Put Your Feet Up
Setting the scene from stem to stern with these growing Georgia prop houses.
How does one truly “sell” a film to an audience? There are many ways that film industry professionals can create compelling and dynamic works that tell a story, one of the most fundamental being the use of props. Short for “theatrical property,” props have been used in film, television, and theatrical productions for hundreds of years. The term first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1841. During the Renaissance, many theatrical troupes would pool resources and travel together, putting on performances in a variety of locations. Back then, many of the actors would provide their own outfits and costuming, but items such as stage weapons and furniture would belong to the troupe as a whole, hence the term “property.”
As a general rule, props are items that are used by actors in a production to set the scene and further the action. Additionally, some props go on to become motifs and carry special significance for the overall storyline, like the ring in the Lord of the Rings series. A prop can be something as innocuous as a cup of coffee, as temporary as breakaway glass, or as crucial as a “hero” prop: something that’s central to the story and specifically used by the main characters. Sometimes these hero props might include functional, moving parts or incorporate technology such as LCD screens.
While watching any performance, you can learn a lot about the characters and plot from examining the props. Perhaps they are intended to blend into the background, or maybe they convey important messages about the characters you watch. For instance, a devout religious person with sacrilegious imagery hanging on the walls of their bedroom could imply a lesser known or seldom seen side to that character.
So where do these props all come from? In many cases, it’s unrealistic to expect each production to go out and buy every item that’s needed for a film or show at cost, especially given that one crew might work on vastly different types of productions within a short amount of time. That’s where prop houses come in, offering a vast array of items available for rent. Some shops specialize while others try to offer a little bit of everything.
According to research by the Motion Picture Association of America, Georgia is quickly becoming one of the nation’s largest film and television production hubs. Statistics tell us that in 2016, the industry generated $1.7 billion in wages for over 25,000 people in the state. With an ever-increasing litany of productions coming out of the state, it comes as no surprise that prop houses are in high demand. After all, nearly every show, play, or movie needs props, and they have to stay somewhere when they are not on set.
For this feature, Oz spoke with eight of Atlanta’s top prop houses about what it’s like to work in the industry and provide the items that help directors, writers, and actors tell their stories.
Bright and Tidy and On Display
“This is a changing world every day,” explained Claire Foley, the general manager of the Atlanta branch of Bridge Furniture & Props. Indeed, the very spaces in which Foley walks every day are always changing. Their bright and tidy warehouse is located off of Interstate 75 in the Underwood Hills area, divided into sections by large shelves, packed with neatly organized items of virtually every sort. In the open floor spaces in between, carefully crafted room scenes appear ready for a production as is. Strategically placed measuring tapes can be found from aisle to aisle for the convenience of shoppers.
As prop masters rent out and reserve different items from the warehouse, Foley and her team must then come behind them to neaten and tidy the remaining items, resulting in continuously evolving miniature sets. “It’s fun,” Foley said. “It’s hard work and it’s really busy.” Founded in 2006 by Matt Hennessy in Brooklyn, New York, Bridge Props has seen continuous success in the industry. The company has since expanded to three locations: New York City, Los Angeles, and most recently, Atlanta.
“NOT JUST ATLANTA, GEORGIA IS LEARNING.”
Foley has a diverse background, with a degree in psychology from UGA and a career that includes stints in sales, retail, restaurant management, and even working on a cruise ship. It was thanks to an old co-worker who was hired to fill a senior role at the New York branch of Bridge Props that Foley was recommended for the role at their new Atlanta location. Her knowledge of managing people and caring for clients in retail and the service industry allow her to make and maintain a strong network of professionals in the area. Though she admits that sometimes she is teased by her co-workers for her Southern accent, it is precisely her genuine nature and Southern hospitality that makes her such a perfect person for the job of general manager.
