Tag Archives: accuracy

Prop Stories for You

Artisans Balance Historical Accuracy With Audience Expectations in Awards-Contending Films – Variety talks with the props masters on several recent period films about how they balance the desire for historical accuracy with the needs of the story. Often, an adherence to strict period detail gets in the way of the film, and the choices to veer away from it have very deliberate reasons behind them.

A Touch of Magic (& Monofilament) – Jay Duckworth and his team tackle the problem of a bookshelf that needs to fall during a scene and then be reset within a six-second blackout. Hint: it involved monofilament.

See a 94-Year-Old Sphinx Emerge From Californian Sand Dunes – Archaeologists recently dug up a life-size sphinx that has been buried since 1923. It’s from the set for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, one of the most expensive films made at that time.

A Fake-Food Maker on the Art of Creating Inedible Meals – A short article and brief video on everyone’s favorite Japanese fake food maker.

The oldest tech, theater, might be an antidote to the newest – This last article is about theater in general, not props. However, it’s an interesting perspective on how theater can become more important as technology increases, rather than becoming less relevant as many believe.

The Staging of the Picture, 1909

The following is a very early “advertorial” from an antique shop extolling the benefits of historical accuracy in the props in films:

It is astonishing to note how rarely the moving picture is accurately staged; by staging we mean correctness as regards details of scenery, dress, furniture, etc. Only the other day we saw a great picture, the scene of which was laid in a distant foreign country; and yet the furniture in an interior scene belonged to American colonial days. Now this, as we have repeatedly pointed out in these pages, is an example of what is known as a glaring anachronism. How rarely the pictures are correctly produced, correctly lighted, etc.! These reflections were suggested to our mind by an interview with Mr. S. M. Jacobi, the art director of the Genuine Antique Shop, 34 East 30th street, New York city. The Genuine Antique Shop has retained Mr. Jacobi’s services in a new capacity, which, we think, should be of great value to moving picture film makers.

Mr. Jacobi, a trained artist and authority on artistic matters generally, has had wide experience in theatrical producing, and also in supplying the furniture, dresses, costumes and accessories for notable productions. The Genuine Antique Store possesses a unique collection of very beautiful paintings, furniture, costumes and refined accessories, which it is willing to let out on hire to moving picture makers who are anxious to have their historical and other productions accurate in respect of accessories and costumes. This is a very important point, as everybody who has the smallest regard for the welfare of the moving picture must realize. At the Genuine Antique Store you see relics of the Colonial period, paneling from old chateaux in France, and even the very finest of furniture from Fraunce’s Tavern, where George Washington met his officers, so that there is a good collection from which to choose. Mr. Jacobi has given attention to the moving picture for a great many years, both in Paris and New York. Besides being an artist, he is a trained photographer, and his services are to be available for the designing of studios for moving picture work and generally in the production of the picture with regard to its accurate presentation, photographic lighting, grouping, etc. We advice all to get in touch with the Genuine Antique Shop at the address given, either by mail or, better still, by a personal visit. We feel convinced that they will come away as we did; namely, with a feeling of envy for the treasures it contains—treasures that will look good in a moving picture.

“The Staging of the Picture.” Moving Picture World Vol 4, Num 26. 26 June 1909: 18. Print.

Formal Dinner Settings

Understanding formal dining settings can be important to the prop master who strives for historical and cultural accuracy. If a play, film or television show calls for characters to dine in a formalized setting, the amount of plates, utensils and glasses involved are numerous and often not laid out in the script. Following the conventions of formal dining settings help establish the time and place and flesh out the characters (not to mention giving the actors something to do in the scene). Many audience members will recognize when proper formal dining procedures are not followed.

Below is an image of a “typical” formal dining setting. By “typical”, I mean a contemporary style used in Western/Anglo-Saxon cultural settings. It can of course vary depending on the food being served and the level of formality, as well as by cultural and regional specifics. Nonetheless, the basic style presented in the picture below is relatively standard from the Edwardian period (1901-1910) to the present.

Formal dinner setting
Formal dinner setting.

Careful research is always needed for recreating any sort of historical dinner settings. Before 1900, table settings differed much more between the countries of Western Europe, though formalized dinner settings in general have been practiced as far back as medieval times.

