Mad Props to You

Mad Props to You

By Katie Conlon

So often when I am shooting in a live setting, people who need to pass will attempt to duck under the camera lens or walk around me.  Unbeknownst to them, I've been locked and loaded waiting for someone to cross, gifting me with a nice camera wipe.

Just as you want your action to be natural, you must also ensure that your set (or setting) is natural, too. 

Photo by Reinpost | CC BY-SA 3.0

Set dressing and props serve several purposes:

  1. Establish the tone and character of a setting
  2. Provide context for and flesh out your human characters
  3. Provide actors realistic elements with which to interplay during a scene
  4. Provide lighting directors and cinematographers objects through which to shoot/light
  5. Provide opportunities for cutaways
  6. Create a natural sound environment -- absorbing or deflecting noise in a scene, as desired

It certainly seems like obvious advice to 'make your setting realistic', but it is surprising how often that gets overlooked. It can really show the difference between an amateur and professional production. Filmmakers often obsess about technical details -- camera operation, lighting, sound -- as well they should. But one must not overlook the nuance that a well-dressed set can offer.

ANECDOTE ALERT: One time, while shooting a television series episode (murder mystery), a plot hurdle arose.  A main character was meant to find her lost diary, which had been absconded for malicious purpose. Filming halted, while on set the director fretted about how to get to that discovery.  I discreetly approached him and mentioned that there was a letter opener in the desk drawer (set dressing), and that we had postal mail in the prop truck. I coyly suggested that the character could have just entered the house with said mail and gone to the desk drawer for said letter opener, when viola! the stolen diary.  The director was well pleased with this idea, and filming continued.

Your cinematographer will kiss you on the mouth if in a commercial kitchen scene you place a bunch of hanging utensils for her to shoot through while tracking. A gentle clanging of the utensils during the tracking could make an interest sound element. Of course, the sound person will punch you in the mouth if they move during dialogue.  So keep the lip balm handy, either way.  And who doesn't love a nice, long shadow that a strategically-placed item can cast -- whether for aesthetic interest or to imply something more mysterious (is it a plant, is it a person, is it Voldermort?).

Set dressing and props add much value to a scene, and can be achieved even on a small budget. After all, everyone has items in their own home, and also...thrift shops. Specialty props can be leased from a prop house or vintage/antique shop, if you have that nearby option.

A few tips:

  1. Always, always make sure prop food is clean and edible. (If there is set dressing food -- such as bowl of fruit -- be sure to have fresh fruit on hand in case the actor wants to eat from that in a scene.) Many actors will actually eat and swallow the food take after take, while others will want to spit it out after each take. So, ready the spittoon and have plenty of fresh food on hand.  

ANECDOTE ALERT: Once on the set of "Matlock", Andy Griffith ate scrambled eggs for many takes -- even though he hated eggs. Method, man.

  1. If actors bring props onto the set, be sure to confiscate them after shooting that scene, and then send the prop buyer out to buy it in triplicate.
  1. The zippered, lockable bank money pouches make great storage for small, personal characters props (rings, watches, pens, badges, etc.). You can string them together and lock them up on set with a bicycle cable, if necessary. Label each pouch with the character's name, and always return those prop items to the bags immediately after removing them from the actor. Work out with the wardrobe folks which department will be responsible for managing those items.
  1. Have a good variety of tapes on hand -- duct tape, camera tape, masking tape. Great for mending, masking, and securing. Have a hung photo kicking up an undesired reflection or flare?  Make a masking tape ball and place it behind the picture frame to adjust the glare. 
  1. Never use guns on set of any kind without a trained weapons specialist, and never underestimate the danger of blank 'bullets' (see "The Crow"). Also, when using "danger sounds", be sure to inform law enforcement and local businesses/residents of your use and safety precautions beforehand.
  1. Make surfaces washable. Sets and props suffer a lot of abuse during filming -- by equipment, crew, and scene action. Maintain control on continuity. You could quickly wipe down a soiled floor, but you won't have the luxury of waiting for paint to dry.  

ANECDOTE ALERT: On a feature film, we were shooting a fight scene in a scientific laboratory, where the floor was gray. Even after a single take, the floor was filthy dirty. For continuity, it needed to be pristine at the beginning of each take. (Sadly, this was noticed in dailies, and we had to re-shoot scenes.) Problem was that the set floor had merely been painted gray with water-based paint. Cleaning it with water wouldn't work, and there wasn't time to repaint it and let it dry. I used a light sandpaper to remove as much dirt as possible, and used a set of grayscale chalks (garden variety art supplies) to touch up nicks and scratches. Sharpies are great for touch ups, too. Have on hand at least one of every color you can find, including the metallic colors.

  1. Take good continuity photos! Cannot be overstated.

Any set dressing or prop tips you'd like to share?

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