As for the vibe at Bridge? Foley describes it as being professional while still keeping things real. “I’m proud of that,” she said. The prop house has contributed to productions such as MacGyver, Ozark, Star, The Walking Dead, Sully, Baywatch, and Dynasty, just to name a few. They have also stocked commercials for brands like Gold Bond, Georgia Lottery, Georgia Power, Dannon Yogurt, and have even provided props for rap music videos.
Since accepting the job two years ago, Foley has seen an increase in business not just for her shop, but in the productions that are taking place in Georgia. “It’s very word of mouth here,” she explained. “There is so much growth and there are so many new people coming to town, so I hope they get to know us.” Fortunately for Foley, the local scene is a friendly one. “Everybody tries to help everybody out,” she said.
From the outset, Hennessy’s goal has been to provide a selection of higher end items. He had been working at another prop house when he realized his dream was to start a company of his own, and thus formed Bridge. Though the three branches of Bridge carry distinctly different items, which is due to the types of productions that take place in each city, there are some overarching themes that remain constant between the locations. For example, Hennessy is an animal lover, so he included a clause in his contracts for employees that encourages them to bring their pets to work. He even built a cat hotel for strays in the New York office, and he runs an informal fostering program out of the prop house. Despite operating with a robust history of work and the proven success that Bridge has found, Foley thinks there’s still more to learn. “Not just Atlanta, Georgia is learning,” she said.
Local Inventory Strikes True
“I could not be happier to be in the Atlanta area at this exciting time,” said Dave Di Pietro, director of new products at Museum Replicas. In the prop business, it’s important to not only be accessible, but also to carry items that the customers want to rent. Having local inventory is key. “They can stop in and shop for things that they would normally have to ship in from Hollywood or other areas throughout the United States.”
Originally from the Philadelphia region, Di Pietro has found a happy home in Atlanta. “The amount of friendly, professional people we have here is quite staggering!” A filmmaker in his own right, he has worked in Super 8, 35mm, and 35mm film. Di Pietro expresses a distinct love for model building, though he fears that this role may be “a disappearing art with the current digital age.”
“A DISAPPEARING ART WITH THE CURRENT DIGITAL AGE.”
Beyond working in his preferred roles of distressing costumes and aging props, Di Pietro also writes and directs an action-packed steampunk web series called Archangel from the Winter's End Chronicles. Knowing what it’s like to be behind the camera gives him an added appreciation for the work he does supplying props at Museum Replicas. When television shows The Originals and Sleepy Hollow rented almost their entire set, Di Pietro felt a sincere appreciation for what he does. “That made me feel great, that two network TV shows found my creations exciting enough to feature them as a key set on their shows!”
Museum Replica’s selection features swords, daggers, helmets, suits of armor, costumes, and home accents, specifically within the realm of Greek, Roman, Viking, Medieval, Renaissance, and steampunk styles. The company, established in 1983 under the parent company Atlanta Cutlery, has provided sets, prop replicas, and costumes for films such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Gladiator, Braveheart, and The Lord of the Rings.
“The most important aspect for believability in film today is the ability to make that world look ‘real,’” Di Pietro said. “I still see so many historical films, especially low budget, that look like clothing just came out of the package and props that look newly store-bought. Today's movie-goers can spot this type of inconsistency.” He cites seeing the original Star Wars: A New Hope released in 1977 as being a major turning point in his own appreciation for props and staging. “It opened my imagination like no other film prior. It showed us a sci-fi world that was ‘lived in,’ which is now the norm for the industry.”
Welcome to the Lab
While all the details may not be immediately apparent, sets and props of all kinds play a crucial role in the interpretation of film and television shows. According to Robert Vanasco, the branch manager and head of sales at Alpha Props Atlanta, considering your setting is important beyond defining the atmosphere for the audience, “because it is necessary for the acting talent to believe in not only 'who' they are pretending to be, but also 'where' they are pretending to be,” he said.
Alpha Props also has three locations: LA, New York, and Atlanta. Their specialty is medical and laboratory items, and they have been in business since 1992. The Atlanta branch opened in 2014, occupying a nondescript building in East Point. The shelves are stocked to the brim with everything you could need to dress an entire hospital set. From biomedical machines to desks, computers, hospital beds, and lab equipment like beakers and centrifuges, Alpha Props stocks it all.
