Tag Archives: movie

Midsummer Links Dreams

It’s opening weekend here at the Santa Fe Opera! Two of our five operas open, the first tonight, the second tomorrow. It has been quite the hectic schedule, and we still have three more operas to open before July is out. Nonetheless, there is always time to read fun articles about props; here are a few that came out this week:

In “The Art of Animatronics: How Old School Movie Magic Compliments CGI“, Jim Nash looks at how practical effects are still being used despite the pervasiveness of computer-generated imagery. He points out how the technology that controls animatronics has gotten more sophisticated over the years, and how practical effects can sometimes be preferred for budgetary reasons. And the article has pictures of dinosaurs.

As if to reiterate the points in the previous article, the Stan Winston School blog has an article about the making of the Spinosaur for Jurassic Park III. Even with the advances in CGI since the first Jurassic Park movie, the third one still built a 12-ton, 1000-horsepower “puppet” version of the Spinosaur for many of the scenes. The iconic fight scene between the Spinosaur and the Tyrannosaurus Rex was mostly achieved by having several tons of robots crashing into each other. CGI simply enhanced it.

For a step back in time, Tested has a great article on the robot shark technology in Jaws. The mechanical shark in that film arguably ushered in the age of animatronic creature movies through the 80s and 90s. It’s a great look at how the shark was made, with some nice photographs as well (it looks like the shape of the shark was achieved with plywood!).

Whew, that’s a lot of articles about animatronics for a props blog! How about something a little more prop-related: the Dremel. Make Magazine has ten tips for Dremels and rotary tools.

Why Film Prop Men Often Die In Their Youth, 1938

Today’s little chestnut first appeared in 1938. It just goes to show that the difficulties we props people have dealing with directors and actors is nothing new. If anything, it is the one thing in our line of work that has remained unchanged throughout the years.

By Frederick C. Othman.

Hollywood, July (U.P.) – The title of today’s movie story is “Why the Prop Man Went Mad.”

Abe Steinberg was the bedeviled property man, working on the set of a Twentieth Century-Fox picture called “By the Dawn’s Early Light.” Warner Baxter, Alice Faye, and Charles Winninger were the stars, while Gregory Ratoff, the Russian actor-writer, producer-director, was functioning in his fourth category.

When we arrived Steinberg was placing fruit cocktails on a dinner table in the home of the American consul in an unnamed Manchurian town. Winninger was the consul, Miss Faye was a Russian adventuress, Baxter was a roving newspaperman.

With the cocktails carefully placed on the table, the cameraman ready to go, and the performers starting to do the scene, a fly buzzed across Steinberg’s canned fruit. He ran for a spray gun and set a vapor of insecticide across the dinner table. That fixed the fly, but it didn’t appease Ratoff, who paced, and thought and frowned. Everybody was quiet while this went on. Suddenly Ratoff’s face lit up.

Not Fruit, Fish!

“That’s what’s wrong,” he said. “They didn’t have fruit cocktails in Manchuria. They have—maybe—fish. Get me some fish.”

“What kind of fish?” Steinberg wanted to know.

“Shrimp,” snapped Ratoff. “Canned shrimp.”

The property department was fresh out of canned shrimp. So was the studio restaurant. Steinberg sent out to a grocery for a couple of cans of shrimp. This took time, because the Fox lot is many a long mile from the nearest food store.

Finally Steinberg’s shrimp arrived. He dumped the fruit from the cocktail cups and filled them with shrimp. He doused the latter with ketchup and an hour and a half after the cocktail episode began, the cameras again were ready to turn.

Ratoff called his actors. Miss Faye looked at the shrimp and said:

“But I can’t eat shrimp.”

Steinberg staggered away, talking to himself.

Originally printed in The Washington Post, July 19, 1938.

May the Fourth be With You

This came through the prop managers group this past week (which got it from the stagecraft mailing list). Canadian mail-order catalogs from 1880 to 1975; like historical Sears catalogs, these are useful to see what the average Jane and Joe were buying throughout the last century and a half, making it great for period research.

The Design Observer Group has a semi-regular feature called “Accidental Mysteries”. The most recent installment features photographs and scans of antique measuring and marking tools. Other Accidental Mysteries have interesting things, such as these weekly rail passes from St Louis in the 1940s, and these punk and metal flyers from the 1980s-90s.

