Ross MacDonald. Photograph by Greg Preston

Interview with Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald has built period props and vintage books for dozens of films and television shows over the years. Check out his web page for a portfolio of his work. I recently talked with him about making props and working in the industry.

Ross MacDonald. Photograph by Greg Preston
Ross MacDonald. Photograph by Greg Preston

How did you get started doing props?

Weirdly enough, I had been doing some television-related work, even back when I was starting out as an illustrator. I was doing this thing, this was up in Toronto, called the Artisan’s Schools Program. It was a grant program. It was me and a couple other guys, we would go into the schools, and we’d start off performing poetry, I would do big drawings, and the third guy, if he was there, would do music.

Around that same time, me and the other guy mainly, Bongo Herbert, we got work building and painting sets in this little rental television studio. The guy hired us is like, “I need you to build a detective’s office, with the glass door and the desk. I need you to build a fake kitchen for a commercial.”

They shot Anne of Green Gables in Canada. They’d rent a house and have the film crew come in and set it all up. Stone walkways, gigantic fake pine trees, fake verandas, all kinds of stuff. They’d shoot the whole show, and then I would come in with a bunch of knuckleheads and clear all that stuff out. You know, put the stone walkway back the way it had been, so the house was back to its normal self. It was real in-the-trenches type stuff.

Many years later, I’m like a successful illustrator doing tons and tons of work. I bumped into a guy at a party who was the assistant production designer on a film John Hughes was producing, Baby’s Day Out. He was from Toronto, and he’s like, “I know your illustration work. We need to do this faux 1930s kid’s book.” I went and worked on set in Chicago for three months. Met a million people. It was so much fun. I mean, it was really hard work. These guys are the hardest working guys I’ve ever seen. It was like being in the military. We were working from dawn until 9 o’clock at night, and just basically crashing and getting up and doing it again.

I stayed in touch with a few of the guys, mostly the set designers. Because we hung out so much, they knew that I collected old paper and documents and books and things like that. So years later when they were working on other movies, the prop master would need some weird document and the set designers would say, “hey, call this guy.” And that’s how it slowly snowballed into a ton of movie work. It’s probably easily half to two-thirds of what I do now. If I count individual seasons of Boardwalk Empire I think it’s close to 45 to 50 shows.

When the opportunity came along to work on a period paper prop, I was primed. I started out as a teenager working in a small print shop in Toronto. After I worked there for about a year, my older brother and I and a few other people started a letterpress shop in Toronto called Dreadnaught Press, publishing small poetry books. We were also doing commercial letterpress work, anything from a business card and a letterhead to a big promotional package for a musician.

I started doing self-promo pieces. I was hiring printers in New York, and working with designers, and never really feeling like I was getting what I wanted. I just thought, “I’m paying these guys to do a half-ass job, I can do a half-ass job for free.” I got a little table-top flat bed press, it’s called a Poco Press.  I knew how to find old type, so I started looking around. I found this one stash of wood type that was in the town called Peru, Indiana. It’s a nineteenth century circus town.This guy who ran the print shop there, that had been there since the 1840s, had the roof of his shop blown off in a tornado and he was getting rid of everything. I just bought all of it from him.

In ’96 we moved up to Connecticut and I filled this barn with presses and paper cutters and type. I was basically just using it to print promotional pieces which I was sending out to art directors in the hopes that they would hire me to design display typography. I still do that. I do book covers, I do display typography for magazines, often times using letterpress equipment.

I was so nerdishly knowledgeable about period design and period typography that then when I got the first call from somebody who said, “do you know what this obscure thing would look like?”, I just spewed out fourteen paragraphs of description of exactly what this thing would have looked like. That was for The Alamo. I ended up working on that show for fourteen months.

When people say, “how did you get into props”, a large part of it is right place, right time. But a large part of it is having a working knowledge base. I tell them, “Learn how to make stuff, build stuff, do stuff.”

What kind of equipment do you work with?

