Late Weekend Links

Hero Props: Graphic Design in Film & Television – The 99% Invisible Podcast sits down with Annie Atkins, a graphic designer who makes paper props and other signage for films.

Blood Test – The Many Shades of Bookshelves and Blood – Jay Duckworth talks about how he got the blood just right for one of the Public Theater’s latest productions.

The film props firm targeting the YouTube generation – BBC News sits down with Ryan Johnson, president of NewRuleFX. They make breakaway bottles, as well as foam frying pans, custom e-cigarettes, and other special effect props.

Weta Workshop: Behind the Scenes on Thor: Ragnarok – Weta Workshop made some super colorful weapons and armor for the latest Thor film. Check out some behind-the-scenes footage in this video. In another video, Tested visits Ironhead Studio to talk about making Hela’s magnificent headdress from the same film.

Probius the Protoss Probe – Prop Build Tutorials – Punished Props debuted a replica prop of the Protoss Probe at this year’s Blizzcon convention. Check out this series of videos detailing the build process as well as giving tutorials on many of the techniques used.

A Contingency for your Contingency Plan

When you are estimating the cost to build a prop, you often add a “contingency.” Take 15-25% of the anticipated cost and tack it on to the estimate. So if you predict that a prop will cost $100, a 15% contingency is $15, making your new estimate $115.  I recently heard a student ask whether a contingency should be applied to every item in your estimate, or to the estimate as a whole.

To help me think this through, I looked up the definition of contingency. It is a “provision for an unforeseen event or circumstance.”

When you are purchasing your materials, you probably want to buy a little extra. You may mess up a cut, you might measure something wrong, a section might be damaged, or you may have underestimated how much you will need in your original plan. Often, the cost of getting just a little bit more material later is greater than the cost of buying a little extra material at the beginning. Materials are often cheaper in bulk. If you buy them online, it is cheaper to pay shipping once rather than twice, and many material suppliers have minimum order requirements. Even if you can get things locally, the cost of multiple purchases can add up; sure, a single screw may only be 13 cents, but the half hour trip to the hardware store adds several dollars worth of time to its price.

So pad your material needs. When I buy hardware, I buy by the box to make sure I have enough. Sometimes you use more than you originally thought, sometimes you just drop a few screws and can’t find them. When I buy fabric, I round up to the nearest yard (or add a few yards if it is cheap enough). Especially when it is materials I know I can use for future projects, any extra will go onto my shelves and save money down the line.

Not every material or line item will be padded, of course. If your project requires a motor that costs $200, you’re not going to buy two of them, right? I mean, not unless you’re planning for a lengthy open-ended run and your company has the money.

I do not really think of material padding as part of your contingency, because it is not an “unforeseen event”. The contingency is added on top of everything at the end. It is for costs you could not have planned for or for costs that come up because of changing circumstances. “Oh, I need to buy degreaser to clean this steel.” “Oops, I need to buy rags to apply this stain.” “I’ve just been told I need to buy a drop cloth before painting this.” “This prop is heavier than I anticipated and will need handles.” “Now they want to put a light inside this magic wand.”

So pad the amount of materials as needed, than add a contingency to the top of everything. That’s what I find works for me.

Prop Stories to Keep You Busy

Ever wonder who dresses each and every set at The Rep? – Milwaukee Repertory Theater brings us this video of Jim Guy, their props director. He talks about what props are and takes us on a tour of the prop storage areas deep in the heart of the Rep. It’s pretty basic stuff, but it is always nice when a theater recognizes the people of the production department.

King’s Fine Woodworking builds Thor’s Hammer – This video shows the making of Mjolnir, Thor’s famed hammer from the Marvel movies, out of a giant block of silver maple, along with some walnut for the handle. It’s a cool twist to the standard replica prop build.

5 Things Wrong With the Arcade in ‘Stranger Things 2’ – GeekDad dives deep into the details of the set dressing for the 1980s arcade in the new season of Stranger Things. They lovingly point out where the decor deviates from history, but in most cases, they make a guess as to why the production department chose those changes.

