… and the importance of a blank canvas to paint on.
Arriving at the location was a shock. Humongous amounts of Frankenstein’s furniture, nailed together from bizarre pieces of furniture from different time periods filled the entire place. The white walls covered with glass constructions to protect hundreds of color photos of stags and maps. Modern, glass door frames and stainless steel knobs. The place of a hoarder and mad man.
Before I could start, everything had to go. Since the place had to be returned to it’s grotesque and frightening stage after the shoot, we had to carry everything out carefully and protect it with tarpaulin.
it is key to always know what you have, where you have it and where it goes back to. Especially when you borrow items from people and museums, who gave you those items out of good will. But you also need a database that tells you what you have access to. I had no idea what the interior of the location looked like up until a few days before the shoot, so i tried to source as many pieces of furniture and props as I could, kept them in a database and new exactly what i could put where as soon as I got the chance to peak into the cottage.
I organized my props by taking photos of everything, naming the pictures and organizing them in folders named after the place where they belong.
Inside those folders, there would be organized according to the type of item.
I would take a picture with all the items from one place gathered together as reference when returning them.
Also, each physical item would have a different colored sticker on the bottom to indicate where it came from. For example a blue sticker with an “A” on it indicates that the item belongs to Achaderry estate. This limits confusion and stress when packing in in a hurry.
On a shoestring, production design becomes even more tricky. Especially for a period drama. So try and borrow or get stuff for free. If that is not possible, bargain. Always.
Car boot sales
Car boot sales can be a great way to find cheap props. One has to be careful though since unrealistic prices have become quite common when it comes to antiques. The OMNI car boot sale on Sundays is a good place to be and bargaining is the norm.
I managed to get a few props almost for half the price, just by sending the seller an offer, explaining what the item would be used for and that there is hardly any budget.
It can take a while to find something of use, but great deals can be made here.
To be avoided in order to safe money. Having said that, most antique shops offer to rent out items for a week for a deposit around and around 18% of the original price which almost always can be negotiated.
Buy new, age later.
Some items, as long as the design goes with the period, are better bought new and aged with vinegar, salt, and hydrogen peroxide. Such as Paraffin lamps, which cost a fortune when antique, but only a few pounds when bought on Amazon or Ebay. Plus a new lamp is much more likely to work.
In discussion with DoP Alan McLaughlin, we talked about earthy colors and dark woods dominating the look of the film. To make it more interesting, here is a bunch of sewing threads giving you the idea!
Another good spot for knowledgeable people, film snippets and items from rural Scotland around 1900 is of course the National Museum of Scotland. Equipped with camera, pencil and paper, I documented the items on display.
In the Highlands, I researched local museums which would display items from the time period of the film. The West Highland Museum was a good place to start and the employees at the space were keen and eager to answer my questions.
I learned about spurtles, girdles, quaichs and many more items I had never heard of before. In the later stages of my preparation, I managed to acquire them.
Before asking as many questions I could think of and noting down phone numbers, I bought more books depicting life in that area.
As soon as i received a script, I started on the breakdown and created a prop list including all the props mentioned in the script.
I started thinking about different aspects to help me chose which exact props to get:
How can I convey character through the item?
Which specific item would they have had at that point in time?
How is the item used and how would that show on the item?
Thinking about question one, I had the idea of assigning a specific type of wood to each character, so that each character’s items would be made from different, characteristic wood. Solid, aged oak to represent the history of the main character. Slender, treated but seasoned pine for the wife. Fresh, young pine for the child: A bright wood with tones of subtle red, almost mirroring his delicate skin and condition.
Question 2: Example of the matchbox safe.
I tried to do research on every object in the film, asking the question which specific item the character would have had access to and would have used. For example, I purchased a book called “what Thommie took to war”, which gives information on everything a WW1 British soldier would have used in the trenches.
When researching how and what Eoghan would smoke, I found out that WW1 soldiers would protect their precious matches with tin matchbox holders. The most common brand to deliver them to the front was Bryant and May’s. Thinking he would probably have kept this item of great use, I tracked one down on the internet and bought it.
Question 3: How is the item used and how would that show on the item?
When we think about items from 1919, rusty, scratched antiques come to mind. However, one has to keep in mind that those items were a great deal more new and better kept then they are now. People will look at your props and might say “I think that looks too new for that time!”, but they were new at that time and people looked after them. So one has to investigate what signs of use the specific objects would actually show. For example, I tracked down a traditional potato dipper which looks in good condition. However, after the meal was finished, the children back then would grab the dipper, scratch through the cooking pot and nibble the crusty potato remnants from it. So the sign of use was actually just tiny teeth marks on the edge of the dipper.