I have two presses, maybe 400 fonts of nineteenth century wood type, and maybe twice that of mostly nineteenth century lead type. A lot of ornaments, borders, both wood and metal, cuts, dingbats, pen flourishes, all that kind of stuff. So, I can fairly quickly and easily put together a period prop that looks great. If you get a good look at it on screen, you can really see that the type pressed into the paper, and the texture, and all of that stuff.

You can get a million digital faux wood type fonts, but they’re never going to look like real wood type printed on real paper. There’s plenty of things that I do digitally. If it’s an Army recruitment form, or a FBI file, I’m not going to go and handset it and print it. It’s not worth it.

You always go on the assumption that every single thing that was mentioned in the script is going to be full screen. A good percentage of the stuff that I did, you don’t see at all. Every time an actor’s holding a file, it’s got 25 sheets of period-correct paper in there. They could just be holding an empty file folder, it would have made no difference for the final cut of the show, but we didn’t know that going in.

When the actor’s in costume and they’re trying to figure out how to work through this scene, there’s plenty of times where they go, “well how about if I flip through the pages before I find the hero spread?” So you fill all those pages. You always make enough of the prop that there’s the flexibility to use it more or to show it bigger.

Do you ever have to make a prop that is not period appropriate?

The most common one is wanted posters. Nineteenth century wanted posters did not have pictures on them. But modern viewers expect posters with pictures on them and they don’t care how accurate it is. One of the few examples is Booth’s wanted poster, where they put cabinet cards on it. A lot of times they don’t want to do that, they want to do the crude drawing, and often times what I’ve done is linocuts. That looks great, and you load the thing up with period correct wood type, and you got something that works. Somebody once said it’s more important for a prop to be convincing than for it to be accurate.

Do you make your props with vintage materials?

I try to find modern equivalents. There’s a good eight or ten kinds of paper that I use a lot of, and then there’s a lot of additional paper that I have a small supply of and I can get more of quickly. Occasionally I’ll repurpose an old binding or an old book. I might clean up an old book.

I did a prop for the last season of Boardwalk where I had a very small stash of really old paper that was just perfect. And then I have some period fine letterhead paper, beautiful stuff, I have some period onion skin paper, I have some period legal paper, and some period preprinted forms. But they’re the kind of thing where you find one or two packages and save them for something special.

The toughest modern equivalent to find is bookbinding materials. They had some amazing bookbinding materials available to them in the 19th century and early 20th century. You just see these amazing fabrics and faux leathers, and it’s tough finding modern equivalents of those. There is this company called Fibermark that makes really great binding materials, but you have to get a minimum order of like 3000 yards. It’s thousands of dollars. Only one movie was willing to actually do that; The Adjustment Bureau had a lot of books, so they were willing to do a custom run of this material. But most of the time you’re doing four or five copies.

There’s jillions of places out there that make books, but they’re doing big commercial runs. They don’t want to do three or four of something. And then there are the sort of fine bookbinders, and those guys want to take six months to do something. So I occupy that niche that’s between the huge commercial shops and the real fine craftsmen. I can bang stuff out really quick and do three copies.

What are the time frames when you are working on a movie or a TV show?

You can get a month or you can get a week. You can get literally a day. Typically on Boardwalk I would get a heads up from the prop master, like “we’re going to need this, this and this.” I would just hit the ground running because I didn’t know whether the next phone call was saying, “we need it shipped tonight,” or if he was going to come back with more specifics. So I would start doing research, line up materials that I might need, and get prepared so that I could make it fast if I needed to. Usually everything for Boardwalk Empire was done in a two week time frame. That could mean I had two weeks on one prop and two hours on another one.

On movies there’s often more lead time. Usually I’ll get a call when they’re in preproduction and the prop master has gone through the script, he’s found some stuff that I’d be good for. A lot of times you really got to wait for more specifics before you can go too much further. You might have three months to produce stuff for the show. During that three month period, just like on Boardwalk, you might get a phone call like, “we just realized we need this. Can you do it today and ship it out?”