Chris Schwartz (of Popular Woodworking and Lost Art Press) is working on an interesting-sounding book on the “furniture of necessity”. Where the furniture of the rich and powerful is well-documented and archived, the furniture of everyday life is difficult to date and keep track of, particularly before the age of photography and mail-order catalogs. He is delving deep into research to come up with the forms of furniture that have remained unchanged for 200 years or more. It sounds like it could be potentially interesting for those prop masters and set designers who need to make period furniture for characters who couldn’t afford Chippendale chairs.

Here are a few interesting snapshots taken behind-the-scenes from the original Batman TV show (1966-68). Not much information on their provenance, but still pretty fascinating.

This site has a large number of videos, such as several different “documentaries” on various matte and miniature artists who have worked on films like Superman, Dark Crystal, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Thief of Baghdad, La Fin du Monde, The Third Man, Clash of the Titans, and The Da Vinci Code. It also has video featuring interviews of people who have worked on the FX crews of the Alien movies, and a video talking about restoring the Nostromo (the giant spaceship model) from the original Alien films. The videos are rather long and kind of all over the place; some of them have original 3D animation interspersed within the interviews. I’m not sure where the videos came from, but if you are willing to fight through the odd parts, you can pick up some interesting tidbits from the creators of some of cinema’s best visual effects.

Two Tickets to ISS

The following two videos come courtesy of The Replica Prop Forum. The host, uh, Star Wars Chick, visits the armory at Independent Studio Services. ISS is one of the major prop rental and fabrication in the Los Angeles area, and they have an especially large collection of weapons, as you can see in the videos below. Larry Zanoff, one of the armorers in the weapons department at ISS, does a great job explaining the difference between real guns and movie guns, the kind of training an armorer needs, and what kind of safety procedures they implement on set.

In part two of the video, Star fires a number of the weapons in their warehouse. I think it is important to note that while movies use real guns altered to fire blank rounds, theatres typically use block-barreled guns which were never meant to fire real ammunition.

Wesley’s Wicked Props Collection

Earlier this week, I headed down past Raleigh to tour the amazing film prop collection of Wesley Cannon. I first read about him in an article in the Raleigh News Observer; I realized it was only a few hours away, so I couldn’t pass up a chance to see some well-known props right in my own backyard. Wesley has been collecting props, costumes and puppets/animatronics for about a dozen years. In that time he has amassed a truly remarkable assortment of well-known (and some not-so-well-known) objects and items. In fact, some of his better pieces are currently on loan to several museums around the world.

A Gremlin
One of the Gremlin puppets from the 1984 film.

Besides what I have pictured here, he had a Mandrake root and several wands from the Harry Potter films, two pods from the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, many costumes from Silent Hill, even more costumes and props from Thirteen Ghosts, Wolverine’s claws, Samuel Jackson’s lightsaber from Star Wars, one of Jason’s masks from Friday the 13th, one of Freddy Krueger’s sweaters from A Nightmare on Elm Street, a monster from Feast, Jennifer Lopez’s costume from The Cell, a goblin sword from Labyrinth, lots of figures from The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, and so many other pieces from films that would take too long to list here.

Seeing stone eye glass
A "seeing stone" eye glass from the film "The Spiderwick Chronicles".

Wesley has a bunch of mannequin displays of characters from several films. What is truly amazing about these is that they combine the latex prosthetics and makeup appliances, the costumes, and some of the hand props. These elements are not just made by different people, but in many cases by completely different shops and companies, so after the film, they often scatter back to their points of origin. It makes it especially remarkable that Wesley was able to track down and reassemble so many disparate parts back into what they looked like on film.

Planet of the Apes
Bodysuit and helmet from the 2001 "Planet of the Apes"

The room itself was customized by Tom Spina Designs; they also repaired and refurbished some of the older props which had fallen into disrepair. You can see a lot of photographs of the displays they created as well as some process shots of them working on the room.

The Tree of Death
One branch from the Tree of Death from the film "300".

There is an episode of Hollywood Treasure in which they visit Wesley’s collection on YouTube (for now). Wesley also runs a company called Hollywood History in which he sells movie props, costumes and other memorabilia. He was interviewed about his company by Dan Benton of the Prop Blog a few years ago.