Tag Archives: film

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.

A Special Tuesday Props Links

You may have noticed these posts have gotten a bit sporadic lately.  I’m not busier than before, but my mornings have become much less predictable, which is when I do most of my writing. I should be getting back on track soon as I adapt to my new life.

From Goodwill to Home Depot: Where the Guthrie Theater gets its props – Fantastic little article about Rebecca Jo Malmstrom, the Guthrie’s props shopper and fabricator. It’s always nice to see the different roles and in a props shop get some attention.

R is for Robot – Cinefex blog takes a look at the history of robots on film, from early costumes and stop motion, to today’s marriage of motion-capture and CGI.

30 Days Until Halloween: The Home and Family Yard Design – Though we’re already halfway through October, it’s not too late to catch up with Dave Lowe’s Halloween project. Every year, he creates a massive outdoor Halloween display for the Hallmark Channel’s Home and Family show, filled with dozens of handmade props.

They Don’t Make Theatre Sets Like they Used To – MessyNessy talks about when shows used to have hundreds of props, and has pictures to prove it. I think we can still find contemporary examples of set designs with intricate detail and an antique’s store worth of dressing, although none of it comes close to the Hippodrome in the early twentieth century.

Fit Irregular (Impossible!) Shapes with ‘Ticking Sticks’ – This is a ridiculously useful trick that I wish I had known sooner. It’s kind of hard to explain, but if you check out the pictures, you can see exactly what a “ticking stick” does.

Greatest Prop Links of the Day

The 100 Greatest Props in Movie History, and the Stories Behind Them – Thrillist has put together a list of the hundred greatest movie props ever, at least from American films. What sets this list off from others is they contacted prop masters and other people who worked on the films, so you get one hundred stories about great props and where they came from.

20 Years of the 501st Legion: How The Star Wars Costuming Group Became a Force For Good – The 501st is a worldwide group of amateur cosplayers who dress up in screen-accurate Stormtrooper costumes. For their twentieth anniversary, SyFy tells the story of how they got started and what they’ve grown into.

Best Theatre Cities in the U.S. – If you are wondering where to move to find those sweet, sweet jobs in theater, Paste Magazine has compiled a list of nine cities (outside of New York) with a thriving theater scene. I’ve lived and worked in two of these. Do you agree with the list?

Crafting Adventure Time’s Enchiridion as an Ode to Medieval Book Making – Make Magazine points us to this fantastical book created from scratch by Elder Props. It’s got sculpting, it’s got casting, it’s got distressing, it’s got everything!

Friday’s Favorite Prop Links

From bloodied volleyballs to memory loss neuralyzers: designers’ favourite film props – A number of designers in the graphics, architecture, and advertising world talk about their favorite prop from a movie. It’s an interesting look at the design of iconic props from the perspective of those in design fields outside of film and performing arts.

Stranger Things VFX Supervisor on Making Monster Mayhem – This interview with Marc Kolbe, supervisor of the visual effects team, delves into the bizarre and unique world of Stranger Things. As with many visual effects teams these days, Marc is in charge of both the practical and digital effects, which allows him to use both to their full advantage and have them play off each other.

My Career as a Freelance Prop Maker – Melanie Wing has been a freelance prop maker in the UK for the past 12 years. In this interview, she talks about her training and how her career began.

Replica ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ car stolen from theater supply company – A TO Z Theatrical Supply and Service in Kansas City built a replica of this iconic vehicle to rent out to high schools and community theatres who perform this show. It was stolen from their warehouse last week. So if you see this car flying through the air, let them know.

How Expensive Properties are Made, 1914

The following comes from a 1914 issue of Popular Electricity and Modern Mechanics:

How Expensive Properties are Made

As an illustration of the rapid strides made during the last few years in the production of motion pictures, a sight-seeing trip through the Universal Company’s studios in California uncovers the fact that twenty-five classes of skilled artisans are at present employed in making the properties for a feature film production. It is stated on good authority that half of the expense in producing pictures of the pageant type is incurred before the actual staging of the drama begins. Upon the screen the spectator sees armies in conflict, reproductions of ancient cities wrecked solely for a camera spectacle, streets of forgotten cities swarming with people costumed in conformity with historical record and all properly fitted out with the accouterments of war and habiliments of peace.

But behind all these shows of pageantry is a large corps of technical experts, craftsmen, mechanics and workmen who transfer these pictures of ancient life from historical records and cuts to so many replicas of the things themselves. General knowledge is all but useless in such productions. When the multiple reel production of “Damon and Pythias” was planned, every detail of scenery and of properties was not only planned and designed upon paper, but everything was modelled in miniature. A replica of the stadium was made of pasteboard. The interiors and exteriors of houses were modeled. Every property was brought down to a definite basis when it was put to the two tests of historical accuracy and adaptability to the camera. During this stage of the work the drafting and the designing rooms had the appearance of a toy shop and would have brought delight to the heart of any child.

Making Properties for a Feature
Making Properties for a Feature

Specifications completed, blue-print designs and colored models were distributed to the various workshops. Helmets, greaves, shields, javelins, breast-plates, short-swords and the smaller household articles were manufactured in the papier-mache department. This work requires considerable time and only expert labor can handle it. The papier-mache department was busy for three months in manufacturing some of the properties for “Damon and Pythias” alone.

Twelve extra seamstresses were employed in the costume department for two months and aside from costumes for the principles, complete outfits were made for five hundred soldiers.

On the company’s ranch, situated in the San Fernando valley, Greek streets, detached dwellings and a stadium grew up and assumed shape and color within a month after the first ground was turned.

The joining and carpenter shops were busy with the wooden properties and frame-work for the large pieces of scenery. Twenty-five chariots were turned out within a period of two weeks. The carpenters work completed, the properties are turned over to the scene painters and decorators, and where iron work was required, to blacksmiths and ironworkers.

In many scenes of this production it was necessary that large pieces of statuary be in evidence. This statuary was made in the company’s shops and only skilled alabaster workers could even attempt the work.

Shops for the manufacture of all description of properties used in motion pictures are something new in the industry. Not longer than two years ago, when a big production was to be made, as few properties as possible were manufactured on account of the extra expense of this work. In those days all properties that could be obtained were rented and the others were improvised.

Thus the advance in this branch of the industry can be appreciated when the fact is brought forth that every property with one exception for the “Damon and Pythias” production was manufactured in the company’s shops. The ancient sets of harness to be used with the chariots was manufactured outside the company’s shops.

“How Expensive Properties Are Made.” Popular Electricity and Modern Mechanics. Ed. Austin C. Lescarboura. Vol. 29. New York: Modern, 1914. 153-55. Google Books. 11 Dec. 2008. Web. 24 May 2017. <https://books.google.com/books?id=1_HNAAAAMAAJ>.