On a film set, a prop is any object handled by the actors. Its purpose could be to further the narrative, to weave in elements of time and place, or exude a particular design aesthetic. A prop master’s life is a strange obsession that involves copious research, list-making and sketchbooks, drawers full of hoarded handguns from different time periods, and at least one really large truck.
Prop masters work with directors to bring their vision to life — and with actors on a more practical basis, helping them understand how to best utilize particular items. Much of the work is constrained by time, budget, the laws of physics, and major studio contracts. Any number of things can go wrong along the way.
Every prop master has a handful of memorable projects that involved a hard-to-make or hard-to-procure object that turned out spectacular in the end. Here’s a look at some of the most difficult custom-made movie props.
Wilson – the volleyball from Cast Away (2000)
“Wilson” was a hero prop from Cast Away – meaning it was used by the film’s main character and featured prominently in the script. Where would Tom Hanks be without his only, albeit inanimate, friend on the island? Prop master Robin L. Miller contacted Wilson Sporting Goods for a product endorsement deal, but they were uninterested. Finally, one sales rep agreed to send 20 specially-made volleyballs with the “Wilson” logo on just one side from China to Fiji, so they could draw a face on the other sides. “I needed as many as I could get, because things happen to props all the time. They get wrecked. They get misplaced,” Miller recalled.
Mark Zuckerberg’s Laptops – The Social Network (2010)
Everything gets thrown away in our modern disposable culture. While you might find a 1920s typewriter someone collects, a laptop or cell phone from 2007 is nearly impossible to find. The team working on The Social Network had to sift through old photographs, determine the precise technology, locate items still in existence, and prepare themselves to have the props smashed and put back together again for David Fincher. They had a “full-time researcher” trying to get 4-6 Sony and Apple computers for each stage of the Facebook story.
Breakaway Bottles – Peewee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Paul Reubens smashing beer pitchers, glasses, and bottles in white platform shoes to the song “Tequila” is a scene that made Peewee’s Big Adventure an instant cult classic. Steven Levine was given less than 48 hours – on a weekend, no less – to find enough breakaway props to fill a whole bar. Though Levine pulled off nothing short of a miracle and arranged for a prop shop to open up early and deliver all the items by call time Monday morning, the studio was not happy that he had spent $1,000 without their approval. “They hassled me from day one till wrap. They made it so hard,” Levine said of the studio. “My training was: even if it costs the studio more money, it’s all about the director’s vision.”
The Aliens’ Box – Cocoon (1985)
In Cocoon, aliens monitored the life force of the cocoons by a dark plexiglass box filled with remote-controlled lights. It was to feature prominently in two scenes, recalls Steven Levine, who was working on his fourth film at the time. The box shipped in from an outside firm along with an operator. Director Ron Howard and the producers got a sneak peek of the box in action, and all was well. The operator went to test “one more thing” after the head honchos had left – and the flashing lights caught the box on fire! Flames shot out of the top of the box in the motel room. Though they got the fire out before firefighters arrived on the scene, the top of the box was deformed, and half of the lights were dysfunctional – all three days before it was due on set. Somehow it all worked out, but it goes to show that you can’t predict everything that can happen in the wild world of prop production.
A Floating Halfpipe Skate Ramp – California Travel and Tourism commercial
Prop masters Jerry Blohm and Graylan Franklin from Movie Prop Rentals tapped their Hollywood expertise to make pro skater Bob Burnquist’s dream of skateboarding on Lake Tahoe a reality for a California Travel and Tourism ad. “We had four days – or 300 hours – to make this unprecedented prop happen,” Blohm recalls.
They built the 7,300-pound floating ramp on-site at Obexers marina. It consisted of an 8-foot-tall wooden bank ramp, a 5-foot-tall secondary ramp, and a 36-foot-tall platform. They brought in legendary skater, builder, and tinkerer Jeff King from Fuel TV’s Built to Shred to make sure the ramp was skate-able. They needed precise angles and materials to allow enough plank speed to launch.
Even then, he wasn’t 100 percent certain it would float well. Valves were installed to prevent sinking. It needed to be stable, so they added fail-safes like 500-pound weights on each pole. “The deck was stained the night before, but we worked and polished up until the last hour.” They needed a large boat lift to get the ramp into the water and a snorkeler to retrieve Bob’s board whenever he lost it. The end result was a truly remarkable piece of work. “Bob loved it so much he wanted one for his waterfront home in Brazil,” Blohm said.
Looking for a prop? Movie Prop Rentals has a warehouse with tens of thousands of unique items. Beyond that, we have a vast network of people we can tap to find very specific requests and a 3D printing and carving studio for custom-made movie props. Contact Jerry Blohm and Graylan Franklin for details. No prop is “too hard” for our experienced crew!