ship.

Eimer Murphy, prop maker at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, has an article at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s blog on Dublin Protest Graphics. It’s not so much prop-related, but it is about objects used in a performance-type aspect. Plus, I’ve seen so much theatre/film/TV where the protest signs are just way off the mark, so this is good research too.

The League of Professional Theatre Women recently released their newest study of gender breakdown in theatre roles at Off and Off-off Broadway shows over the past five years. The New York Times has a great summary of that study. Men still dominate set, light and sound design positions, as well as directing and writing. They don’t look at props; props (in theatre) have always seemed to have a bit more gender equality than other departments, but it’s hard to say without actually coming up with some numbers.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies