Got to give Props - Props in film
One of the most under appreciated but also most important aspect of a film production is prop work. Props cover a wide variety of visual components but the easiest way to communicate what they are is to say that everything you see in a frame that is not an actor or some computer generated wizardy is a prop. Costumes, setting, any practical item.
Props serve many different purposes: they ground the reality of the film, they serve functional purposes, a detective won’t get far without a gun.
Arguably the most important use of prop is to communicate a characters personality, it is the difference between a character wearing a leather strap watch or a giant, shiny, piece of metal. Each says something about the individual character’s personality.
Props are important, they can make or break a character and can be supporting provocative, evocative, supporting or contradictory. They make the world of the film larger by delivering messages in visual form.The prop above is one of the most memorable of recent years. It is a device that is the protagonists sole anchor to reality. If that statement doesn’t make any sense, you really need to watch Inception.
Visual artists rely on audience members to engage with props. They allow us to bring our own personality to the film, our own logic, our own neuroses. Making for a much deeper form of entertainment.
Take a look at this use of prop in the Soderbergh drama Contagion. Spoilers to follow:
In Contagion Jude Law’s character is a member of the blogosphere who seeks to exploit the deadly virus for monetary gain. He accomplishes this by claiming to have survived the virus through use of an alternative homeopathic treatment. After having suposedly survived the virus the audience can see him wearing this makeshift anti contamination suit.
This prop is at once contradictory and revealing of character. Obviously had he survived the illness he would have no need for the suit. This tells us that he is lying, giving us once more evidence that he is dishonest and self serving.
Next we can take a look at the suit itself. It is makeshift at best, this is once again illustrative of the character. He is a blogger, unofficial, unaffiliated, unrestricted by regulation.
We can argue that the suit is ineffective. The top half of his body. Thus it is arguably rendered as much of a placebo as the pseudo scientific treatment that he is trying to promote. Thus we see the characters self deceiving nature something that is illustrated and fortified later in the film.
The closed off nature of the suit also illustrates his personal dynamic with the rest of the cast. He is out for number one. To go deeper we can also see the overinflated nature of the suit, recalling the idea of the puffed out chest and being full of hot air.
Finally we can see that regardless of the characters nature it is a personal precaution meant to protect the character from the contagion. Once again illustrating the dangerous nature of the disease and recalling a thousand separate images to the viewers mind. From nuclear contamination suits to firman helmets to the masks worn by commuters during the Sars outbreak.
As seen above props can be illustrative of personality while also evoking alternate images and reinforcing known characteristics. Lets take a look at one of the most talked about props of the year. The mask worn by Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
The mask is like most masks concealing, while also being intensely revealing. It covers the majority of Bane’s face making him seemingly inhuman and unknowable. It is also true that masks are associated with criminality, concealment of identity being a hallmark of the criminal.
And yet Banes mask is entirely distinctive and as can be seen from the narrative of The Dark Knight Rises, he is not one to hide. This contradiction is arguably troubling and frightening. Next lets take a look at the the materials of the mask. The sides look like they are made from some type of rubber polymer the rest is metal. If we compare it to the make up worn by The Joker in The Dark Knight we can see that while The Joker’s mask is arguably more natural:
Bane’s is far more industrial in build. It looks uncomfortable, it is tight and restrictive. In the case of The Joker look at how the black make up draws you to The Joker’s eyes, and the red make up emphasises his scars. Unlike The Jokers make up and coloured hair it Bane’s mask is not emphasising his features it is enveloping them but like the make up applied to Ledger the prop designers have left Hardy the use of his eyes.
If we look at the vent from which Bane speaks we can see that it is very small, a case could be made that this is a physical illustration of the mind of a terrorist. His views, his words, are restricted by an entirely irremovable destructive doctrine.
Bane’s mask is a completely separate addition, it looks heavy. Now lets go further. If we look at the tubes of the mask we can see that it is functional this is important in the later plot. The symmetry between the upper and bottom rows with gap for the vent between also recall teeth. What else features a mask like Bane’s?
Bane’s mask it can be argued gives the viewer such an uneasy feeling because of the images it provokes. Images we associate with danger. Add to this the fact that his mask recalls those worn by other legendary villains and it can be seen why this mask was such a topic of discussion.
Hannibal Lecter has been one of the most enduring screen villains since his first appearance. Compare the industrial design of his mask to Bane’s. Now take a look at arguably the most enduring villain of all time a villain that was made wholly real because of a mask and a voice.
Once again we see the patterns form. Just as the prop of Bane’s mask and arguably the choice of a distinctive voice were informed by what went before, not just Vader but Ledger too. So too we bring forward what we have learnt from life and from previous viewing to inform and increase our experience of the film and the character put forth.
There is a psychological test where people are shown innocuous ink blots. What they see in these ink blots is supposed to be illustrative of their state of mind, but what if they were actually meant to provoke certain images, certain feelings?
Arachnophobia is one of the most common fears in the world. The prop designers of The Dark Knight Rises have said have that they looked at tarantulas while designing the mask:
Now take another look at those tubes on Bane’s mask. Creepy isn’t it?
To conclude props are often unthought about, taken at face value, excuse the pun. But they are one of the aspects of mise en scene that make the medium of film so exciting. Film is a visual medium, without excellent prop designers, films would be a lot less interesting.
As for my favourite use of prop. You can find it in Memento a film about a man without the ability to form new memories who must constantly produce and reinterpret clues left by himself in order to find his wife’s killer. View the trailer here: