The Prop Master: Ross Macdonald, Forger for Screens Big and Small

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When he's not working as a typographer and editorial illustrator, Macdonald makes tens of thousands of props for movies and television

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Ross Macdonald is a forger. And many of his most exquisite forgeries -- or, more precisely, replicas -- are currently seen, if you look closely enough, on the new season of HBO"s Boardwalk Empire. Macdonald is an editorial and book illustrator and typographer who makes props for motion pictures. And he gets "a real rush" from the props he gets for making them.

"You never know what you're going to get thrown at you," he says, adding, "I love doing the research for period props. I also love making things or figuring out ways to make things. I love working with my hands and learning new techniques -- leatherwork, making rubdowns and decals, metalwork, whatever." The part he hates, however, is the crushing workload. "I often get phone calls and emails all day and all night with changes and additions. On some shows the amount of work is massive -- sometimes literally thousands or even tens of thousands of pages of stuff, often produced at breakneck speed."

During his current break from eight months working on Boardwalk Empire, I asked Macdonald to share a brief history of some of his cinematic accomplishments.

For his first film, Baby's Day Out (1993), Macdonald illustrated and handled the design and production of the children's book used to push along the movie's plot. The illustrations were also used in the opening credits, and appear full-screen throughout the movie. "I also did sketches for some of the other stuff -- the rooftop set, the kidnapper's van, the baby photographer's van."

For The Alamo (2004), Macdonald consulted on and produced all of the paper props: documents, books, almanacs, letters, journals, and maps. "I started off doing William Travis' journal, and it ballooned from there," he says. But even propmakers sing the blues. "After a few months, the director quit and the production shut down. A few months later, a new crew came in and started up, and all the props I had made had disappeared, so I had to remake everything. That's where I learned the hard way to save every email, every sketch, every file, everything."

For Seabiscuit (2003), Macdonald consulted on period comics, and produced a faux Flash Gordon book. The book was originally a much more important prop, he notes. The illustrations he did were going to appear full-screen and cross-dissolve into the action. "I also did a little rolling ball-bearing game, the art for that was a huge production; I was the fifth person to take a crack at it. I was told that the little game prop ultimately ended up costing $90,000. It also was intended to get bigger play than it did."

Story continues after the gallery.

For Van Helsing (2004), Macdonald made Doctor Frankenstein's notebooks. Two copies each of three different notebooks, two-color leather bindings, filled with pages of notes and diagrams of ghoulish experiments, complete with blood spatters and other unspeakable stains. "Once again, their full glory was never seen, lost in the editing process," he laments. "You see them briefly -- the good doctor rushes by with a load of stuff under his arm, including the closed books, and tosses them in a trunk."

For Duplex (2003), Macdonald made an old lady's fancy Victorian photo album completed with padded velvet cover, 3-D metallic embossing, and diecut pages with gold leaf. "To tell you the truth, I've never seen this," he admits, "so I don't even know if it appears onscreen. The production company stiffed me and never paid, so I find it hard to watch."

For The Legend of Zorro (2005), Macdonald created a big book that he dropped into the fish pond to give it an aged look. "It was a ginormous 15- by 20-inch book about six inches thick, and it took days and days to dry," Macdonald explains. "The book was called Enemies of the Church -- a huge leather-bound tome that they haul off a shelf and blow dust off. I did a ton of work on this movie, too -- lots of consultation on period documents, letters, divorce papers, a Congressional act and the brass seal used to stamp it, hundreds of ballots, political dodgers, vote tally sheets, etc. (these were all printed letterpress from period type), a large deed, wine labels that were used on bottles of nitro glycerine."

For Infamous (2006), which got overlooked because it was one of two movies about Truman Capote that were made at the same time, Macdonald did massive amounts of research to produce documents and letters. "I did Perry Smith's prison notebooks and sketchbooks, several of his paintings, a sign he paints, a childhood drawing, sketches of guards' children that he did, etc. I also did all of Capote's notes -- his pocket notebooks and legal pads that he used for notes in court, the notebooks with the first draft of In Cold Blood, the handwritten finished manuscript, etc. I did hundreds of letters, mostly form Truman and Perry, but also other people. I got photocopies of some samples and learned to write in their different handwriting styles." Macdonald also had to make up a lot of the copy of the letters: "usually the actors only read a line or two from the letter, but we see the entire letter. I had to write the rest of the copy. Each letter also had to have an envelope, stamps, postmarks, etc. Perry's were on grey prison-issue paper, Truman's were on fancier stationary," Macdonald explains.

"On some shows the amount of work is massive -- sometimes literally thousands or even tens of thousands of pages of stuff, often produced at breakneck speed."

For Mr. Brooks (2007), Macdonald was asked by the director to research the handwriting of serial killers and develop a handwriting style for Kevin Costner's character that displayed a lot of the characteristics that are supposedly common to the handwriting of serial killers -- things like backward-slanted personal pronoun 'I', harpoons at the beginnings of words, etc. "We never actually see his letters on screen," he says.

For National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007), Macdonald designed and made President Lincoln's book of secrets, John Wilkes Booth's diary, and hundreds of other documents. Lots of consultation work on this one, too. "I did maps, six additional books, illustrations that appear full-screen, all kinds of documents, notebooks."

For King of California (2007), "another great movie that got overlooked," Macdonald insists, "I did a book that Michael Douglas' character uses to search for hidden gold. Lots of illustrations and maps appear full-screen, and at one point one of the illustrations turns into an animated short piece."

In Bride Wars (2009), Candace Bergen's character is upscale wedding planner Marion St. Clair. Macdonald designed and made all of the papers, folders, and books for that character's office; "lots of pink faux suede and gold," he says, "I also made all of the legal papers in Kate Hudson's briefcase.

For The Book of Eli (2010), Macdonald composed the first page of the book of Genesis that is shown being printed, and he made up a chase full of handset type that is never seen. "It's too bad -- that last was a thing of beauty," says Macdonald. "They liked the look of mid-19th century bibles, which used very thin, beautiful modern fonts. Nothing currently available in lead really worked, and I didn't want to use any of my type, since I never get these things back. So I worked with Ed Rayher at Swamp Press. He has a large catalog of matrices and several type casters. I made a list of fonts I wanted and he was able to track down mats for some, and custom cast large fonts of type. I set up the type for the page, and made a chase -- a kind of frame that gets locked onto the bed of the press -- out of century-old oak that I salvaged from an old playpen. The type is locked into the chase with old wood furniture (you know, the printer's kind of furniture) and old iron quoins. I made them two identical copies. It's common practice to make anywhere from two or three to fifty copies of hero props."

For The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Macdonald made the small case books and large plan books that have the schematics for everyone's life. "I printed and hand-bound over a hundred of the small books, in four different colored bindings. The large books are bound in a white material that I had custom made. In the scenes in the Adjustment Bureau office, we see shelf after shelf -- over 2,200 in all -- each filled with dozens of copies of the large white book. I made a couple of dozen of those books. The rest are faux." Those scenes were shot in the New York Public Library. After closing time each day, they had to dress the set and shoot all night. "So we wanted some way of quickly converting real bookcases full of books into the Adjustment Bureau cases. The solution was large pieces of styrofoam, molded into a long row of book spines. Those were covered with the fabric. Each night the swing gang would place the faux spine panels into each book shelf, and strike them each morning after shooting wrapped."

For This Must Be The Place (2011), which has yet to be released, Macdonald did Sean Penn's fathers notebooks and sketchbook. The drawings in the sketchbook were done by someone else. "I did all the writing and printing. I also did some letters and various documents, and tons of paper for the office of the Nazi-hunter character based on Simon Wiesenthal. He has lots of old Nazi documents in piles all over his desk and shelves. There's also a large map on his wall of all the camps in wartime Germany. His wall is also covered with diplomas and awards. I haven't photographed this stuff yet -- I hope to do that in the coming weeks. Lots of interesting documents. One of the things you have to be concerned with when working on period documents is something called clearance -- making sure that you can use something without fear of being sued by someone. It's the reason why every phone number you see mentioned in a movie or TV show has a 555 exchange. When doing something as innocuous as a pile of mail, you have to make up fake addresses that don't exist, fake names, fake companies." Two of the awards on the wall were from Jewish organizations that sounded real, but weren't. The Simon Wiesenthal museum gave him photos of his office walls, and "I loosely based the awards I made on the ones that were on his wall," Macdonald says.

And for Boardwalk Empire (2010 & 2011), Macdonald did a little work on the first season -- lots of blank notebooks, a hero photo album, some books. And "I've just finished eight months of work on the second season, which starts later this month," he says. "I did probably 15,000 pages of documents, books, passports, tickets, newspapers, notebooks."

Macdonald has become a master of aging. "Water is my first go-to technique for aging documents. I also have lots of different stains that I use," he says. "Shoe polish is one, others are water-based. Heat is good too. Typically to age a single page, I'll get it damp, spray or blot on a couple of stains, wrinkle it and fold it, and then press it against an industrial hotplate. Some stains are activated by the heat. The intense heat flashes the water into steam, which seems to loosen up the fibers of the paper a bit. Then I might wrinkle it, and rub some graphite powder on the corners and sand them. Some guys use an airbrush to spray on faux stains. I prefer man-handling stuff and staining it in ways that quickly replicate the real process by which documents get aged. When I'm aging a book, I bash it lightly with a sculpter's mallet, rub lots of different stains into it, and wrinkle and smooth out every single page."

But the single most important trick, he asserts, is to "really think about the particular document: How old is it? Where has it been? Was it handled a lot or stored in a file? How was it handled and how was it used?" All of that has to be taken into account when you age something or it won't look real. "If you look carefully at old books and documents, you can read a lot of their history from the stains and wear marks," he explains. "A book cover may have rounded corners from being carried in a book bag. Wrinkled corners indicate that it was likely dropped. Often the bottom edges of the cover are worn a lot from the book being slid on and off a bookshelf a lot. Tears and wear on the top of the spine show that people pulled there to slide it out slightly from a tight bookcase, and you can often see stains on the front and back cover near the spine where hands have grabbed it to continue pulling it out. Book pages are more often stained and worn near the bottom because that's where people turn pages."

Research played a huge part in Macdonald's work for Boardwalk Empire. The producers scrutinized everything, and he had to be prepared to present documentation that showed that everything was period correct, even down to things like paperclips and staples. "There were long phone and email conversations about every little file folder and pencil," he adds. "For documentation, I got patents, old office supply catalogs, documents from archives."

Nonetheless, there are instances in films when anachronistic typefaces -- those that were not designed in the period -- slip through the net. "Sometimes, when there's a rush deadline," Macdonald explains "you do as much research as you can, but if you only have time to check online, and can't find an exact example of an obscure document, you have to make your best guess and hope you get it right -- or at least close." Most of the time the prop masters and directors are concerned about getting it right, but they rely on the designers to show them what's period correct.

Macdonald finds inspiration from his prop research that influence his illustration and design work. "I've really been on a 1920s jag from Boardwalk," he explains. "It's not like I'm drawing flappers in every illustration, but looking at a lot of material from that period can't help but have some effect." In fact, he notes, "I'm recuperating from eight months of work on Boardwalk. I have no movie work lined up immediately, but I'm hoping to catch up on a lot of book and illustration projects. I'm working on a graphic novel called The Green Ghost. Coincidentally, it's set in 1920, but I've been working on it for five years."

Image: Ross Macdonald.

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Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. More

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts and co-founder of the MFA Design Criticism program. He writes the "Visuals" column for The New York Times Book Review, "Graphic Content" for T-Style's "The Moment" blog, and The Daily Heller for Print magazine. He is the author or editor of over 140 books on design and popular visual culture.
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