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

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.

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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