For Vanasco, running the shop is a natural fit. Some of his favorite films include the remake of Total Recall, the first two Alien movies, and the Matrix films. His penchant for sci-fi lends itself quite easily to the work at Alpha Props, and his experience growing up included working at Alpha during his winter and summer breaks as a teenager. He was first hired in 2000, and helped open the Atlanta branch by traveling between locations until 2015 when he moved here to run the shop full time. “I love it here!” Vanasco said when asked about the transition. “I grew up riding the waves of SoCal, so I never expected to move here, but I am glad I did. Atlanta is a beautiful city . . .and sorry to say, much cleaner and prettier than Los Angeles in my opinion.” For transplants like Vanasco, there’s much to enjoy about not only working in Georgia, but also living here as a resident. “There is such a great mix of things to do.”
Turning the Page
Not only are there things to do, there is demand for a variety of industries. “The entertainment industry is one of the reasons independent bookstores like ours are still alive and thriving,” explained Jan Bolgla who owns Atlanta Vintage Books alongside husband Bob Roarty. “Georgia tax credits have made a huge difference in our bottom line. Without book rentals and purchases to supplement our regular business, it would be much harder to keep our doors open.”
Atlanta Vintage Books has been part of the local community for 29 years, and Bolgla and Roarty purchased it in 2007. Prior to owning the store, they both had been working in other industries for many years. Bolgla had been a self-employed graphic designer for 20 years, and Roarty had managed production and estimations at printing companies of various sizes for more than 30 years. The two were ready for a change, and when Bolgla saw that Atlanta Vintage Books was for sale, they thought to themselves, “why not?” The two had always loved books and feared that passing this opportunity up might leave them with regrets, so they bought the business two months later and haven’t looked back since.
“It's always exciting to see a movie or TV show and spot our books,” said Bolgla. “We've been in everything from MacGyver and Marvel movies to biopics on Henrietta Lacks and the Unabomber. One of our favorite experiences is when someone calls ahead and asks us to pull books to fit a specific scene, like a 1930s schoolhouse, or the office of 1960s NASA scientists.” Among Vintage Books’ proudest moments is when they were asked to fill the personal library of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the 2014 film, Selma.
Despite the small size, the types and specifics of books on a shelf or desk in a production can make a huge impact in the overall work. “Not unlike a great descriptive passage in a William Faulkner book, the right props can transport us into the story,” Bolgla continued. “On the other hand, the wrong props can distract as much as a poorly written book!”
Atlanta Vintage Books stocks a wide variety of rare, vintage, and out-of- print books with subject specialties in art, architecture, photography, history, military history, Southern history, collectibles, cookbooks, aviation, nautical, railroad, radical literature, religion, metaphysics, the classics, and children’s literature. In fact, their children’s book collection is one of the largest selections of rare and out-of-print books in the Southeast. All told, the 29-year-old business stocks more than 70,000 books in their 5,000-square foot library.
Silent Details that Illuminate the World
Considering not only which items one wants to use as props, but also how used or new they ought to be, and whether or not they fit with the popular view of a character or storyline is crucial for filmmakers. “With set design, you are creating a world: a space in which the characters navigate through, guided by their intents or motivations,” explained Eric Bomba-Ire, co-owner of ATLiER Props & Design. “That world is sometimes indicative of who the characters are, sometimes what they are striving for or up against. That world can be complementary or disruptive to the characters, so furniture and props for me are the silent details that illuminate that world.”
“Good design should complement the way you want to tell your story,” added co-owner Phoebe Brown. “Your average room, even a really beautiful room, needs to be tweaked to look good on camera. Messy rooms need more mess. Clean rooms need something interesting so they don't look sterile.”
