The production designer for BBC’s What Remains has a behind-the-scenes look at the design, construction and dressing of many of the sets. It is a bit more focused on the scenery rather than the props, but it has a ton of photographs; I mean, if you printed out all the photos, they would actually weigh one ton. She gives a look at not just the construction and final product, but also the design inspiration that went into it.
An interesting story has come out of the filming for the new Star Wars film. The producers have reached out to the R2-D2 fan building community, and are using a fan-built R2-D2 in the film. Why have your prop shop build a new one when you have fans who have already constructed several?
“Kill Phil” continues to be an interesting and informative little series over on the YouTube. The premise is simple; take a well-known prop maker and give them 3 days to recreate a prop from a film. In one of the latest episodes, they turn to Dragon Dronet of Renegade Effects, one of the top prop makers of Star Trek: The Next Generation and other sci-fi shows and movies from the 1990s onward. They task him with recreating Matt Damon’s gun from the film Elysium, which hadn’t come out yet when this was filmed.
He slams together this prop by hacking apart several toy guns and a vacuum cleaner, than refining all the details with pieces of styrene, jelutong wood and Bondo. It is also interesting to see that he works with little more than a band saw, belt and disc sander, Dremel and a drill gun.
On an unfortunate note, he does all this without any protective gear. You see him using Bondo and Zip Kicker without a respirator, sanding and cutting without a dust mask, and applying Bondo without gloves (even using his hands to smear it on!). With that in mind, watch the video for the techniques, but don’t forget about the safety.
All props people have their own tools they bring to work. Some of the tools are basic necessities that one should never be without, while others are specialty items that you rarely find at any shop. But if you are just starting out, what tools do you need? The Santa Fe Opera provides their incoming apprentices with a list of tools which they are required to bring. Obviously, their shop is well-equipped; these are just the personal tools which every props person should have. Think of it as a base-line set that you bring to every job, regardless of where it is or what you are doing.
The Opera has two different lists, one for the carpenters (who build the furniture and other fabricated items out of wood and metal) and the crafts persons (who do soft goods, casting and molding, and all other crafts). I’ve paraphrased them below.
For the carpenters:
architect’s scale rule
drill and driver bits
end cutting pliers
slip joint pliers
diagonal cutting pliers
combination square or speed square
3/4″ wood chisel
For the crafts persons:
In addition, though the shop has some of the following tools, they are so commonly used that they recommend bringing your own if you have them:
precision cutting knife (X-Acto® knife)
snap-off blade knife (Olfa® knife)
ratchet and socket set (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
box wrenches (especially 1/2″, 7/16″ and 9/16″)
Finally, while their shop has some safety gear, it is always a good idea to own a personal set of the following:
respirator with organic vapor cartridges
Again, these are the tools required by the Santa Fe Opera, and other work sites may require a slightly different set of tools. However, if you are just starting to build up your own personal tool kit, it is a good guide to refer to for the most commonly-used tools in a props shop.
As Doctor Who gears up for its 50th anniversary in little over a week, check out this new interview with their prop master, Nick Robatto. In it, you can read how he got started, what he studied in college, and how he hates fiberglass and refuses to build props with it (yay!).
For fans of a different genre, Buzzfeed has the stories behind 10 iconic Grey’s Anatomy props. It’s Buzzfeed, so they don’t go into too much detail for each one, but it is still interesting to hear the (often relatable) challenges the props team encounters with making or finding these strange items.
Here’s a brief (but illustrated) look at how furniture design changed due to World War II. The examples look incredibly contemporary, and none of it would look out of place on a modern set. It is a great post for those interested in historical trends in furniture and period styles.
So, the Smithsonian is 3D scanning their massive collection. They only have a small library of models online at the moment, but more is sure to come. Imagine the possibilities for research, where you can view a 3D model of a piece of furniture or an historic weapon right on your computer. You also have the possibility of downloading the models and exporting them to fabrication tools, such as CNCs or 3D printers. Your designer wants a wooly mammoth skeleton in the show? Just download and “print”.
The following article is from a 1913 issue of The Sun.
In modern stage affairs property men have risen to heights of artistry little dreamed of a few years ago, when the men handling what are known as the “properties” of a theatrical production were regarded as little more than unskilled labor. Nowadays the property man is expected to possess the skill of a sculptor as well as that of a portrait painter. In transporting the massive musical extravaganza entitled “Hop o’ My Thumb” from the Drury Lane Theatre in London to the Manhattan Opera House in this city a number of feminine figures were damaged. Since they comprised an important feature of an elaborate scene called the Garden of Statues the work of repair would necessarily have to be done in a masterly manner. The property men were called in and given instructions. An arm was missing on one figure, a leg on another and some had large holes torn in various portions of the form. One may well imagine that such a task would properly belong to a sculptor or an artist of ability; but not so in theatrical affairs. It is the duty of the property man and he must do it in a creditable manner, or be succeeded by one who can do so. Accompanying is a scene showing the property men working on the figures and making trick doves, the latter so constructed as to give every appearance of flying-just another of the manifold and difficult tasks assigned to the unrecognized genius known as the property man.
Property Men are Sculptors, Too
“Hop o’ My Thumb” is quite the largest theatrical production that has ever been imported from the Drury Lane Theatre. When “The Whip” was brought over last year it was thought the limit had been reached, as that production filled to overflowing the hold of one of the largest ocean vessels; but this year’s Drury Lane offering exceeds “The Whip” by nearly fifty extra large truck loads of scenic equipment. As the title indicates, the production is based on the fairy story by that name. Rehearsals have been in progress for several weeks and a crew of more than 100 men have been busy night and day preparing the stage of the Manhattan Opera House for the spectacle. This is no mean task, since some of the elaborate stage effects have made it necessary to practically rebuild the stage of the theatre from pit to fly gallery. When Oscar Hammerstein erected the Manhattan Opera House it was generally though that there was sufficient space in the big building for the largest kind of theatrical operations, but it would appear that the London managers have contrived a performance that will tax to the extreme limit the resources of the Hammerstein playhouse. While there is ample room for the rehearsals of the chorus and principals of the company the ballet of 150 had to seek quarters at the Seventy-first Regiment Armory, where for the past three weeks Ballet Mistress Maud Crompton, from the London Drury Lane Theatre, has been instructing the little army in what is promised to be a ballet of rare novelty and beauty. In the meantime, under the eaves of the roof and over the great auditorium of the theatre, another army of property men and wardrobe mistresses are busy in their part of the preparations. Originally published in The Sun, November 23, 1913, section 4, page 16.