the ‘supermarket’ where stage designers get their fake beer

Viewers don’t notice, but the sushi on American film sets is regularly made of plastic. Because even under the tenth roof, the salmon should not look spoiled. And you’ll find napkin holders made of rubber instead of metal. It’s what actors prefer to get thrown in the head during a fight scene in a ‘dinner’. All objects that actors interact with on screen are props or ‘props’. To find them, stage designers or film production directors in Hollywood flock to ‘prop houses’.

There are dozens of them in the movie city of Los Angeles. The largest is located between the horse farms and the mountains thirty kilometers north of Hollywood: Independent Studio Services (ISS). Founded in 1977 in the garage of Gregg Bilson Sr. and now supplier of the majority of props for all ongoing film projects worldwide. They work on an average of 3,300 film, television, advertising and social media productions per year. They have a collection of two million items that they sell and rent.

Hoard

“We are professional hoarders,” said Hayden, third-generation Bilson and commercial vice president of ISS Props. With his father and company president Chris listening in the background, Hayden Bilson tells me their job usually starts with reviewing the script for a movie. “We look for things that we think the producers need. For example, a scene at a university requires a lot of backpacks, bicycles and textbooks. We get that from our warehouse and send a picture of how a scene might look out. As a result, the director, sometimes with the actors, comes by to see and feel objects.”

The volleyball from ‘Castaway’ was a prop, but also a full character

Hayden Bilson prop master

Some props have iconic status among movie lovers. A prop can be inseparable from a character, such as Indiana Jones and his whip. It can tell a little more about a personality, like Jules Winnfield’s (Samuel L. Jackson) ‘Bad Mother Fucker’ purse from Pulp Fiction (1994). Or it can solve a mystery, such as what the main character of Citizen Kane (1941) means when he mutters ‘Rosebud’ on his deathbed. In fact, props are sometimes so important that they appear in the name of a film, as in The Maltese Falcon (1941). “Take out Wilson the shipwrecked. It was a volleyball, a prop, but also a full character,” Bilson added.

At ISS, they have a ‘hero room’ for their most famous props, including the ping pong bats from Forrest Gump (1994), Captain America’s shield and flamethrower from Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (2019).

“If we don’t have it, we find it. If we can’t find it, we make it our motto,” says Bilson. Finding means scouring sales and antique stores and engaging well-known partner sellers. To make props, they hire their own designers and manufacturers Cornflakes boxes, posters, magazines, you name it.

As Bilson walks past stretchers, stunt dummies and bicycles, he stops at the license plates. They make an average of 300 of these per week. They stock thousands more, organized by US state and era. “We have an extensive research department. Not only because the colors and letter and number combinations have to be right, but also to ensure that we are not using an existing license plate.” The company has a list of all combinations that have not been used and are therefore free to replicate in film.

They also work exactly the same way when a letter comes into view. The metre-long cabinets in the hall are filled with paper in different colors and types and from different ages. Their designers are constantly creating their own fonts. “In principle, you cannot use any object or design that already exists. At least if you don’t want to pay any rights over it,’ he says firmly.

Famous prop: Jules Winnfield’s (Samuel L. Jackson) ‘Bad Mother Fucker’ purse in ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994).
Photo ANP

No Heineken but Heisler

Filmmakers can buy unbranded products in the ISS’s own ‘supermarket’. Not Lay’s or Heineken, but Let’s and Heisler. Heisler is nicknamed ‘the Bud Light of fake beer’ and has been used in series and films from Stranger Things until It’s always sunny in Philadelphia. “It’s achieved a kind of cult status online,” says Bilson. “We designed it over fifteen years ago. There are whole theories on Reddit about some kind of multiverse where all the characters from all the different shows come together.”

The budget for props in film productions can reach up to 2 million dollars. For that money, Hollywood pays attention to every detail, and it is a mortal sin to cause delays during filming. “Sometimes you have 200 people on a set, including actors. It costs thousands of dollars to waste all these people’s time. As a ‘props master’, you will not be responsible for stopping a production because your things were not ready or because the food looks different than agreed,” concludes Bilson.

Therefore, a large production never has to wait for the clock to jump a minute on each take on the camera. “Of course it’s remote controlled,” he reveals.

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