So how does one make a scene look authentic? The answer is often frustratingly simple: it needs to look used or functional. Knowing how to make something look legitimate requires an understanding of human behavior. “Even just your average bulletin board, when done in a lazy way, can be distracting,” continued Brown. “I've spent so many hours crafting good looking bulletin boards, that's one of my weird little peeves when I watch anything. I'll call out a bad background bulletin board.”
Brown and Bomba-Ire opened ATLiER just one year ago, and have had a banner first year in business. The warehouse, located just off of Fulton Industrial Boulevard, is packed wall to wall with items. In the front of the space sit a few curated small rooms. There’s a room full of African artifacts, a library complete with giant decorative animal heads protruding from the floor, and a room full of religious items and taxidermy animals. Locally made artwork decorates the hallway that leads to the warehouse space where the shelves are cluttered with items that cover a vast majority of genres and ages. You can find everything from vintage TVs and telephones to tables, desks, and lamps.
“YOUR AVERAGE ROOM, EVEN A REALLY BEAUTIFUL ROOM, NEEDS TO BE TWEAKED TO LOOK GOOD ON CAMERA."
Prior to running the shop, they both had extensive experience in the theatre and filmmaking aspects of the industry. Having grown up in Ghana by way of the Ivory Coast, Bomba-Ire has lived through a lot of political conflicts. His path eventually led him to the United States where he has pursued his love for film and turned it into a sustainable business. Heavily involved in the indie film scene of the late 90s and early 2000s, Bomba- Ire has a wealth of experience behind the camera that lends itself to a greater understanding of the importance of props. “As a matter of fact, I can’t think of anything else I had ever wanted to do but set decoration and props somewhere down the road,” he said.
Brown, on the other hand, has lived in Atlanta since 1997. Prior to that she lived in New York City, D.C., and New Orleans, originally hailing from Cape Cod. As a self-described “theater geek,” she had grown up loving film. Her design icons include Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, and she has been working in props since 2002. The two met by chance when participating in a film festival, a fortuitous meeting to be sure. “I was the production designer for Eric's 48 Hour Film Project in 2003. Who knew that almost 15 years later we'd open a prop shop!” said Brown.
Strive To Be The Best
The path to opening and running a prop house is not often linear. Such is the case for Studio Service Group, a company initially opened by president Mark Hurt in 1982 to make and sell props to museums, amusement parks, and film productions. Seeing the potential for expansion, in 2013 they began renting out their products to film and television production companies.
Keenly aware of the burgeoning film industry in Atlanta, Hurt was able to acquire the Warner Brothers Property Department and expand services in manufacturing. “We now offer property rental, prop and special effects fabrication services, as well as production and storage space rental,” explained Hurt.
Hurt grew up in Stone Mountain and worked in his father’s business building museum exhibits. “Animatronics and robotics have always been my favored focus, leading to my educational background in electro-mechanical engineering,” Hurt continued. “The fabrication arm of the business, Constructioneer, utilizes a vast array of computer controlled machinery and processes.”
Studio Service Group is located on Old Dixie Highway and occupies a sprawling warehouse. The large space carries many staples of traditional prop houses, but they set themselves apart in their comprehensive fabrication capacity. They offer services such as waterjet cutting, 3D routing, plasma cutting, laser cutting, wide format printing and cutting, and molding and casting. Hurt maintains that “filmmakers want to tell a believable story; the illusion of reality begins with the perfect visual setting.”
“Atlanta, my home for over 50 years, is a wonderful city with incredible potential. The film and television industries have recognized the opportunities available here, and are quickly growing with the support of the community,” explained Hurt. Despite the many upsides to working in the ‘Hollywood of the South,’ he admits that we have some catching up to do. “Hollywood has been making movies for over 100 years. The bar has been set high, and production companies coming to Atlanta have certain expectations.” His advice to those looking to break into the industry? “If you’re going to be in the business, strive to be the best.”
