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Mad Props
October 18, 2009 12:24 PM   Subscribe

There was a typewriter repairman in North Hollywood, California. He couldn’t believe it when all of a sudden someone deposited 24 vintage typewriters on his doorstep and said, “Make them look new.” He probably hadn’t had that much work in the last 25 years. He was probably just about ready to hang up the “Going out of business” sign and cursing the arrival of the laptop computer when all of a sudden here I come with 24 typewriters. The Collectors Weekly interviews Scott Buckwald, propmaster for Mad Men.
posted by dersins (44 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
[the best of many previously] and [via, embarrassingly]
posted by dersins at 12:27 PM on October 18, 2009


You love these machines. These machines are dead: a love story.

(I've been waiting to link to that for almost ten years.)
posted by loquacious at 12:38 PM on October 18, 2009 [52 favorites]


Fun to see such a perfect match between a job and a person.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:43 PM on October 18, 2009


If you were born in 1987 and you and I joined hands and jumped into a time machine and went back to 1960, you would feel totally comfortable there. The cars were different. They only had seven channels on the TV as opposed to 500. The movie theaters usually only had one screen instead of 21. But the world was pretty much as it is today. People had the same hopes and desires, the same fears.

This Chevy is really cool, I'm pretty sure that it uses an integrated circuit for its FM radio. Let me just look on Wikipedia to confirm ... oh shit, wait oh God, no sweet God no. Now you're telling me that you have no clue what an IC is, that I'm just making it up, wait no, they appeared in electronics in the early 60s, I need to prove you wrong, but I can't ... let me just call up, oh that's right I don't know where my friend is, he's not at home and he told me he would be at a restaurant for how long? What was the name of it? I don't even have the number if I knew the name. These things are all familiar, I can drive the car, I can watch television but I can't really know them unless I spend hours Googling, reading reviews and researching the history. It's a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world.
posted by geoff. at 12:48 PM on October 18, 2009 [6 favorites]


From loquacious' link:

"THE LAST SUIT I WEAR HAS NO POCKETS. DO YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN?"

Oh, god, and now I'm getting teary-eyed.

don't congratulate yourself too heartily; I'm an easy mark this week.

I will have to remember this sentiment. It will help me in my ongoing, ever-failing quest to be more generous, both materially and emotionally.
posted by Elsa at 12:51 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


(I've been waiting to link to that for almost ten years.)

My god, yes - Igloowhite is an incredibly awesome writer on e2.
posted by zer0render at 12:59 PM on October 18, 2009


Machine guns, handguns, and shotguns are also props. All weapons on movies are 100% real. When you see Saving Private Ryan or a Sylvester Stallone or Schwarzenegger movie, all those weapons are real. Those are not plastic toy cap guns.

Err, no. Well, maybe for gun-centric movies like those examples they used a lot of real guns as props for authenticity. But in general, they do use real guns (or non-firing mechanical replicas) for certain close or action scenes but most of the time in the majority of shots it's going to be a rubber, resin or plastic cast. Or hand carved out of wood. Real metal guns are dangerous and heavy. In acting out a scene they can be as dangerous as a hammer being swung around and they can injure actors or crew, damage other props. Getting pistol-whipped is no fun especially if you're the lead and your face itself is insured for hell only knows how much money. There have also been a number of notable on-set accidents involving weapons firing live blanks - so they tend to use "real" guns as little as humanly possible.

For example - In Planet of the Apes they used hundreds if not thousands of wood painted rifles that were laughably cheap toys when you saw them in person. They didn't even have metal barrels or parts aside from maybe the clips for a shoulder strap. They actually used silver paint burnishing to make them look more metallic as though the bluing had worn off the black-painted wood "metal" parts on the corners. But since they're never on screen up close without tons of action and movement going on you can't tell on screen.

The same goes for Deckard's hero gun from Bladerunner. They used a fabricated, built up metal model that was based on the combination of parts from several guns including a full metal frame, but the high detail metal prop was used for closeups and close action. All those other times when he's flailing about and getting the shit kicked out of him it's a simple hard rubber cast of the metal gun, complete with rough casting bubbles and all. Because A) Rubber casts are cheap, lighter and generally safer and B) The high detail metal hero gun is expensive and fragile, and if shooting has to stop because a high detail prop gets broken or an actor gets injured that's the most expensive fuck-up of all as sometimes you're burning hundreds or thousands of expensive, unionized man-hours per hour.

Did you know that the grip-stock on Deckard's pistol is translucent? It's a sort of clear amber color. Very unusual.

If you guessed I was a total model and prop nerd when I was a kid you're right. Like a lot of kids from that era - I knew what greebles were just after when the original Star Wars came out. I did a fair amount of greebling and kit-bashing when I was a kid making plastic robots, ships and tanks and whatnot. Seriously, what self respecting killer giant robot doesn't want more missles or guns strapped on to it and some nice battle damage detailing? It's fun, like free-form Lego play with whatever you have on hand.

I didn't realize until I was much older is that a lot of prop-making is really loose and fast. There are three legs to the tripod of prop-making. Fast, cheap, and detailed. Guess which two legs of the tripod most directors focus on? Fast and cheap. Detailed is good but often overkill.

I had a friend who did a lot of foam latex application makeup and prop casting - and his casting work was mostly terrible, I thought. But apparently he was fast and cheap, so he got a lot of work on low budget B movies. Later I briefly worked in a print house in Culver City that shared a roof with a prop-making and general design group that did a lot of packaging props, vintage signage and stuff like small cast parts or whatever else they could get work on. The main dude there patiently explained for what must have been the millionth time after someone (in this case, me) said "wow, these are really rather crummy in person." "Yeah, but they need all 500 of them on set today. You won't even notice once they're on film in the background and mostly out of focus."
posted by loquacious at 1:34 PM on October 18, 2009 [30 favorites]


Thanks, dersins and loq—nice stuff!
posted by languagehat at 1:48 PM on October 18, 2009


(Er, thanks to loq for the linked love story.)
posted by languagehat at 1:48 PM on October 18, 2009


There are three legs to the tripod of prop-making. Fast, cheap, and detailed.

This is an adaptation of the three-legged foundation of filmmaking in general:

Good.
Cheap.
Fast.

You can pick any two.
posted by dersins at 1:52 PM on October 18, 2009


You love these machines. These machines are dead

That was goddamned beautiful.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:54 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is an adaptation of the three-legged foundation of filmmaking in general:

This is the the three-legged foundation of everything, except maybe heart surgery.

Loquacious, please start a blog with lots of pictures of props. I promise to read it and click on ads.
posted by device55 at 2:00 PM on October 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is an adaptation of the three-legged foundation of filmmaking in general:

This is also the three-legged foundation of software, and probably all product development, and as far as I can tell every industry and human endeavor since the dawn of Homo Sapien, and maybe earlier.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:01 PM on October 18, 2009


Yeah, it's a no brainer about good, fast or cheap - but in movies it's counter-intuitive. You'd think that they'd spend more attention to details like casting rubber guns that didn't have obvious foam and bubbles in the cracks and details, or something that was arguably less realistic then a cheap plastic kid's toy from the 99 cent store. It's the movies, right? Attention to detail and all that? But they usually don't. Film may add ten pounds or whatever, but it also takes away a LOT of detail, and this is especially true in action films or sequences where motion blur is an advantage.

They save the detail work for the detailed shots. This is something that a lot of people don't get about actually directing a film, that it's not simply about telling actors what to do or how to do it - that a huge burden of the work is prioritizing the shot setups, what really needs details, what can be left quick and dirty, how the finished product will look depending on the action levels, movement, lighting and shot style.

Granted I'm talking out of my ass (fairly accurately) as an armchair generalist interested in the arts in general and there's people much, much more qualified to talk about the role of props and their relative detail levels in different shooting styles - but they probably have jobs.

Cheap and fast trumps good in prop-making a vast majority of the time and it's really surprising how cheap and fast they'll go.
posted by loquacious at 2:21 PM on October 18, 2009


Loquacious, please start a blog with lots of pictures of props. I promise to read it and click on ads.

Eh, I've never actually worked in the industry, sorry. :) I just get around a lot. Plus I have the temporal focus of an entire herd of cats in a field of catnip. Oh, and I actually kind of hate Hollywood, which probably means I should go get a job there or something as I'd fit right in.
posted by loquacious at 2:25 PM on October 18, 2009


Plus I have the temporal focus of an entire herd of cats in a field of catnip

I would also read this blog.
posted by device55 at 2:29 PM on October 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


There are three legs to the tripod of prop-making. Fast, cheap, and detailed. Guess which two legs of the tripod most directors focus on? Fast and cheap. Detailed is good but often overkill.

This isn't just propmaking. The rule with everything in production is "Fast, Cheap, Good - Pick Two." It's just that props will almost always be asked to do fast and cheap because if props are taking forever than everything else is at a stand still, as loquacious explains, and that's pricey as hell. You would expect that those insert shots in movies of specific items or of, say, a person's desk are the quickest, cheapest and easiest ones to get. You would be wrong. They take forever for the art director to set up correctly, everything has to be high-quality in close-up, and they drive the A.C. and Script Supervisor up the wall. Thankfully at least the talent will usually be in the green room or trailer, and you don't have to run sound, but everything else about them is a pain in the ass.

I'm currently Tech Director for a stage production of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, and so I sent this thread over to our Propsmaster, for whom the 60's-era typewriters have been the biggest problem (or at least one of them). We have neither the time to find a typewriter repairman in D.C. nor the money to get them fixed (we can't even fix the sewing machine that broke down yesterday), so ours are going to look not just old, but worn. Thankfully our characters are still poor when they're using these typewriters, but I long to be back on a production that has the money to deal with details like this.

Props Department never gets enough respect. Part of that is because the most powerful people on set are the Director and the DP, and props falls under the Art Director and isn't running on the same kind of union clock that dictates the shoot. In most shoots and plays I've worked on, Props has to beg, borrow, scrounge and steal to get anything. And yet, once the script is settled and before the actors take it on, it is truly the art department who does everything you remember about a play or a film, deep in your brain.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:34 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would also read this blog.

You're reading it HEY LET'S GO RIDE BIKES IN TREES.
posted by loquacious at 2:39 PM on October 18, 2009 [6 favorites]


Props Department never gets enough respect.

That's because very, very few people watch a play, movie, or tv show[*] for the props.

[*]Exception for MythBusters.
posted by fings at 3:34 PM on October 18, 2009


If you were born in 1987 and you and I joined hands and jumped into a time machine and went back to 1960, you would feel totally comfortable there. The cars were different. They only had seven channels on the TV as opposed to 500. The movie theaters usually only had one screen instead of 21. But the world was pretty much as it is today. People had the same hopes and desires, the same fears.

Ahhhh. That sounds so restful.
posted by orange swan at 4:35 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


If you ever get the chance to look at screen-used props in person-- sometimes they show up at conventions, and sometimes even in museums-- check them out. You'll be amazed at how phony and shoddy they look once the lighting and film grain are taken away. Take the head-traps from the Saw series. On screen, they look like hideous rusty contraptions that could give you tetanus from three feet away. In real life, they're spray-painted foam.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:04 PM on October 18, 2009


Ditto Trek props - really crude close up
posted by A189Nut at 5:16 PM on October 18, 2009


I just noticed the title of the thread. It's a joke so stupid and obvious that it's hilarious. Well done.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:31 PM on October 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Ditto Trek props - really crude close up

Star trek props were crude even on screen.

Not being able to see things too closely really makes a huge difference in perception. I remember being in several plays in which, if we wanted to age an actor, we put baby powder in his or her hair. It wasn't convincing from a foot away, but on stage it looked amazingly and convincingly like gray hair to the audience and it was simple and cheap to do.
posted by orange swan at 5:38 PM on October 18, 2009


I did a stint at NCR (i.e., National Cash Register) in Easley, SC back in the 1980s.

In many ways, the company sucked and I only stayed a year. However, I learned that two types of product get a lot of engineering: anything that is man-rated (spacecraft, life support, medical) and anything that deals with money. Our stuff was the latter.

Microcontrollers were still not pervasive, and NCR had both electro-mechanical as well as processor-based hardware. The workforce had engineers that had been there for 40 years.

One old guy in particular used to kid me by reaching into his lower desk drawer and pulling out a crank. He'd say "This is what I call a backup power supply. All this new crap is great, but when the power goes out on my designs, this will let me run the store. Try that with your microcontrollers. "

The crank went in a hole on the side of the register, and when there was no motor to run its internals, you could still get everything to work manually, including the register receipts.

The internals of the old machines were like typewriters, but they had mechanical subtotal registers for product categories, all kinds of elaborate internal linkages. Remarkable stuff, all done without 3D CAD, or for that matter, 2D CAD. Designed with manually sharpened pencils, electric erasers, eraser shields, drafting boards and minds with amazing 3D skills. Wow.

This past week, a friend handed me a broken Corona typewriter from the early 1900's, that I am fixing up for her upcoming wedding. Folks are going to type their wishes for the couple on it. It's portable, and folds up.

Sweet. This old tech is sweet.
posted by FauxScot at 6:30 PM on October 18, 2009 [8 favorites]


One old guy in particular used to kid me by reaching into his lower desk drawer and pulling out a crank. He'd say "This is what I call a backup power supply. All this new crap is great, but when the power goes out on my designs, this will let me run the store. Try that with your microcontrollers. "

*reaches into scrap drawer, pulls out a motor and begins rewiring it into a generator, wires the generator to some batteries and a rectifier, attaches the crank, turns the crank vigorously for an hour to charge the batteries, wires the batteries to the "microcontrollers" and powers the energy efficient register with an LED or LCD display with a thermal printer for the rest of the day*

There you go.

That said, you can't repair a microelectronics with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver. When it breaks inside the die package it'd generally broken for good unless the damage is minor and you have a few million dollars in optics and IC/chip reverse engineering tools at hand.

And microelectronics are extremely pretty under a microscope, but you can't look at them as a layman and go "Aha! Clever!"

I don't mean to tangent away from the prop thread too much, but I suppose it's within the historical/engineering aspect of prop research...

But I don't know how in the hell people designed mechanical or electromechanical stuff like typewriters, mechanical calculators and computers and other high precision mechanical gadgets. Or, say portable tape players, or a VCR. All those insanely small, extremely precise parts interacting with each other.

I stumble far and wide all over the internet and I see a lot of computer/electronic technology and arcana - anecdotal stories like "Oh, yeah, we fixed that [computer problem] with [this random unbelievable hack]" and there's all kinds of stuff about the design and engineering of software and hardware - but I don't see the same stuff as much for mechanical devices, or say industrial process design - about how they actually solved the problems or stories about the designs and how they came up with various mechanical assemblies.

I don't see a real equivalent to computer science and it's fundamental DNA of Boolean logic or a Turing Complete Machine or other related topics, outside of basic mechanics - lever, wedge, screw, gear, spring, cam+follower and so on, which aren't exactly DNA in the same sense that Boolean logic is DNA, because there are a lot of weird, fuzzy ways to do things with mechanics and electromechanics that don't equate 1:1 with digital technology. You can replicate Boolean logic with mechanics but not all mechanics are Boolean.

Does anyone else think about future archeology? How prop-makers and historians alike will look back at our technologies and interpret them?
posted by loquacious at 7:03 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


loquacious... that would be a good hack!

two things... I've got a few old books (mostly reprints) that have mechanisms in them. Most of them were from the 1800s or thereabouts, but they show how to make various mechanical movements happen, and in aggregate, that's what all those typewriters are... vast collections of little simple mechanisms. I'm with you 100% on the 'how did they visualize all that stuff' issue. It's an obsolete form of genius, if you ask me.

Second... I keep some UVEPROM erasable microcontrollers, core memory, and silicon wafers close by to show people what tech like when naked. Very cool stuff. No one uses UVEPROM tech any more, so processors with glass windows in them are mostly gone, but I have piles of different species going a ways back. Many have hack stories to go with them. All have diminishing value ($0!) to anyone but those who appreciate the tech history that went with them all. They're like pretty little cities made of silicon.
posted by FauxScot at 7:38 PM on October 18, 2009


I love movie props! I would totally read a prop blog if you wrote one, loquacious.

One of the things I really enjoy about The Lord of the Rings movies was the incredible attention to detail on things that didn't require it, even things that would never be seen on film. The Extended Edition DVD set has some wonderful documentaries about the props and costumes.

Also, I seem to recall reading a story about this guy who made Hellboy props for his own enjoyment and, because they looked so good, was later contracted to create some for the first Hellboy film. I can't find the story on his site or anywhere else, so now I'm doubting my own memory. Anyway, his stuff is great.
posted by Fleebnork at 7:59 PM on October 18, 2009


One of the things I really enjoy about The Lord of the Rings movies was the incredible attention to detail on things that didn't require it

Right. Everything but the script.

*shakes fist* JAAAACKKKK-SOOOOOONNNNNN!
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:13 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


That's because very, very few people watch a play, movie, or tv show[*] for the props.

No, but one fake-looking or out-of-place prop can blow a reality it took years of work and hundreds of millions of dollars to create.

It's one of those jobs that is done so consistently well in Hollywood films that it's taken absolutely for granted. In fact, the amazing thing about big budget films is just how consistently outstanding all the technical aspects are.* When's the last time you heard sound that was anything other than spectacular, for just one example? The only aspect that's consistently poor is the one you can't possibly have a good film without- the script- and that's why Hollywood can't give us nice things very often.

*leaving aside the CG trend, because I don't even want to get started.
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:18 PM on October 18, 2009


Oh, geez, cheese and crackers and everything holy, I thought I had run out of dreams in my life, but by golly, to be Scott Buckwald's other assistant, that is now my dream. Recreating old packaging? I feel like I need to wipe a single tear away at just the thought that I could ever be paid for doing such a thing. Oh, sweet shivers at the story where he replicated the vintage Sara Lee packaging. Frabjous.
posted by redsparkler at 8:46 PM on October 18, 2009


Oh, and of course Couture Carrie on the Collectors Weekly blog had to go and say the exact same thing as the first comment, so now I have competition.
posted by redsparkler at 8:49 PM on October 18, 2009


There was a typewriter repairman in North Hollywood, California.

This is dying to be the first line of a hard-boiled detective story.
posted by brundlefly at 12:11 AM on October 19, 2009


There was a typewriter repairman in North Hollywood, California.

This is dying to be the first line of a hard-boiled detective story.


Or a limerick?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:58 AM on October 19, 2009


A repairman of North Hollywood
Would make broken typewriters look good
He had all kinds of skills
To make all kinds of thrills
And no, this isn't that fucking song from Dr Hook and the Medicine Show

posted by Meatbomb at 3:47 AM on October 19, 2009


Yay props! I always had a soft spot for the props on all my SM gigs -- no matter what condition the rest of the show was in, if the prop table was organized, I was calm and felt like things were finally under control. I had all sorts of crazy fun making the paper ones -- letters, maps, certificates, etc. I would actually craft letters in character rather than making them "Dear Juliet, blah blah blah blah blah, love Romeo" kinds of things. I've used rawhide jerky treats for fake bacon, I've made fake raw "chicken cutlets" out of hot glue stained with just enough paint (a set designer showed me that trick), and I once spent hours making edible business cards out of thin sheets of white chocolate.

By far the craziest show I've worked on from a prop perspective was Hair -- which, if memory serves, had vanishingly few props for most of the show, until you hit the drug trip sequence -- at which point the prop list suddenly became a page and a half long and called for things like spears and a gas can and tomahawks and machine guns. I was head of props for this one -- this was in high school, incidentally -- and I had a whole team assembled for me, and I just threw them all at the drug trip stuff and got all the other props on my own. The biggest problem I had was keeping the cast away from the big bag of random Tic-Tacs, Smarties, Sweet-Tarts, and what have you that we were using for the "drugs"; I think I finally dumped it all together into a sealed bag and labeled it "month-old Koala dung".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:13 AM on October 19, 2009


I have two IBM Correcting Selectrics. I got both of them for free; one—ironically the one that works best—was left out next to a dumpster behind an office building. I don't know if someone was just too lazy to lift it up and toss it in, or if they were hoping that someone would pick it up.

They're fascinating machines. Everything in them is driven by a single (fairly large) AC motor, which spins continuously. That's the only electric part in them; everything else is mechanical. Yet they have some features — especially the "key lock-out", which feels like a typeahead buffer (implemented using a tube of ball bearings) — that make it seem much more like using a computer or word-processor than a manual typewriter.

A few years ago I called around trying to find someone to repair the one that doesn't work quite right, and found that there are still some people around working on them. I never followed up on it, though — it's hard to justify the expense, given how rarely I use it (mostly for triplicate forms and the odd personal letter). I had a nice conversation with the repair guy on the phone, though. I should really call him up and see if he's still in business. It'd probably be worth the repair bill just to see somebody who really knows the machine work on it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:19 AM on October 19, 2009


Also, I seem to recall reading a story about this guy who made Hellboy props for his own enjoyment and, because they looked so good, was later contracted to create some for the first Hellboy film. I can't find the story on his site or anywhere else, so now I'm doubting my own memory.

Upon closer examination of the site, I found mention of this about halfway down on the photo of Mjolnir with amulets.

It was just my own tiredness and lack of attention, sorry.
posted by Fleebnork at 8:50 AM on October 19, 2009


But I don't know how in the hell people designed mechanical or electromechanical stuff like typewriters, mechanical calculators and computers and other high precision mechanical gadgets.

I feel the same way about manual (non-quartz, non-battery) watches. Watches are like integrated circuits of the mechanical world. They are the pinnacle, the utmost sublime in human engineering. Exacting by design, at times hellacious in their complexity, and very very tiny in their execution.

The greatest manual watches available on the planet are called Grand Complications. Isn't that utterly fantastic! It's not just complicated. It's complications are grand. One of the grandest of the grand is Frank Muller's 3-axis tourbillon. Here's a video of it in action. You won't believe it.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:41 PM on October 19, 2009


Er... apologies for the derail.

To make it up to you, here's the story of how a couple of fans figured out Deckard's 2019 Detective Special from Blade Runner.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:01 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Civil_Disobedient's link above is the article where I got most of my knowledge about Deckard's gun, by the way. (True fact: I'm not actually smart or anything, I just spend way too much time online absorbing useless information.)

Wait, that's not actually online any more except at the Wayback Machine? Suck. I remember that guy's posts about recreating the pulse rifle from Alien, as well. I wonder what happened?
posted by loquacious at 10:01 PM on October 19, 2009


Haha, this reminds me of when I did G&S at university.

Year 1 - set in Tudor times, meaning me stumbling around without glasses on onstage.
Year 2 - I played a Pirate in Pirates of Penzance - cue a fake stomach to hide my figure (I can't be strapped down) and a false beard that grew longer by the day.
Year 3 - my hair was too short to look like a 1950s ballroom dancer, so I got a hairpiece. That's the closest I've got to being Beyonce.
posted by mippy at 5:59 AM on October 20, 2009


Wait, that's not actually online any more except at the Wayback Machine? Suck. I remember that guy's posts about recreating the pulse rifle from Alien, as well. I wonder what happened?

Yeah, it took some digging but I'd remembered the site from several years ago—particularly because of the pulse rifle. Most definitely suck. In a hundred years I bet they'll have data archaeologists combing through wayback records to find all kinds of great-but-lost information.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:21 AM on October 21, 2009


More on the Mad Men set & set decoration.
posted by dersins at 10:30 AM on October 26, 2009


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