Saturday, November 20, 2010

Get, SET, Go!

James, Wendi Lynn on "Heroes" set
Take a mental step back from the visuals when you are watching a TV or movie on screen and you'll realize that there are many moveable items that are handled or worn by the actors.

In a fantasy, scifi or super-heroes type TV series like "Lost" or "Heroes", where there are multiple storylines and sets, there is an insane number of props that are required for each scene.

Some of these props become instantly recognizable by fans, like the Dharma Initiative canned food ("Lost"), Harry Potter's magic wand, the Book of Shadows ("Charmed") and Buffy's vampire stakes.

All these props need to be planned for, organized, transported and logged by an important person on set - the Props Master. That key personnel in "Heroes" is James Clark - best known as @JamesProps on Twitter.

When "Heroes" was in production, James sent out constant and informative tweets about what was going on behind-the-scenes. His tweets, peppered with amusing short videos and photos, gave us a window to the collaborative and hard work that goes on each production day. Many of these days involved very long hours.

Remember his nostalgic video rundown of "The Wall of Death" from "Heroes" before it was torn down when the show was cancelled? Click here!

James has several years of experience in production and other than "Heroes", he has worked in shows like "Deadwood", "So NoTORIous", "American Dreams" and more recently for NBC's new series, "The Event".

I thought we should try to get to know a bit more about James other than his fantastic work in "Heroes". So I was really happy when he agreed to answer some of my trademark nosy questions for this blog!

Here's Part 1:

1. How did you get into the world of sets and "props"?

I have always been a filmie. Even as a kid I would do plays and act out shows and movies. I used to shoot videos with a VHS video camera and also a couple of Super 8 film cameras.

As far as work goes, I started at a local TV station after college and then spent about three years in Hawaii doing underwater video.  When I did finally end up in LA, I started as a PA like most.

I met a UPM/ Producer who gave me a shot as a Production coordinator on a few 1-1 1/2 million dollar independent features. I quickly found that the production office was much too far from the set for my taste and asked a friend from the Art Department  if I could do some set dressing on his next project. He did, and I started set dressing and eventually became a “On Set Dresser”.

I did this for a few years until I was asked to come on to “Deadwood” during the first season and this became my boot camp of props. I learned so much I could never list it all. Mostly, I learnt how to help my actors to feel “real” in their scenes. This has been something I use at work all the time when watching or reading a scene for the first time.

Actors don’t want to stand in a circle talking to each other they always want to be “doing” that’s how life is. That’s what makes things feel real, all the characters doing what they think they would be doing within the context of that moment.

For example, the script may say - “Billy comes in the door from a long days work.” This sounds simple enough. However, I would ask myself - What does Billy do? Does he have a briefcase? Backpack? Is the door unlocked? Does he need keys? What does he do with his coat or briefcase and keys? Should there be a hook? A bowl for keys? Does he sit? Does he go pour a drink? What kind of drink? Do I have that if they want it?

It’s never the words on the page that will throw you off... those things you knew about. Its what the actor needs once they come to set that makes them feel like they are the character they are supposed to be portraying, that you have to think about and be ready for.

2. From the time you worked in production, what kind of hard lessons have you learned through your work experience?

Director chairs are a pain in the ass. Working in this industry can take over your life. Be careful.

3. What is the weirdest type of props you had to prepare for?

Weirdest - I guess Kids and Animals. I have been fortunate to work with some great young actors and also, some who were unaware of themselves “acting”. That’s about the time they become props.

Babies need to be brought on to set and handed off a lot of the time. Their mothers and/ or teachers are always near by, but I will usually put them in the crib or try to match the blanket they are wrapped in. I also try to get them interested in the toy which were scripted as something they “can't stop playing with.” Even to the point of moving their arms off camera to get the shot. "Heroes" had lots of babies over the seasons.

Mr Muggles and Lunch

Animals always have a trainer whom I work with on set in order to make the scene come alive. Animal actors have special needs and the Props Department usually has something to do with the animal - be it a dog collar for the family pet or the saddle and rifle holster on the hero’s horse.

I love animals so it's always fun interacting with such amazing creatures. Mr. Muggles (from "Heroes") of course, is my all time Favorite Pupper!

But I have worked with everything from Ants to Oxen.

4. Where does the prop crew get most of their props? (from @IluthraDanar9)

Most props come from “Prop Houses” - large warehouses full of literally everything you can imagine. There are what we call “specialty houses” that focus on certain types of things, medical, period or historical, electronics and tech stuff.

It is a lot of fun to wander in these places. You can get lost for hours. I don’t get to spend much time in these places being on set.

Other “props” come from anywhere you can find them. Shoppers buy for character choices on personal props like watches and rings, as well as hand props for background. Like for the Carnival during the 4th season of "Heroes", there were lots of tickets balloons and popcorn boxes. But it’s the last second curveballs that get you! I’ve used my own keys and watch in a pinch.

5. Does any props hold a special place in your memory? (from @eserei27)

Yes. So many. You really get attached to them.

Helix stick in Mohinder's tank

Some are favorites because they remind me of a scene that was really great or because I really love the actor that it belongs to.

One of my favourite is HRG’s Glasses because we used to always joke whenever I hand Jack Coleman his glasses. I would say with a bow of the head in my Mock Victorian Butler accent, “Your Character Sir.” He would reply, “Yes, yes, thank you James.

Other props are meaningful because of how they came together. The stick in Mohinder’s Tank shaped like a Helix was built while the scene was being lighted. I thought the stick looked like the helix so after a few quick modifications - the first hidden helix and a great tradition was born!

6. Have you ever been worried about letting certain actors play with props because they have a reputation for breaking them/ messing them up? (from @eserei27)

Two words: Zachary Quinto


On that note, I'm highly amused that bb has butter fingers. ;) In which that actual imagery itself is kinda.... .... but I digress ...

Thanks to James for contributing all the photos used in this blog post. Check back again next week for the second part of this interview where James tells us about his "other talent"!!

And do say hi to him  on Twitter and tell him how you like his interview answers!


  1. What a fantastic interview! .... answered questions I had - thanks.

  2. Grrrreat interview :D

  3. Great interview! I love James, getting to try on HRG's glasses was one of the bst days ever!