The Daily Heller: Giving the Prop Man His Props

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Making theatrical props is a thriving industry. Every movie, TV show and theatrical production uses props (short for “properties”). They are incidental, often quotidian, but in the current high-definition world, props can be the difference between a seamless film and one where the narrative is disrupted by anachronism. Sometimes the smallest detail, like a typeface used in a context before it was ever created, can drive diehard viewers into fits of pique.

Illustrator Ross MacDonald unintentionally became a leading actor in the prop industry, having done his share of reproduction relics, including newspapers, postage stamps, bills of sale, letterheads, book covers, matchboxes and so much more over the years since his first film title sequence for Baby’s Day Out met with acclaim.

MacDonald’s quest for extreme precision in making his props is equaled only by the intense micro-research he does in order to reproduce the correct elements (and so, avoid the humiliation of being called out by a snot-nosed typography nerd who might admonish him that Helvetica did not exist during the period covered in the film). Macdonald is in the details.

At 5 p.m. on May 12, Prop Man MacDonald will debut his book Prop Man (Princeton Architectural Press) at Rizzoli in New York City (register here). Together, MacDonald and I will have lively conversation about the intensive labor that goes into every piece to achieve the right outcome, how props have become increasingly more collectible, fetching large sums at auction, and what are his favorite props, especially “The Book of Secrets.”

“The Book of Secrets”
“Book of Secrets” documents related to Area 51, the Air Force’s top-secret base
For “Boardwalk Empire”: U.S. Passport, letterpress printed business cards, and photos created in Photoshop.
“National Treasure: Book of Secrets”: Book used in a scene to explain the search for the City of Gold.
For “The Knick”: Match box replicas.