Propping Up A Video
who finds the bits for the pop films
Jon Lewin finds the man who finds the bits for Britain's pop videos.
SO YOU'RE making the video, out there on location, in Iceland, in the snow, and the art director decides he needs a Viking longship, not necessarily a full-size one as it's only a backdrop, but it must have paisley pattern sails, and oil-wheel shields along the sides. So what do you do? You call PROPFINDERS, on (Contact Details).
"The night before shooting on the Don Henley video 'All They Want To Do Is Dance', the director rang me up and said he had to have a S. American doll. Sort of 1950's looking. So I went to a wholesaler, and got hold of a Victorian doll, found some boot polish, browned the face, washed and straightened its curly hair, made up a sombrero, tied the hair back. The dress was OK, but I put a sash round it to make it look a little more Latin. It was ready by the next day, and it seemed all right, so I delivered it to the set. The art director took it, approved it, and gave it to his props man who ripped the dress up, smashed the face in and threw it into the rubble at the back of the set."
Mark Rimmell is PROPFINDERS, whose adverts you might have seen recently (as I did) in the weekly music press' small ads column. Intrigued by their 'we find props for videos' tag line, I arranged to meet Mark in the PROPFINDERS office — his artefact-cluttered North London flat. It must be pretty hard laying your hands on all those whacky odds and sods that pop stars insist on filling their promos with...
"Not really. Those things that seem the most difficult are often the simplest, and vice versa. Elephants are easy, for example, but take a plate that has to be used in close-up. It's not just a plate. Ought it to be plain-white? Should it have a crinkly edge? Should it have a line around the edge? If it has a pattern, what pattern? Does it look too expensive? And even when you find something suitable, can you provide a whole dinner service?" Pop stars can be picky, so it appears.
Mark's route into the prop-finding business has taken him from the sets for stills photography (adverts and fashion work) to commercials and into videos and films. Is there a great deal of difference between working on a TV ad and a pop promo?
"Pop videos don't have to be so precise as commercials. OK, they're both selling, but with commercials, you tend to be selling only inanimate objects." (He obviously hasn't seen the latest Frankie video.)
"Commercials are better planned. So much is left to the last minute in pop videos: it always surprises me that someone can spend £100-£150,000 on a video, and I get a telephone call on a Tuesday saying they're shooting on Friday. In the case of Simple Minds, which was shot over Christmas, we had literally one working day in which to prepare the whole lot. And if you saw the piles of things they used in 'Don't You Forget About Me', you'll know there was a lot of stuff..."
The basic theme of that video, as expressed in the shooting script, was Simple Minds in a 'vast empty interior' surrounded by the memory-invoking objects, things which Jim Kerr hoped — since he had remembered them — would remember him; an intellectual conceit of staggering proportions.
What happens when you're asked to prop a video? "It depends. If the production company only want two or three specific items, then they will just call me and tell me what to get.
"More often, I'll meet with the production team, and we'll run through ideas. After that, I might get a storyboard — I had one for Lindsay Buckingham's 'Slow Dancing' — or perhaps a rough shooting script. They can, and do, change things at this stage, as happened with the Power Station's 'Some Like It Hot' single, after they had already asked me to find some desert props.
"One of the problems is that you often don't get to see the set. On the Don Henley video it was oh, it's just a South American revolution thing, a bar, y'know, with rubble and a burning city in the back'. If I can, I arrange to recce the location as that helps you fit all your props and problems into the area you have to work in.
"Then I'll sit down and prepare a props list, and phone round my contacts to see what's about. My brief for the Simple Minds was 'everyday objects', bearing in mind that they were supposed to be the accumulated clutter of memories from childhood. While I'm looking around, I will (hopefully) come across a piece which will be the key to everything I have in mind — a peculiar figure, a stylised chair, or even that 1950's dodgem in the Simple Mind's promo.
"I'll take photos of these pieces, show them to the director, and if he approves, I'll go ahead from there. This all takes place over three or four days, in which time I'll be calling up prop hire companies (who keep vast stocks for all sorts of purposes), arranging transport and insurance. Budgets can be between £5,000-£10,000, depending of course on the size of the job. But when you have props of values up to £25,000 to hire and insure... The Wurlitzer jukebox in 'Don't You Forget About Me', for example, had a £5,000 risk value at 7½% per week, and they insisted I hire a truck with a lift on the back, which was another £120 for delivery and return. It's not cheap if you do it properly."
In the last few years, prop hiring has turned into Big Business, a fact illustrated by a recent £6¼ million takeover bid for one particular firm.
"I dress the set, with my assistants, on the morning of the shoot. It's only necessary to dress certain camera angles, but I like to dress the whole set as it helps improve the atmosphere for the artist when he's being filmed. The director will arrive, and he'll change a few things, then the lighting man will want to alter the position of something that might be casting an odd shadow. But once those final adjustments have been made, that's about it until we have to dismantle everything, pack it up, and return it. Shooting rarely takes longer than two days, and more often is only one — but a long one."
With up to 10% of budget being allocated to props, it is obvious that the more you spend, the more luxurious your video will look. But while Mark agrees that Duran Duran's 'Wild Boys' promo is a superb work, he doesn't feel it's necessary to spend all that money.
"Simplicity is the keynote. Where I can, I do my best to help up-and-coming talent (after all, they may be the next Wham!); but the mistake they always make is in trying to be too complicated. What you must always remember, and this applies to videos, commercials, adverts as well, is that you are there to promote that one thing, whether it's the group's image, swimming costumes or soap powder. You're there to help push that one idea, not to make the set look nice."
Feature by Jon Lewin
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!