Five Fun Friday Features

First up, California Sunday Magazine has a fantastic tour of one of Hollywood’s largest prop houses, ISS. Gregg Bilson Jr., the owner, talks about the million or so items in all the different departments of this massive rental and manufacturing facility.

Also in California Sunday Magazine is this great article on Phil Tippett, one of the masters of creature effects, who is currently working on an old-school monster movie by hand. Tippett has worked on creatures in Star WarsJurassic ParkStarship TroopersRobocop, and many more. He hand-crafts his own film as a way to escape the monotony of digital effects and return to his roots.

AboutFace Magazine has an article on Portland’s prop master, Tim Oakley. Oakley has worked on projects such as GrimmThe Dark Knight RisesJurassic World, and many more.

Propnomicon points us to this video by Super Sculpey, showing how to use Sculpey to sculpt monster men. In this twelve minute video, Jake Corrick shows his technique for building an armature, roughing out the form, adding details and finishing.

Finally, Make has another round of six “now why didn’t I think of that” shop tips. Some of them I use regularly and find useful. Others, like the plastic friction welding, I’ve never heard of and can’t wait to try.

The Tangible Elements of Fantasy, 1909

The following comes from a 1909 edition of the San Francisco Call. Besides the description of the props, pay attention to an early description of spike marks.

The Tangible Elements of Fantasy

by Walter Anthony

In the first place as you wander about the stage observing the traps which have been cut into the floor; the mysterious marks here and there which show the exact location of every individual piece of furniture and scenery; the accumulation of cannons and birds and dogs’ heads; the lion, the crocodile, which as tasted of Captain Hook’s hand and wants the rest of the pirate for dinner; the dog’s skin, that poor Harcourt has to perspire in; the maze of wires to swing the Darling children out of the window when Peter Pan teaches them the difficult art of flying—I say, when you take in the mass of mechanical detail which the production of “Peter Pan” requires, your admiration will grow for Barrie, the whimsical Scotchman, who conceived the whole thing; for Manager Walter Hoff Seely, who has not hesitated at putting $8,ooo into the production; and for George Foster Platt, the stage director, who is bringing all the ends of this fantasy together and is literally piecing together moonbeams and moth wings.

Then Stage Director Platt takes descriptions and roughly draws the scene, Ralph Nieblas, the scene painter, makes a model out of cardboard, with every measurement carefully indicated. When the model is done, it is an exact reproduction in miniature of what the scene is going to be like. Nieblas and William Finley, the head carpenter, get together and puzzle it out. Finley told me he had to be able to make anything from heaven in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to hell in “The Black Crook.”

Plans and specifications, drawn by Platt’s imagination from Barrie’s imaginary pictures, are made and the work of producing the scenery and the properties begins. Meanwhile, the propertyman is scouring the city for accessories, such as the bell which is used on the ships; for in the pirate boat scene there must be a real bell with a real clapper, to emit real vibrations. William Richardson, who is the propertyman, is now in a state bordering on nervous prostration, for the strange things he has had to collect include everything that a fantasy could demand. “I got the bell at a ship chandler’s,” he said, “and a bad cigar for Captain Hook to smoke at every performance, but I will not tell you where I got that. It wouldn’t be fair to the pirate. I had to get a hook for him to wear after the crocodile has eaten his hand, and the list of things that I have raced around town for would bewilder the most enthusiastic shopper in the world.”

Tangible Elements of Fantasy

Anthony, Walter. “The Tangible Elements of Fantasy.” The Call [San Francisco] 11 Apr. 1909: 25. Library of Congress. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

Friday Prop Links

“A prop has infinite possibilities.” This video on how to use props in film is geared toward filmmakers, but it’s great for props people to see how their work contributes to the larger production.

Graham Owen makes bugs for films. Since 2006, he has been constructing realistic insect replicas for films such as The Amazing Spider-ManThe Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonSalt and more. He made the fly in that one episode of Breaking Bad. Talk about a creating a niche for yourself.

Make has 5 indispensable shop hacks. Some I’ve heard of before, others I need to try out soon. They’re mostly woodworking related, but Make has plenty of other articles on shop and tool hacks you can get to from here.