I’m working on Tarantino’s next film, Hateful Eight, and it’s set in the 1870s, and I probably started working on it in October. I did a couple of documents where it turned out that they wouldn’t work because they were the wrong size. It was paperwork for this one character, and at some point they found this great leather portfolio that worked really well for the character. The paperwork I had previously done wouldn’t fit in this portfolio, so I had to redo stuff in a real quick turnaround.

You can get lulled into this sense that you got all the time in the world, but they still have these rush panics on a movie. I had to hire someone to drive up to Boston during the blizzard to deliver a prop. I had to buy props seats on airplanes basically, you know, counter to counter. I had to drop everything and get on a train to Washington for National Treasure to deliver the Book of Secrets, and then I ended up working on set for five or six days. These crazy delivery things always seem to happen on the movie props.

Did it take you awhile to get used to that kind of scheduling?

Well, because I’d been a magazine illustrator for so long, rush deadlines are something I was very used to. That’s one of the first things I have to pound into the heads of the interns. It’s “this is not your professor where you can ask for another day on a project.” You cannot miss a deadline. There’s going to be a million dollars worth of equipment, fifty actors who just spent five hours in makeup and wardrobe, and two hundred other people, and they’re all going to be looking at this one spot where this prop is supposed to be tomorrow, and if that prop isn’t there, I’m done. We gotta do whatever it takes to get it there on time, and if we miss FedEx, then we gotta drive it there. We gotta fly it there, whatever. It just takes years off your life sometimes. You know what I’m talking about, I know you do.

Where do you get your interns from?

They are students from a local college. A friend of mine is now head of the illustration program at University of Western Connecticut. If he has found someone who is particularly promising or skilled or whatever, we arrange this informal internship where they come here completely on their own schedule and they work here on mostly prop projects. Usually I only let them come here for about three months.

I’ll get people at other places approaching me and saying, “hey, I want to intern with you.” And I have to say, “well, A) Thank you. and B) it’s not a paid internship. And C) You live in New Hampshire, so how the hell are you going to commute down to Connecticut?” They need to realize that unless they’re independently wealthy, it’s not really going to work. So far, this arrangement with the local college has worked out the best of anything.

Do any interns decide they want to go into props full-time?

One of my first interns, who worked on National Treasure, ended up moving out to LA and got a job doing graphics in the movie industry. He was kind of predisposed that way anyway; he was the guy who turned me onto the whole prop replicator thing and the cosplay thing; I was totally unaware of it until he told me about it. He used to make his own Batman costumes and go to these conventions, and all that kind of stuff. He did handmade, but really professional-looking, costumes and props and stuff. Like I said, he was predisposed.

There’s a lot of prop replicators trying to make The Book of Secrets…

I still get emails from these guys because I’m out there and you can find me, and I’ll respond to people. Most professional prop makers, from what I gather from these prop replicators, don’t answer them back. I’m happy to talk to these guys. They ask really smart questions. When the movie came out I got thousands of emails from people asking what’s on page 47 of the Book of Secrets. The true answer is nothing; it’s a blank page. They wrote 47 on the page and did an insert shot of it and that’s it. Why would they write anything and put it on the page? It’s a prop.

I also get a lot of people saying, “hey can you send me all the artwork for all the pages because I want to make one,” and I’m like, “you don’t want my artwork for the pages. We don’t see most of the pages in the movie, it can be anything.” That’s the fun part of doing it, not getting exactly the same thing on every page that I had. A lot of these guys get that. So there’s some really fantastic versions.

A lot of people came back and said, “I want you to make me a copy of the Book of Secrets.” And that book is so much work. It’s weeks and weeks of work to make it from scratch. There’s I think 120 extra documents in it, besides the book itself, and each one is printed on different paper; there’s handwriting on them, there’s rubber stamps on them, there’s photos stuck to backing board, and they’re all distressed in different ways. I had this store site and I put the book on there with this crazy price on it, thinking they’ll leave me alone. And of course, several people came back and said, “ok.” I’m going to take it down off the store site because even with the insane price I have on it, it’s more work than it’s worth.

Do you make extra copies of your props?

