Thursday, August 26, 2010

FILMMAKING: Props and Where to Get Them Cheap

When you are going to shoot your film you are going to need props. You might need something from the 1970's, or maybe a military item, uniform, or weapons. Maybe you need garage equipment that looks like it has a lot of use on it. What about old family pictures or vintage pictures of people that might be of a historical reference in your story? Do you need something you can get cheap because you are going to destroy it in your film? Whatever you need there is a one stop place where you will likely find it. Maybe not this week but maybe next week. I am talking about the large, permanent flea markets!

For my short film, Musclin', I need a pair of vintage glasses from the 1920's. How much would you expect to pay for a rare item such as this? I got two pair of these glasses, in their original cases, for $12.

I also needed a vintage pad lock. At the same flea market I got an attractive, vintage lock with it's key, and functioning perfectly, for $4.

I have been going to a few flea markets for a few years now and I am amazed at what I find, as well as how much things can be had for. Oddly enough it wasn't until recently that I thought of thinking of these flea markets as storage houses for movie props. You can find amazing items, some real junk, and also a lot of memories from your childhood. Sometimes, depending on your needs, that real junk can be the most valuable gold for your movie.

Need a real rotary table-top phone? $12, and it works. How about some lamps and knick knacks for room ambiance? If you need military medals for your film they are at the flea market. Maybe you need a computer and monitor to beat with a baseball bat. You can find them cheap enough at the flea market.

Almost anything you may need for your film can be found at the flea markets. Here's a list of some more jewels I have seen:

  • Used shovels, pitch forks, spades, rakes, and post hole diggers.
  • Lamps, flashlights of all eras, lanterns, fixtures, and ornate chandeliers.
  • Board games, slot machines, pinball machines, tennis rackets, and golf ball returners.
  • Bicycles, exercise equipment, skateboards, roller skates, and treadmills.
  • Fishing poles, tackle boxes, fishing nets, anchors, life jackets, and boat seats.
  • Costume jewelry, custom jewelry, vintage jewelry, hats, purses, and stoles.
  • Boom boxes, receivers, DVD players, VCR's, Betamax, and Commadore 64 computers.
  • Cell phones, walkie talkies, mobile CB's, CB base stations, and CB antennas.
  • Pocket knives, hunting knives, swords, machetes, throwing stars, and throwing knives.
  • Rifles, shotguns, semi-auto pistols, revolvers, scopes, crossbows, long and compound bows.
  • Erector set, Lincoln logs, hot wheel track, cases, and cars, vintage trains and accessories.
This list is pretty long but only scratches the surface of what you can find at a flea market. Most likely, whatever you need for a prop for your film, you can find it there.

If you need military items another great source for them are gun shows which are held periodically at local fairgrounds and other locations. Sometimes it will be a gun and knife show. Here you can usually find some of your weapon needs. I am not advocating the use of real, functional guns, but you can also find guns that will never function properly again and use them for props, and buy them at a greatly reduced price. You can find all kinds of gun scopes to give your prop gun just the right look. You can even buy pieces of guns to be used as "something technical" in some other prop you may make for your movie. I got a set of real, wood, original Mauser C96 pistol grips to use on my die cast replica I have of this gun which I used to make a Han Solo DL-44 blaster from the original Star Wars movie. The original grips on the replica gun are plastic.
Another source of gun props are what are commonly referred to as "Air Soft" guns. These are plastic guns which shoot 6 mm plastic BB's. Many of these guns reproduce the look of the real gun exactly. I am using a Walther P99 version of the plastic BB gun and it looks identical to the real thing! It needed painting in order to make it not look like plastic, but otherwise all of the features of the real gun are accurately reproduced in this "toy."

For yet another source of movie props I recommend Estate Sales. Look to see if there are any auction houses or estate liquidating companies in your area. As an example, here in Northeast Ohio is a company called "Anthem Auction." You can get on their email list and they will send you notices when they are going to be liquidating the contents of a home. Their listing for each location includes numerous photos of the items that will be available. Sometimes they are sold at auction on the premises, sometimes it is just like a house sale. Whatever the case, it can be a great opportunity to pick up some more props for your film, and far cheaper than if you were to buy new, or even rent the prop.

So, these are the places I look to when I need movie props. It's cheaper than renting them in many cases, helps to locate several props at one stop, enables me to find rare, scarce, or otherwise difficult items, and really adds the feel to the film I am shooting. George Lucas made Star Wars look different by giving everything a "used" look. All the items at the flea market provide that look, instead of something shiny and new.

One last thing. You may even find equipment to shoot your film with at the flea markets. I see numerous tripods, work lights, and bucket light fixtures. I even got my Azden SGM-1X shotgun microphone, with isolator fixture, for $50 at a flea market. I saved $100 on that mic. Good hunting!

-Steve Olander

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  1. I used to make my living doing flea markets as a book dealer at various times in my life, and as a book dealer have sold books several times for use in films. They're a great place for finding almost anything, and as you said, they have that nice used look!

  2. Thanks, Oak.

    Booksbelow, that's exactly what I am talking about. I see books of EVERY kind, including vintage hard bound novels from the the early 1900's or even older. I have found Life magazines from the 1950's.

    Another great place for used books is Half Priced Books, if there is one in your area. There are two by me and I saw one near Phoenix, Arizona when we were there on vacation, so they are a national chain. I got a number of books on screenwriting, filmmaking, props, and biographies on filmmakers there. I also got books that pictured props from Star Wars that I used for reference in creating my own.