Thor’s hammer, or Prop Money in Money heist. What do these two iconic items have in common? You’re probably thinking that they’re all movie props, and that’s true, but that’s not what makes them distinguished. When used properly (no pun intended), props become synonymous with the stories they tell. So, filmmakers, how do we turn objects into icons?
Why movie props matter
A prop is essentially any object that plays a part in the story. However, as Rishi points out, good movie props can become so much more. Can you think of Money Heist without visualising the piles of prop money? How about the spinning top from Inception? So how do you take a run-of-the-mill item and turn it into a meaningful symbol for your next production? Let’s look at six different ways in which you can make a simple movie prop an iconic part of your production.
1. The effect of movie props on films
When used correctly, a movie prop fits in so seamlessly with its surroundings that it becomes almost invisible. Anything that looks out of place, will immediately snap the audience out of your film. While the perfect prop can draw the audience in, or move the story forward, the wrong prop can easily shatter the illusion.
Luke’s first interaction with his father’s Lightsabre in Star Wars: A New Hope, is not only an introduction to his past but also a way to draw the audience into the world. This lightsabre, more than the dirt huts or blue milk, truly suggests a galaxy far far away.
2. Add meaning to transitions
A more cinematic approach to movie prop usage, inserts and shots that heavily feature film props not only highlight the object’s importance, but are also an opportunity to create deeper symbolic meanings. At the end of Titanic, when Rose is on the deck of the ship, she opens her hand, revealing The Heart of the Ocean.
The reveal of the heart she’s been holding on to in secret carries deeper significance by this point, and also serves as a seamless transition.
3. Make prop part of the story
Apart from being an emotive tool, a movie prop like prop money can become a character itself. The Joker burning $10 million of prop money, or the replica money in Money Heist are characters in the production. When a character has a deep emotional connection to an object, such as Thor and his hammer, the prop becomes a pivotal part of the story.
Mjölnir not only represents strength, it is Thor’s best hope for survival, and as such, is an essential part of his identity.
4. Movie props set the story in motion
A prop can reveal truth, create or solve problems, and also facilitate a character’s thoughts or actions. As a result, objects are often used to move plots forward. A simple and relatable storytelling device, some film props are so important that they put entire plots in motion.
An example of this is the pregnancy test from the opening scene of Juno. A single shot of this commonplace item sets the entire story in motion.
5. Reaction of characters to props
The way movie props are used, a character’s reaction to it, or even the actual presence of the object itself can trigger a visceral response. This sort of visual storytelling elicits an emotional reaction, and helps to set the tone of the piece.
A great example is John Travolta’s reaction to the briefcase in Pulp Fiction — it adds mystery and intrigue to the moment while effectively building tension every time it makes an appearance.
6. Movie props as themes
Beyond being functional, a film prop can communicate subtext regarding the messages and themes of a film. Suddenly, it becomes an iconic symbol that makes a statement and acts as a commentary.
The spinning top from Inception exemplifies this concept. In the film, reality and knowledge of the truth are two major recurring themes. Not only is the spinning top representative of these themes as it spins in balance ever precariously as we await its inevitable end.
The attention paid to this object, along with its underlying meanings, elevate it into icon status as it becomes synonymous with the film.
It seems to me, that by considering the functions listed above, almost anything can become a meaningful prop. However, one thing Rishi doesn’t discuss is the importance of selecting the exact right prop, which I feel is a major component of turning an object into an icon.
Do you have personal experience with movie prop selection either making or breaking a scene? What resources do you use for rare or uniquely original movie props? Let us know in the comments.
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