Precision and Cut lists

Whenever I take on a carpentry project, or a similarly precise prop, I try to get my drawings and plan as precise as possible. For the first pieces I measure and cut, I try and be accurate down to the 32nd of an inch. By the time you get to the end of a project, you will find that the imprecisions of your tools and the imperfections of the materials will give you grief in the form of gaps, overhangs, or pieces not fitting where they should. These problems should be minor enough where a little sanding, wood filler, or sheer muscle power will set everything in order. If you start off with sloppy measuring in the beginning of your project, however, these gaffes will have swelled to horrible and glaring errors by the time you’re putting the last few pieces together.

The folks over at Popular Woodworking recently posted an article about making a cut list, and they put this argument much more eloquently than I just did:

If you miss the mark on one of these numbers early on, then you set off a chain reaction, and turn the remaining parts into a row of falling dominoes. It’s easy to think that a bunch of little errors will cancel each other out, but the opposite is true. All those little errors will congregate at the most visible place on the finished piece they can find. Once there, they will hold a party to mock you.

Check out Making a Cut List Part 1 and Part 2. It has a lot of great ideas on how and when to use and develop a  cut list when building furniture pieces, whether you’re just starting in carpentry, or you’ve been at it for a few years.

Costumes and Scenery for Amateurs

From Costumes and Scenery for Amateurs, by Constance D’Arcy Mackay, 1915 (pp 93-95)

Properties and How to Make Them

Use care in the selection of your properties. Study your text. Avoid anachronisms. Do not use muskets and pipes in a scene that is laid before muskets were invented and tobacco discovered. Do not use modern lamps to light a mediaeval scene. Do not use modern musical instruments in a scene that is laid in Grecian or mediaeval times. These are some of the average mistakes. Remember that penholders and pens are a modern invention. Use quill pens and sand for plays whose scenes are laid before the early nineteenth century. Do not use clocks in Greek or early Saxon scenes. If your characters are writing or sending letters in the time when parchment was used, have the paper yellowed to look like parchment. Do not have a modem fireplace in a peasant’s home where the hearth would naturally be built of stone. Do not use modern dishes in mediaeval scenes. Buy paper plates and cover them with colored tissue paper, or paint them till they resemble the kind of platters you need. Brown will represent earthenware. Gold and silver for fairy palaces can be made by gilding them over or covering them with gold paper. Remember that forks and spoons were not in popular use in the days of Robin Hood. Fingers and knives did the required work. The hearth was used for cooking. Beware of modern cooking utensils in fairy, Puritan or Colonial scenes. “Gad- zooks” and modern coffee pots do not go together. Beware of modern frying pans for hearthstone scenes. Use iron skillets instead. A kettle for these scenes is always permissible, but if it is a peasant scene, see that it is not the too shining brass of the tea kettle of the afternoon tea table. Remember that coal fires are modern. If you are having a fairy peasant scene use wood instead. Use braziers where the scenes require it. They are always effective; and can be made by blacking a tripod washbowl, and lighting a little red fire powder in it, or some joss sticks which will give a thin blue smoke. Or a red electric bulb can be used in it if there is no spot light.

Be careful of your lighting. The Greeks had torches when they wanted a bright light, and small, bowl-shaped lamps with a wick and oil for smaller illuminations. Gold cardboard torches from which stream slashed strips of flame-colored tissue paper are safe substitutes. The Saxons and early English had rushlights and bowl lamps. A bowl that looks like earthenware, with the stub of a candle in it, will do. In mediaeval times swinging lamps and candles were for the rich; while the humble were content with tallow dips only.

Don’t use the spinning wheel before the spinning wheel was invented, just because it is decorative. Don’t use a modern glass “tumbler” for your doublet and hose hero to drink from. A cheap glass goblet covered with gold paper will look like a gold goblet.

If possible have your youthful players make their own properties. Take, for instance, a fallen tree trunk, or a log for a forest scene. It can be made by fastening together two small vinegar barrels, and covering them with green and brown burlap to represent bark and moss. Or it can be covered with brown burlap and gray lichen—real lichen fastened to it with strong glue. Such a stage property as this can be used again and again. And the boy who went to the outlying fields or suburbs to get the moss—may he not know something of nature’s secrets that he had not known before? And may not the eager quest bring him hours of entire happiness? A seventeenth-century broom can be made by tying an armful of hazel or willow switches to an old broom handle. The browner and sturdier these twigs are the better. This broom material can be gathered at the same time as the moss.

From Costumes and Scenery for Amateurs, by Constance D’Arcy Mackay, 1915 (pp 93-95)