Time Is Always of the Essence
Working in props, whether on set or in a prop house, is not without its challenges. In today’s society, there is a culture of I-want-it-now mentality, a la Veruca Salt. There’s little room for error, time is always of the essence, and word of mouth is everything in this city. William “Billy” Biggar, the owner and operator at Biggar Antiques, knows this to be true from experience. “All of them are exciting,” explained Biggar about the thrill of working with productions. “They are like hurricanes; they all have their own personality.”
"THEY ALL HAVE THEIR OWN PERSONALITY.”
Biggar was born into this business, which was initially run by his parents in Buffalo, New York. They have been operating in the area since the 70s, and recently moved from their location of 47 years to a full prop warehouse. While the company began with antiques, specializing in the commercial side of the business, restaurant, and décor, they eventually got into film and provided set pieces for some of Georgia’s earlier classic films, such as Driving Miss Daisy, Heat of the Night, and Fried Green Tomatoes.
It’s a family business, and Biggar has an innate knowledge of period pieces, which is incredibly helpful for prop masters and other industry professionals. He knows that you have to pay attention to all of the details on a set, “from large pieces right down to period thermostats and electric covers.”
As a longtime resident of Georgia, Biggar is excited to see the increase in productions that are coming out of the state. “To see the steady growth and transition into the number one area for movies being filmed has been great,” explained Biggar. “I enjoy seeing the younger locals that are here and how they have grown and are now making some of the most major productions being filmed today.”
A Diverse Catalog of Abilities
Beyond fulfilling and exceeding the expectations of their clients, those who run prop houses must also maintain their props, oversee the business and financial sides of their companies, replenish their stock, and maintain accurate inventories of their items. Having a diverse catalog of abilities helps immensely in running a well rounded prop business.
Rich “RJ” Rappaport is uniquely suited for the job. He has a technical background, and has extensive experience and schooling in electronics of all sorts: computers, avionic design for the military, engineering, and medicine. Prior to landing in the film industry, Rappaport ran an industrial computer design company for many years. He is able to understand, fix, and operate virtually any electronic he comes across.
It was due to Rappaport’s love for electronics and capacity as an engineer that he found his way into the film industry. About ten years ago, he received a phone call from Bob Shelley of Bob Shelley's Special Effects studio in Fayetteville. He was in search of a specialized electronic item, something called an ‘annunciator panel,’ and asked if Rappaport had one. When he replied that he did, in fact, have the roughly $30,000 piece of equipment, Shelley was incredulous. By then rewiring the panel so that the lights would work, Rappaport was able to provide a crucial piece of equipment for a shoot the very next morning. It was his first time working with film, and the friendship he developed with Shelley has helped him expand his business into the film industry.
Today, RJR Props houses more than 30,000 items, with an emphasis on military and functional electronics. Their selection also ranges from fake money all the way up to an actual portion of an airplane and the cockpit of a fighter jet for use in film productions. “An audience wants to see captivating realistic rooms, sets, computer rooms, electronics, and working props,” explained Rappaport. He believes that props and furniture are the meat and potatoes of the film industry.
Originally hailing from Connecticut and New York, Rappaport cites his love for Blade Runner with Harrison Ford as being a turning point in his appreciation for props in film. “The script was written with incredible insight; the future had gritty realism and detail down to the tiniest minutia; the props were beyond exceptional; the sets were pure realism,” he remembers. “For me, it was exhilarating. I was hooked.”
The work is at once demanding and gratifying. Seeing a set in a film or on TV that you helped to create is a unique experience, and many of these industry professionals live for that thrill. While the hours may be long and the productions may seem few and far between at times, props are a key part of the film community. “It is cyclical,” explained Rappaport. “It’s up, and it's down, depending on the cycles of the industry.”
For those who are driven and talented it can be the most fulfilling job of your life. As with all things, success in props takes hard work and dedication. So, next time you’re watching your favorite show or movie, take a moment to observe the props within the frame. Ask yourself what they tell you about the action and those acting in it. Consider the wear on furniture, and what behavior that suggests on the part of the character. Once you start looking, you’ll realize there’s so much more to props than you noticed before.