Prop masters share most difficult objects they ever made

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I used to work in the film biz mostly doing commercials. I did Props and Special Effects. (this was a long time ago and before Internet).
So every job was an “odd job” but there was one that got me branded as a failure.
Job for Ponderosa Steakhouse.
Spokesperson was going to talk and there was going to be a “cowboy” in the background walking back and forth with a lasso.
My Job: Make a Lasso that ANYONE CAN USE.

I get to work and begin research. I find a Western Themed Christian Camp 4 Kids up north where you can get lessons on how to do rope tricks “from a pro”. Book it, make the drive.
When I get there I encounter a guy who looks like he came right out of Central Casting as the classic Cowboy/Rustler dude. He’s GOOD. He shows me a special stiffened rope (available at the Camp Gift Shoppe) that made it easier, but it still took some practice and the loop was only about 2ft diameter.
I spent several hours with him, learned a lot and wondered what kind of mistakes he had made in his life that caused him to end up at a Christian Cowboy Camp.
But I kept his name and contact info because he was PERFECT for this TV Commercial for the guy who walks around in the background doing rope tricks. That being said, it was NOT MY JOB to acquire the talent. My job was to make a Lasso that ANYONE could use.

Back at my shop I try several things and discard the idea of using a rope.
I get some 1/4" or 1/2" aluminum rod stock, make a big (4ft diameter) circle with it, bring the end into the center and then bend it back perpendicular to the circle. So now I am holding the axle of a wheel.
I stabilize the wheel with 3 pieces of monofilament (aka spokes).
Once I start this thing spinning, it keeps going and I can move it all around, over my head, it looks awesome, except it is aluminum.
I get some rope, unravel it, and then re-wrap it around the aluminum core. I coil up a dummy length in a loop and hold that with the spinning “axle” end. Wow, it looks real and very impressive.

I bring my "Lasso that ANYONE CAN USE" to the set where they are prepping for the next day and start showing it to people.
Everybody tries it and and everyone is having a great time because…ANYONE CAN USE IT!
Yee Haw! We’re having a great time. I go home really proud of myself and sleep well knowing that I will be a hero the next day when they actually shoot the commercial.

Next day I show up and meet the guy they cast as the background cowboy.
Casting spent at least a day weeding through headshots and doing callbacks to get “just the right look”.
I show the guy my Lasso that ANYONE CAN USE. He tries to use it.
He can’t figure it out. He can’t spin it. I get it started and he can’t keep it spinning.
He is a model. He is using to walking around and looking good. This is beyond his abilities.

All the time they spend in casting and they NEVER checked to see if he had any coordination.

Much handwringing by Producer and Ad Agency. Worried looks, arms waving as they privately discuss what to do because the LASSO THAT ANYONE COULD USE doesn’t work.

I honestly don’t remember what they ended up doing because I was so disappointed. At least I got paid.


I have an effect story from 2002, when I was living in Austin, a year after Linklater’s Waking Life, and everybody was on a DIY filmmaking kick.

I was volunteering on a short film based upon The Devil and Daniel Webster, and they were filming a coven scene at a private farm, and had rented a smoke machine that of course, wouldn’t work. No amount of fiddling could fix it.
They needed a substitute quickly, so it being a damp winter’s day, I suggested burning some leaves. At the time, there was a public burn ban in effect, so you couldn’t just build a bonfire. I asked around and the owners of the farm dragged an old Weber charcoal grill out of their barn, and I spent the next six hours building and tending a low-flame, high-smoke leaf fire on this grill upwind of the set.
I heard it looked beautiful on camera, but everyone went home smelling like a campfire.


The company I work for makes packaging mock ups. Many are used for TV commercials. The thing that always astounds is all the last minute stuff. I’m always thinking, “You scheduled the shoot, talent is lined up, craft table is taken care of and you forgot to order the product props?”

One project was for mayonaise. I had to go to the store and purchase 12 jars of Mayo. I threw in one tin of tuna just to see the expression on the cashiers face.

It is a strange business.


My best prop is my white hair and beard, I get away with murder looking like an old man.


Given that the article is, in a broad sense, about effects and the like, it would have been nice if the author had understood the difference between flare and flair (first paragraph of the article).



I would have thought getting Pee Wee’s shoes was the hard part, not getting pitchers.


Looking forward to your next visit in December!


i think he already had the shoes, from his stage show. i would think outfitting the bikers was more challenging than some pitchers and steins that would break!

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Geez, the hardest thing one guy did WHO WAS IN LA AND SHOULD KNOW WHERE TO GET STUFF was to get a shop that had the stuff in stock to open early?

