72 | The Wonderful World of Prop Design

Committees | April 15, 2020

And… Action! It’s midnight. In the far distance, the skyline of New York shimmers, a city the ghostbusters have to defend.

The monster they face today is a Gozer with red, gleaming eyes and womanly shapes. She crawls towards them on hands and feet in a wisp of white smoke. She hisses and unfurls her teeth. The ghostbusters hold their proton guns with determined faces and steady hands. “Let’s show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown,” Peter screams, “Strike!” Pure, crackling, bright power shoots from their proton guns, hitting the yowling Gozer with such great force she shoots into the sky.

by Susanna Osinga and Stein van Veggel | special thanks to Merlijn van de Sande and Pierre Bohanna

When you watch this scene, you don’t focus on the proton guns our four heroes hold, not really. You will look at the Gozer or the sweat pearling on Winston’s forehead. The actors, the sets, the costumes or the special effects are not easy to overlook. However, props are often the unsung heroes of movies.

Guns and umbrellas

Props. They come in every shape and size. Weapons, instruments, slightly lopsided birthday cakes, jewellery, books. Sometimes, props are so important that they even show up in the movie title: Lord of the Rings; Raiders of the Lost Ark. Props can become iconic and irreversibly connected to characters: the umbrella from Mary Poppins; the necklace from Titanic. And, in some cases, props tell just as much as words could: the spinning top from Inception; the origami unicorn from Blade Runner.

In a way, it’s great that almost no one wonders how these props were made, because they are there to provide subtle subtext. However, as designers, it might be time to take a closer look at the wonderful world of prop design. To do this, we approached two prop designers, both working in an entirely different part of the business.


Bringing the magic to life

The first prop designer that we reached out to was Pierre Bohanna. Even if you don’t know his name, you probably are familiar with some of his work. He runned departments designing and manufacturing props, models and special costumes for movies like The Dark Knight, Star Wars and Harry Potter. Bohanna started out in the business of engineering and boat building. According to him, there isn’t really a difference between designing props and designing objects for regular use. “All things come from a requirement of form and function. What you do have to do as a prop maker, is consider what the requirements are for the piece in question, in the sense of how the story tellers want to use the object in telling their story. For example, a bottle of wine is standing on a table and is featured as a scene plays out. The film is set in the 1700s and the place is in a French Chateau, so it has to match the style of the period and be in keeping. Then, it is smashed over   the head of the lead character. Now, it has to be made of a material that will break convincingly, but not do any harm to the ‘very precious, delicate and highly insured’ lead actor who’s not too keen on the idea.”

He explains that the main challenge as a prop designer is discovering what’s going on in the mind of the production managers, directors and other involved creatives. “The starting point of a movie prop is mostly a bunch of vague words in a script. Often, this leads to ‘Concept Designs’, which are rendered sketches that allow the debate of the object to be discussed and developed. This will be altered many times in the process of that development, but it is also the time when we try to influence the design to steer it in a convincing direction. We use and research many manufacturing processes to allow us to make things as genuine and as imaginative as we can.

“The starting point of a movie prop is mostly a bunch of vague words in a script.”

Once everyone is happy, a more formal technical drawing will be done to buckle down all the formal details required to manufacture the object. Classically, this would have been a pencil drawing. Now, however, it is most likely to be a CAD drawing. So, basically, the inspiration and quality comes from development and hard work, lots of hard work.”


The Stormtroopers

Take the Stormtrooper suits Bohanna designed. His team produced over one hundred of them for Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The production process of these suits was in many ways similar to the production process for regular-use objects. The designers started rendering the concept designs early on in 3D models. These models were created by scanning bodies, so the design would always be grounded in reality. This step was vital: “I have so often received designs that look cool in a posed position, but could either never exist in reality, or would never work as moving body panels. So, to be able to control that was very important.” Once they had the design signed off, they were able to use all the digital designs and information to manufacture production patterns and moulds. They could get on very quickly with making them. Bohanna decided to vacuum cast all hundred-thirty parts in pre-coloured resins to get everything looking exactly the way he wanted.


A different approach

However, not all props are created in the relatively technical way that Pierre explained. There are also many prop designers that choose to make props by hand, like Merlijn van de Sande. Merlijn is a special prop maker for several Dutch and Belgian movies, as well as series such as Rundfunk and the new feature film of Gust van den Berghe, which is still in post production. She graduated at the Dutch Film Academy in 2014 and currently works as a freelance prop designer in her studio in Amsterdam, under the name ‘Merlign Design’. She shows us around and tells us about her work.

Reading and interpreting the movie script forms the starting point for most of Merlijn’s projects. “When you, for example, have to design a scribble book for a character, you have to make sure it seamlessly corresponds with the rest of the story. Does it belong to a messy character? What kind of handwriting does this character have? Does the book get carried around all day or is it properly stored in a drawer? At what point in time does the movie take place? Those kinds of questions.” She adds that it is important to know what the prop in question will be used for. Depending on the scene, testing the props forms a big part of the process. “I am currently making rocks that will be used to stone someone. So on the one hand I have to make sure that they will be light and soft enough to not hurt the actor, but, on the other hand, I have to find out how to make them look like actual rocks when flying through the air or when hitting the actor’s face. I am currently experimenting with several materials to get the right look and feel.” She explains, with a big grin, that this process of experimenting can take some interesting turns. “At some point, I had to simulate a crow flying right into an electric fan. My colleagues crossed me in the hallway throwing black boas between the blades.”


Creating an illusion

Merlijn has a special interest in making miniatures. “Often, there simply isn’t enough time or budget to make an entire street or landscape for a movie and making a miniature version of the set will do just fine.” In contrast to Hollywood movies, movies with a smaller budget often need props on a very short term that will only be used in one particular shot. “Everything, literally everything, is fake. Sometimes, I don’t even make the backside of an object because you won’t see it in the shot anyway.”

Merlijn describes prop design as ‘creating an illusion’. She illustrates this by showing us a foam-cast flat iron that had to be thrown at someone’s head in a particular scene. “If the prop is handled this aggressively, I often make a few more in case it breaks.” We also get to see a rusty looking metal bar, which, in reality, is a painted silicon object because the actor’s task was to bend it with his bare hands. “The prop becomes significant when it belongs to a character or setting with a background story; it becomes part of the narrative. That is why a prop, on its own, might seem meaningless. The context defines its meaning.”


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