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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Prop Masters

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Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

Whether it’s the proton packs in Ghostbusters, the sinister teacup in Get Out (2017), or one of the many unsung objects used on sets every day, prop masters are responsible for buying, making, and/or managing many of the items you see onstage or onscreen. Mental Floss spoke to several of these multi-talented (and multi-tasking) professionals from film, TV, and indie theater about what it's like to wrangle foam core, test fake drugs, and make sure the food always look fresh.

1. THEY’RE BASICALLY MACGYVER.

Prop professionals have to make or buy a wide variety of objects, often using restricted materials or a limited budget, so it’s no wonder that they have a reputation for being skilled jacks-of-all-trades. According to Joanna Tillman, a prop professional working primarily on TV shows (she was the on-set prop master for Orange Is the New Black), prop work is a great fit for the rare individual who’s “an expert at knots, firearms, cars, and making things out of tape.”

That’s particularly true on indie or low-budget productions, where a prop designer has to “look at something that’s supposed to be one thing and see something different,” Stephanie Cox-Williams, a prop and special effects/gore designer for indie theater and film, explains. Williams says she once created a race car for a theatrical production out of foam core, wires, hoses, and a Nintendo console.

On big union shoots, however, a prop master’s job can be much more specialized, which means they may not have to employ MacGyver-level skills (although they always help). Anna Butwell, an on-set and assistant prop master for film and TV productions like The Affair series, says her job is specifically focused on managing interactions between actors and props on set, or “putting props in people’s hands and really hoping that they don’t get lost, broken, or damaged.”

2. THEY ARE EXPERT SHOPPERS.

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Props for rent at History for Hire prop house in North Hollywood.
Props for rent at the History for Hire prop house in North Hollywood.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The job of a prop master often has less to do with being a mad scientist than with being a savvy shopper, and a project may involve long hours of trolling Amazon rather than hours spent in an art studio. “People think it’s this interesting journey,” Tillman says, “but instead it’s like 18 hours on eBay.”

Smart and efficient prop shopping is a skill that’s acquired over time, and much of it depends on knowing where to look. A good prop master will have a sense of whether a prop should be rented from a prop house, bought at a big box store, or scrounged from a dollar store or Goodwill.

3. JUST ONE PROP IS NOT GOING TO CUT IT.

It’s not enough for a prop person to locate just one perfect prop—they also need multiple backups. According to Hannah Rothfield, a New York-based film and TV researcher, art director, and prop master on the forthcoming Alec Baldwin movie Blind, “You should have at least three extras of any prop, because accidents happen all the time.” Props take a beating on set and get broken; mechanical props can malfunction; and props sometimes go missing. On a tight shooting schedule, considerable headache and panic can be avoided by always having a backup prop waiting in the wings.

Cox-Williams says that durability is a big issue for stage props, especially in indie theater, where the luxury of backups might not be an option. Props have to last. She describes being tasked with finding pool cues to be used in an action scene and discovering “the most expensive would not last more than a couple of hits in a fight. Therefore, the cheapest most durable prop I ever made was dowel rods and model magic painted to look like pool cues.”

4. THEY ARE VERY ORGANIZED.

Even if a production has multiple backup props, it’s still crucial to keep a careful eye on them. Prop departments on large productions maintain a system of bins and labels to keep props organized and in their correct place. Great prop masters will also sometimes try to stay a step ahead of the production in terms of anticipating unvoiced needs. Rothfield says that after going through a script and highlighting all of the props mentioned, she makes a second list of props that are not mentioned by name but that might occur in a given setting. That way, if a director or actor requests something new, she isn’t caught completely off-guard.

Surprises do happen, though. Rothfield describes an instance when an actor requested a photo album for his character during rehearsals and she had 45 minutes to compile the photos, print them, and bind them if the production was going to stay on schedule.

5. THEY BECOME EXPERTS IN WEIRD AREAS.

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Soup cans and other mid-century food and daily items at the History For Hire prop house in North Hollywood, California
Mid-century canned food and other items at the History For Hire prop house in North Hollywood
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Since props can encompass such a wide range of potential objects and time periods, prop masters often find themselves deeply immersed in a highly specific area. “A props person ends up being an expert in whatever it is they’re doing,” Tillman says. For example, while working on Mr. Robot she became familiar with how computer servers function; Nurse Jackie taught her about automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) and emergency room procedures; and Orange Is the New Black was a chance to learn about what is and isn’t considered contraband in prison and what might be considered a potential weapon.

“You have to make sure you understand [the prop] because you’re going to have to explain it to the actor,” Tillman says, “and they’re going to have more questions about it than you ever thought possible.”

6. THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR FURRY CREATURES, TOO.

Cats, dogs, and birds may not immediately come to mind when you think of props, but the prop department plays a key role in handling animal actors. Tillman explains that while union productions typically hire an animal wrangler, props is responsible for finding an animal vendor and acting as a liaison between the director, writer, and vendor.

The situation can be a bit messier on non-union productions. Tillman says that one of her first production jobs was acting as both a rabbit wrangler and a prop-maker charged with creating a fake rabbit. “I was living in a hotel in Albany with two rabbits … [and] hollowing out a rabbit’s foot [to make a prop],” she says. “The rabbits would be looking at me, and I was like ‘don’t judge me.’ It was such a weird summer.”