I’m not from LA but I had to go there ages ago to work on an industrial film for a college that included us filming at JPL among other places. Well JPL canceled on us so they decided to film the JPL stuff in the college lobby. They turned to me and said “can we do that?” I looked around at the couches and tables and potted plants. “No problem but I need a few days “

3 days later that lobby looked like mission control.


I’d think some shop in hollywood would have tons of readily available breakaway glassware. But maybe it’s made to order? Or maybe the shapes they needed weren’t standard? I mean it must be one of those later things if it was so hard to acquire right?


yeah, i have no idea. in my completely non-knowledgeable head about such things, i would think he would just go to the studio’s prop department and say, “hey, i need breakable beer pitchers for monday” and they would check the warehouse and find some. apparently, that’s not how hollywood works. i’m so disillusioned!


The hard part wasn’t buying stuff, is was that by buying the stuff without executive permission he pissed off the suits.

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In '97 I was a video editor at a mid-sized advertising agency in Florida that did mostly automotive spots. We did some really horrible stuff.

It was around Christmas time, and the creative director came up with this horrendous idea for a car spot - have a Nutcracker doll munching on car prices as the jingle went “Price Cracker!” Yeah, it was that bad.

And, for some reason, it had to be recorded and created that day. Yes, that very day the singers had to come in to record the stupid jingle, and I had to cut this stupid spot, Nutcracker doll and all, and have it out by FedEx that evening. This insane turnaround was not unusual for reasons I’ll never understand.

It being 1997, and me working in a DigiBeta tape-to-tape room, just grabbing some image off the internet and using it was, for me, at that time, not possible.

So we sent Tape Room Guy out to buy a Nutcracker doll to photograph. But - maybe you see this coming - things did not go well.

First, let me just say, Tape Room Guy was not that bright to begin with, and I always had some issue with him. But, in this case, I will accept some of the blame for what might have been poor communication (I’ll take 14% blame).

We gave him the address of a Christmas store that had the dolls. When he got there he called and said, nope, they didn’t have anything like that. I went online and found another store that might have such a thing, and he drove over there. Once again, he reported there was no such thing.

Some time past, and it was getting to be mid-afternoon. I really needed this dumb thing to make this stupid commercial. He finally showed up and was excited, said he found one. Yeah, it was a nutcracker. Like what you crack walnuts with. But you saw that coming I’m sure.

I explained what we actually needed, the Nutcracker doll, so I can photograph it with its mouth in different positions, so I can make this thing look like it’s eating car prices. I was really questioning my career choices at this point.

He goes back out, and later that afternoon returns. He has a five foot inflatable Nutcracker doll. Yeah, an inflatable one. Ya can’t open and close the mouth of an inflatable doll. It was a clusterfuck. So, you know, business as usual.

OK, I’ll take 19% of the blame for bad communication.


“Hey, I need breakable beer pitchers for Monday.”

“Certainly, Mr Franko, sir, I’ll send out Clumsy Dave to warehouse to get our last box of them.”

Cue shot of man carrying immense box marked “Fragile - Prop Glasses (Breakable) 1 Gross” slipping on a banana skin


it’s perfect!


After college, I did a stint as modelmaker. The company I worked for did looks–like concept pieces for the toy industry— mainly Blues Clues and Fisher Price stuff.

A rush job came in to do a looks–like, works–like model of a farm playset that could fold up into something similar to a briefcase or a paintbox. I was given the task of making a telescoping grain silo that would collapse and latch in place when you pushed down on it, and would release when you pushed on it a second time. The license manager wanted it to erect itself with the kind of slow, smooth motion you used to see in cassette deck doors.

We weren’t well set up for mechanism work; in most of what we made, renshape and bondo were prominent ingredients. I tried integrating commercial catch–and–release latches, but the form factor was sub-optimal, and attempts to fabricate an indexing mechanism were thwarted by our rudimentary machine tools. Eventually I settled on a simple twist lock strategy and the lightest conical spring I could find. It sort of worked; we boxed the stupid thing up and overnighted it to New York.

I was not present for what followed, but I heard about it from someone who was there and who thought it was hilarious.

At the pitch meeting, everything that could go wrong, did. The hinges on the box fell apart, the three little pigs jammed up inside their storage pen, the fold-down barn couldn’t be made to unfold properly. The coup de grâce was my telescoping grain silo, which, unlike the recalcitrant barn, proved only too eager to deploy. It shot up violently, breaking free of the glue adhering it to the box, and landed in the hands of the license manager who was suddenly holding a sproingy 12" plastic cylinder with a bright red, domed head.

It was not my finest hour.


Oh come on. Pissing off the suits not hard at all, a trivial exercise.

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You say that like it’s a bad thing.