Design Curves for Irregular Shapes – If you’ve never studied hand drafting, you may not know how to use a French curve (and some folks don’t even know that French curves exist). Chris Schwartz gives a quick tutorial for this tool that will help you draw smoother curves.

What are you looking for in a portfolio? – In this video, Laura Pates, Assistant Technical Director at Playmakers Rep, tells NCTC what kinds of things should go in a design/technical portfolio. Bonus points for being filmed in the lobby of Triad Stage, where I work!

Property Man: New Style, 1934

The following article from 1934 details the evolution of a props director in film which was occurring throughout the twentieth century:

By Frank S. Nugent

It’s a far cry—in fact, it’s a good resounding whoop—from  the humble, janitor-like property man of yesteryear to the high-geared, big executive who has the same title in the modern motion-picture studio. By way of illustration, one could point to Albert C. (“Whitey”) Wilson, head of the Warner studio’s property department, who was in town last week taking a turn through the local shops and shoppes, picking up some new ideas on decoration and making a few judicious purchases to “sweeten up the stock” on the Brothers’ ample shelves back in Hollywood.

Mr. Wilson is the purchaser and custodian of a property stock valued at $500,000. It fills one warehouse in the Burbank studios, five lesser storerooms elsewhere in Hollywood and another at the Sunset plant. Mr. Wilson has no idea just how many articles are on hand; somewhere in the “hundreds of thousands” was his best estimate. They range in size from a jeweled snuff box to a coach for Madame DuBarry or an English poster bed, Tudor style.

On twenty-four hours’ notice—and that generally is the best they can expect—his department can turn four studio walls into a penthouse gambling den or a fisherman’s chapel, the inside of a submarine or the outside of an airliner, a prison mess hall or a ballroom at a débutante’s coming-out party. Things like that are just routine and have no terrors.

But it’s a different story when Busby Berkeley comes along with his “Gold-Diggers of 1935” and asks, as he just did, for fifty ivory-hued grand pianos that do not, of necessity, have to play, but must be able to dance. Or when, as in “Wonder Bar,” the director insists upon a scene with twelve mirrors, each of which must be twenty feet high and sixteen feet long. Or when, as in “It’s Tough to Be Famous,” the Navy Department refuses, at the last minute, to lend the studio twenty-five submarine escape “lungs” and the property man is told to have prop imitations ready by 9 the next morning—and has to drive all over town at midnight looking for baking powder cans of a certain size because they happen to look like one important part of the “lungs.”

Things like that are what wear a man down, Mr. Wilson says. Oh, yes! He got the pianos for Mr. Berkeley; had them made up by one of the country’s largest piano companies. They’ll be seen waltzing around and going through formations in the next “Gold Diggers.” And he got the mirrors for “Wonder Bar.” They’re still in the studio warehouse, and once in a while he has a chance to use one of them—but not all, not ever again, he’s afraid.

Nugent, Frank S. “Property Man: New Style.” New York Times, 25 Nov. 1934.

Videos for the Props Aficianado

Take a peek backstage with Props Supervisor Faye Armon-Troncoso – In this video, Faye brings us backstage (and onstage) to show off some of the props for Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Romeo and Juliet.

Adam Savage Explores the Props of Blade Runner 2049! – Everyone’s favorite prop aficionado meets with prop master Doug Harlocker in this video. They take a look at all the whiz-bang gizmos and gadgets in the newest Blade Runner film.

Sketch Your Way to Better Designs – Christopher Schwartz discusses why he carries a spiral-bound notebook with him at all times and how it helps him solve tricky fabrication and construction dilemmas.

Blakes7 Bracelet. Make your own – Take a step back to 1978 when Blue Peter, the famous BBC children’s program, demonstrated how to build a sci-fi prop from the Blake’s 7 series.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies