I notice things- small things. Taking the time to notice symbolism in the world can bring a great delight. In films, which mimic the real world, I believe the importance of representing the person, theme and feel of a scene through proper prop selection is essential to the overall effectiveness of the message.
A prop is a small tool in the use of telling an overall story. Some may be more essential for the script that another, but each one can tell its own story and create more depth to the overarching thread.
Though they often are subliminal messages, if the eye is trained to notice the meaning that can be deduced from a particular element or prop, appreciation for what you are taking in can be heightened.
To that end, when selecting props for a film, you want to consider some things about the character and the purpose of the prop. For example: In the short film John Gray Susie Slumber, John’s wife, uses a jam in her plain, boring oatmeal. The jam jar is clear, which allows the viewer to see the magical brilliant bright red color of the jam.
This simple jar of jam is a metaphor for Susie, this brilliant woman who is captured in a jar. She tries to add color to the world she lives in, but it gets eatten everyday. At the end of the film we notice Susie had left the bright red jam in the house when she left the forelorn world of John. We see John take it with him as he finally decides to leave the monotony himself.
The color chosen for the jam can signify many things. Red is associated with blood, the heart, passion, fire, heat or desire. I don’t believe the scene and overall story sequences would be quite as effective if the jam were light blue or peach. Knowing what the director was purposing to say about Susie and more importantly, the main character, John, determined this small detail.
Some questions to ask when selecting props:
• Who is the character this items is being used?
• What message does it convey?
• How essential is this to the film?
• What world or scene does it exist?
When taking the time to dig deep into the characters life and understand the way they make decisions and the world around them, prop selection will be far more fun and interesting for you and the viewer. Where did they shop? How do they use the item? Did they buy it or did someone else? What does the color selection say about the person in which it belongs? Was it a gift from a relative they kept because they were too frugal to buy what they really wanted? Do they care about the things they own?
In the fast-pace, often panic, of gathering props and dressings and wardrobe for a film, the reality of contemplating each prop in detail is unreasonable. Consider those key items that will be in use and how essential it is to the film. From there, allow yourself the mental energies on those items.
One mistake I made in production design was to procrastinate making the most essential prop for a film, a piece of green glass, for a film titled The Glass. Waiting till the last minute to make a clay mold and experiment with different materials caused the end result to be less than what the directors desired and certainly took the joy out of the experience.
Prop gathering and making should be fun. Delegating to art students or those who have the time and energy to focus on details while gathering or creating props is a life-saver in production design for a short-film on a tight budget. Making sure the person delegated to this task fully understands the dynamics of the character, the story and the setting will enhance their ability to locate what is needed for the film and may bring a surprise idea that surpassed the original intent.
No detail is too small to not consider.
Questions: What are your film prop secrets? What are some of your prop disasters?