I typically make extra copies of everything. I learned that on the Alamo, because I made a whole bunch of props and then production shut down. The new prop master came back and the prop trailer was empty. Everything was gone, and I had to remake everything; I hadn’t saved anything.

It saved my ass more than once to have an extra copy of something. They’ll want more copies of a thing, or something will happen to the copy they have. If you’ve got an extra one already made, you can ship it right out. Typically if we’re going to see one thing on screen, they want at least three. If the actor’s going to do anything to it, like write in it, or tear a page out or crumple it up, they’ll want 30 copies. So if they want three copies, I make six and I keep three. If they want six copies I make ten and I keep fout. Even if it’s a complicated leather-bound book, I make extra copies.

Have you ever seen a prop in a movie or television show that you wish you had made?

I would have loved to work on the Harry Potter movies, the props in general, but especially the paper props on that are fantastic. Grand Budapest Hotel of course had great paper props, really fantastic design, it would have been really nice to work on that.

The PBS Masterpiece Mystery series Grantchester has fantastic paper props. They’re not real super hero props where it’s like some amazing old book or anything. There’s just lots and lots of paperwork. There’s newspaper clippings and folders and detectives’ files and all kinds of stuff. Every single piece is just really well done. It would have been fun to work on Downton Abbey. It seems like so many of the things where they really get it right and really spend the time are these British productions.

Sometimes I will be watching a movie and see something and just think, “oh god, that could have been so great.” One example where I was able to fix that in a way was on this Tarantino movie. There’s a brand that recurs in every one of his movies since Pulp Fiction called Red Apple cigarettes. Some of the earlier versions of that are not great. I suspect it was probably done in a huge rush. It’s just a package with a real flat apple and a kind of a goofy-looking worm coming out of it smoking a cigarette. I got to design the Red Apple Tobacco packaging for Hateful Eight. I was able to take the time and really do something that I love for it. Tarantino loves it too, he said it’s a fantastic addition to the legacy of the brand. That was pretty gratifying in a lot of ways, to have that kind of feedback from the director, and to be able to take another run at a prop that I’ve seen before.

There’s so many other movies that I would have loved to work on. A lot of times it’s not so much the paper prop, it’s the show. Cause you enjoy watching it, and seeing your work somehow makes you feel like you’re a part of something great.

Yeah, it’s great when you can collaborate on a project you enjoy.

That’s the other aspect of props. When you’re illustrating big pieces for magazines, you’re kind of the star. Movie work and television work is much more collaborative in a lot of ways.

Your prop in a show can’t be the star. It’s got to work in context with all of that other stuff that’s on screen. I know I don’t have the big picture; the director does. If he says it’s got to be a little more to the left or smaller, then I got to go on the assumption that he knows what the hell he’s talking about.

It’s all about telling a story. The actor’s not going to hold up your prop and go, “oh my god, this thing’s amazing” to the camera. The interns will come in and say, “I can’t believe it, we worked so hard on this thing, and then it’s just on screen for a split-second.” And I’m like “yeah, well, when they’re putting this thing together, they don’t linger on the scene a little longer cause we didn’t get to see that prop.”

I did several months of work on John Wick with Keanu Reeves. They initially had this back story where he goes into retirement and gets into collecting and restoring Victorian children’s books, and he becomes this world class book restorer. I actually trained Keanu in all this stuff, and they rented all of my equipment; they emptied out my shop and they put it on a set in Brooklyn. I was on set as technical adviser. They shot all these scenes for all this stuff, and none of that makes it into the movie, not one single stitch of it. You do see my stuff, because it just happens to be in his house, but there’s no explanation. But you don’t miss it at all. It’s just a great story. It would have been distracting.

It must be fun working on live theatre; it seems like it’s more immediate. You get to see your prop in rehearsal right away. With my stuff, it could be a year before I see it. You’re much more part of the process it seems like, whereas I’m just producing stuff on demand. For some things, there is a bit of back and forth with how a certain thing is working in a scene, and the way they want it shot, but most often it’s just make this thing and send it.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

Thanks a million for including me in this great thing.