7. THEY MIGHT HAVE TO DO DOUBLE-DUTY AS A CHEF.

Food-focused productions with a big enough budget typically hire a food stylist to oversee on-camera eats, but in other instances, that task falls to the prop handler. Their job includes making sure that the food looks the way the director wants it to, and that there are many, many, many backups, so that the food always appears fresh on camera. One potential complication in this area: actor dietary restrictions. Rothfield describes a shoot where a vegan actor was to be depicted eating a steak, so she and her prop assistant (who fortunately happened to be an ex-sous chef) went to a vegan restaurant for a seitan steak, which they smothered in mushroom sauce.

8. THEY’RE ALSO RESPONSIBLE FOR CARS. AND FIREARMS. AND SOMETIMES BLOOD.

Stunt choreographers are called in when a scene involves a car chase or shootout, but the stunt department doesn’t usually provide the guns or cars. That’s the job of the props department—although the stunt department often adds safety structures to the items. According to Tillman, every prop person with a union card receives a weapons certification and training on safe handling of firearms, and must undergo an FBI background check to rent blank-firing weapons in NYC.

Depending on the shoot, prop masters may also be in charge of fake body parts, blood, and other fluids. And according to Tillman, props may also provide hospitality items like heaters, tents, and chairs. Once again, their versatile reputation is well-earned.

9. THEY TEST THE FAKE COCAINE THEMSELVES.

Prop master tips for creating fake cocaine and other faux drugs, like the ones used in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), seem to be a source of ongoing fascination, no matter how many times they provide their secret recipe. (Cornstarch or Vitamin B powder for cocaine, oregano or hobby store moss for marijuana, freeze-dried regular mushrooms for magic mushrooms.) “There’s all these articles describing ‘this is what fake cocaine is,’” Tillman says. “Everyone knows what fake coke is. What they don’t know is that I test it to make sure it doesn’t hurt the actor to snort.”

10. MUCH OF THEIR WORK GOES UNNOTICED.

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An employee at Bonhams auction house holds a 'Kryptonite' prop crystal from the film 'Superman III',

A Bonhams auction house employee holds a Kryptonite prop crystal from the film Superman III.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

When it comes to prop versions of common objects, a lack of attention from audience members means that the prop master has done their job correctly. Butwell says that her work generally should not be noticed “unless it’s an amazing prop, or you screwed up.”

“Props are essentially an iceberg,” she explains, “you see 10% sticking out of the water, but the 90% of the mass under the surface makes up the bulk of the material. If you see an actor drinking a beer on screen, there are probably five/six identical bottles standing by just in case. Most likely, all of these bottles had to have their real labels scraped off and fake ones put on. Someone else had to generate the graphics ... It has to be reset every take. And this is just for someone to drink a beer on screen.”

11. THEIR JOB IS NOT JUST ABOUT STUFF.

Union rules specify that a prop is any object touched by an actor, which means prop people have to think about the human side of the equation as well as how things look. They have to watch out for the safety and comfort of the actor at all times, whether that means testing cocaine or teaching actors how to use an AED. “A lot of the time you’re handing an actor something they could hurt themselves with, so you have to communicate,” Tillman says. This goes for common household items, like spray bottles of Lysol, as well as more dangerous props.

“The objects that we use in our everyday life, as soon as you put it on camera and give it to an actor it becomes the most foreign thing in the whole world. Normally people think ‘I won’t spray myself in the face,’ but the actor is doing a lot of work on their character.”

And, of course, props have little meaning outside of their relationship to an actor. “I love when you get on set and you lay out your props and the actor suddenly gets into character with it,” Rothfield says. “That’s when the prop can become a star of the film.”

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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science
How Experts Say We Should Stop a 'Zombie' Infection: Kill It With Fire
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Cs California, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Scientists are known for being pretty cautious people. But sometimes, even the most careful of us need to burn some things to the ground. Immunologists have proposed a plan to burn large swaths of parkland in an attempt to wipe out disease, as The New York Times reports. They described the problem in the journal Microbiology and Molecular Biology Reviews.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a gruesome infection that’s been destroying deer and elk herds across North America. Like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, better known as mad cow disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, CWD is caused by damaged, contagious little proteins called prions. Although it's been half a century since CWD was first discovered, scientists are still scratching their heads about how it works, how it spreads, and if, like BSE, it could someday infect humans.

Paper co-author Mark Zabel, of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, says animals with CWD fade away slowly at first, losing weight and starting to act kind of spacey. But "they’re not hard to pick out at the end stage," he told The New York Times. "They have a vacant stare, they have a stumbling gait, their heads are drooping, their ears are down, you can see thick saliva dripping from their mouths. It’s like a true zombie disease."

CWD has already been spotted in 24 U.S. states. Some herds are already 50 percent infected, and that number is only growing.

Prion illnesses often travel from one infected individual to another, but CWD’s expansion was so rapid that scientists began to suspect it had more than one way of finding new animals to attack.

Sure enough, it did. As it turns out, the CWD prion doesn’t go down with its host-animal ship. Infected animals shed the prion in their urine, feces, and drool. Long after the sick deer has died, others can still contract CWD from the leaves they eat and the grass in which they stand.

As if that’s not bad enough, CWD has another trick up its sleeve: spontaneous generation. That is, it doesn’t take much damage to twist a healthy prion into a zombifying pathogen. The illness just pops up.

There are some treatments, including immersing infected tissue in an ozone bath. But that won't help when the problem is literally smeared across the landscape. "You cannot treat half of the continental United States with ozone," Zabel said.

And so, to combat this many-pronged assault on our wildlife, Zabel and his colleagues are getting aggressive. They recommend a controlled burn of infected areas of national parks in Colorado and Arkansas—a pilot study to determine if fire will be enough.

"If you eliminate the plants that have prions on the surface, that would be a huge step forward," he said. "I really don’t think it’s that crazy."

[h/t The New York Times]

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