Finally, if you like original movie props, check out Tested’s video tour of Prop Store’s original movie prop collection. One day, I’d like to see a video of someone’s original theatre prop collection.

Musings from the Prop Summit

Today’s post is guest written by Jay Duckworth. Last Saturday was the yearly New York City Props Summit, which Jay has been hosting at the Public Theater for the last seven years.

Musings from the Prop Summit

by Jay Duckworth

That very familiar “buzz, buzz” hits my phone: “I’m leaving. Don’t abandon Rebecca, okay?” It’s Sara, the prop shop manager.

“I’ll be down shortly. Thank you for all your help.” The Props Summit started 20 minutes ago but I ran away to the upstairs bathroom because I was getting panicky with social anxiety. I love talking to students; students actually want to hear what you have to say, and they listen to each word. But downstairs were my peers: Broadway prop masters, The Metropolitan Opera, SUNY Purchase, Yale, Emerson, the theater where I first prop mastered, crafts people, Julliard, Rosco, Spaeth, Costume Armor… it was a lot of people. I finally came downstairs, grabbed a juice box and snuck in.

2015 NYC Props Summit
2015 NYC Props Summit

After an hour of wine, beer, and way too much cheese, we went into the Newman theater and took over the first couple rows of seats. I welcomed everyone to the 7th annual Props Summit, and we went around and said who we were and what we did. We usually have speakers, but this was the first year in seven that I was able to take a two week vacation; I apologized that I was so lax this year and asked for volunteers to help with next year’s Summit.

I opened the doors to questions or concerns that the group had. Some of the younger people were worried about getting work once they graduated and Buist Bickley immediately said that if you are good and pleasant to be around, you can get work. Scott Laule, the props master at MTC, interjected with, “You also have to be on time for God’s sake, and at least be a little normal.”

Other people spoke about internships and getting work outside of regular theater. Emily Morrisey, who works at the event company Imagination, said they are looking for crafts people all the time.  It was the same with Spaeth.

Listening to Carrie Mossman
Listening to Carrie Mossman

Chad Tiller from Rosco spoke about fire retardants and how to approach situations where people don’t have a great concept of what it means to make something fire-retardant vs fire-proof.

Jen McClure spoke about how encouraging it was to see so many young women out and asked them to push themselves out of their comfort zone and go for jobs that seem well out of their reach, because in the end they may not be. That lead into a brain storming session about resumes and what to include and to be as honest as possible. No one is going to be everything, but be honest about your skills. If you are a good portrait painter, don’t say you are great; you will waste time and give yourself a bad rep. We hit on a few more topics and then adjourned back into the props shop for more wine, beer, and cheese.

Every year it just gets better and better. We meet more people and the prop world becomes a little smaller. Ron DeMarco gathered up his students and former students to take a picture; I wish I had done the same with my former interns. It seems that sometimes I only get to see some of these good folk at the Summit, and the rest of the year we communicate with phone calls and emails. I hope that if you haven’t come out to the Summit, you do next year. I’ll most likely be late to it, but now you know why.

Jay Duckworth

Jay Duckworth is the props master at the Public Theater and host of the annual New York Props Summit.  You can see his work at


Friday Props are Tops

Good news and great article: 20th Century Props is reopening. It was one of Hollywood’s largest prop houses when it closed down six years ago, but it’s back now thanks to booming business in LA.

Cassandra West talks with Greg Poljacik, inventor of Gravity & Momentum, which may be  “the finest stage blood in the world.” I’ve heard from other prop masters that it truly is a remarkable fake blood, and washes out of nearly everything.

The MacGyver Project has a new interview with Pat O’Brien, the prop master on MacGyver (a show which often serves as a metaphor for a prop master’s job). It’s remarkable how much he remembers about the props on a show that aired thirty years ago.

Though you can find tons of information about building your own R2-D2 throughout the internet, I really like the photographs in 2StoryProp’s build log of this famous movie droid.

Finally, meet Björk’s mask maker. There is not a lot of information on James Merry, but you can see plenty of photographs of his beautiful hand-embroidered lace creations.

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies