Art department: Building the armoury

In today’s guest post, director and art department lead Nigel Clegg writes about the experience of creating an army’s worth of weapons, devices and costumes for the web series.

The original Arms Race short film largely came about because I built the brass gatling gun, ‘Mrs Caruthers’, and then wanted to make a short film to show case it, so the props have driven the story to a large extent right from the start.  It is an odd way to put a story together, but in this case worked. When we decided to put together a web series to follow on from the original Arms Race short film we knew that props would form an important part of both the story and pre-production preparation.  To produce a steampunk project and not spend a lot of time creating props would have been a mistake, as the hardware is an integral part of the genre.

As part of the brief for the web series our scriptwriter Chris Burdett was asked to try to include at least one new steampunk device in each episode and to make sure the props were integral to the story.  As soon as the first draft of the scripts were finished the prop building started.  We had built in quite a lot of lead time into the schedule before we planned to film as there were a considerable number of props to build.  The original plan was to get several people to build different props but due to time constraints and availability I had to build the majority.

All of the prop builds started with gathering together the raw materials.  We knew what props we wanted in terms of the story and that influences their functionality, but the look and the exact details were left open.  This is largely because to maintain a Victorian look to the props we needed old brass objects to act as the focus for their construction.  I spent many weekends  going to car boot sales and flea markets to see what was available.  Car boots sales are usually very cheap but it can take a while to find the right objects.  Flea Markets often have better choice but can cost a lot more.  By being flexible for all of the prop builds it allowed me to create items based on what I could find, rather than requiring specific items to be hunted down and bought (which would have been the more expensive way of doing it).   The web series was entirely self-funded by It’s A Trap so costs were an issue throughout the production process which affected the money available for prop building.

At an early stage it was decided to film the prop building process, the main reason behind this was that it would be useful additional material to help promote the series, but in many ways has become a feature of its own.  We took a simple approach; at each step in the building process stop and film a short description of what was done and describe what the next stage would entail.  These sequences were then edited together to produce 2 – 5 min short making of videos.   Judging from the reaction from the viewers on our YouTube channel these are proving useful both to keep people interested in what we are doing but also to give people ideas for their own projects.

All of the builds and the associated filming were done in a small back garden and shed.  This is not the ideal environment, as the space was extremely limited, but did have the advantage of allowing me to work from home and in any spare moments run out to the shed to add extra layers of paints or glue the next components together.  I can only guess what the neighbours were thinking.  A workshop would have been useful, and with more space several projects could have been worked on at the same time, but with the financial and time constraints that we had that was not possible.

One of the main learning experiences in terms of props that we got from filming the Arms Race short film was that the quality of the props, especially the fine detail, should be determined by how close up that prop would be filmed.  Several rifles were constructed for the very short battle scene that we filmed for the Arms Race short film.  I spent a lot of time adding fine details to the guns and painting them, none of which you can see in the film.   This affected my decisions on how much time to put into the detailing for the new props.  A hero prop that is going to be handled and viewed close up needs more detail than background props.

We also learnt from the original short film that any workings for a complicated prop are likely to become a problem during filming.  When you least want it to stop working is precisely when it will conk out.  During the shooting of Arms Race Mrs Caruthers decided to play up: the drill battery powering the gun ran out of power (even though it had been charged up the night before) and the barrel heated up through over use and started to bend due to the heat.  Unfortunately as the prop builder it meant that I had to repair the prop, which caused problems as I was also directing the short film.  When you have only one day to get all the filming done, this can become a big problem.  To help avoid this problem for the mini-series I decided to both enlist the help of two other prop builders to be available during filming to repair any damaged props and also to make all the props as rugged as possible.

The script called for several battle scenes with extras falling repeatedly, so the props had to be tough enough to be thrown around and still be available for use later in the filming.  Most of the props survived intact, a few were broken but running repairs kept them available for use throughout the whole 9 day shoot.  I was surprised based on how much some of the props got thrown around how well they survived.   To be clear, this wasn’t misuse of the props, as to get a convincing fall or death scene the props were always going to be abused and thanks to the lessons learned from the short film, filming of the web series was not held up due to problems with the props.  As with all of our films this has been a learning process for me and I would have built some of the props differently after seeing them in use, but that is part of the fun of prop building, working out how to do it better next time.

Check out our YouTube channel for lots more behind-the-scenes prop building guides!

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