From bloodied volleyballs to memory loss neuralyzers: designers’ favourite film props

Last week, a new exhibition on science fiction opened at the Barbican featuring masks, costumes and other designs from classic sci-fi films and TV series. We ask designers about their most memorable prop designs.

MAciej Woroniecki, senior associate architecture, Stufish Entertainment Architects

The Star Trek communicator is by far my favourite example of prop design seen in a famous film. Originating in the 1960s TV series, the design of the prop proposed a compact and wireless communications device which did not exist in real life at the time. The simplicity and design of the prop made it easy to understand and appreciate, quickly becoming an iconic item in cinematic history.

In 1984, the design of the communicator inspired Dr Martin Cooper, a manager at Motorola, to take it upon himself to make the vision a reality. As an architect at Stufish, I aspire to propose simple, beautiful, intelligent and challenging concepts which are a positive addition to our lives. The Star Trek communicator prop epitomises strong, forward-thinking design that has impacted the world around us.”

Karen Hughes, founder and creative director, Edit_Brand Studio

“The film prop that sticks in my mind is the iconic and simply brilliant Wilson, the volleyball from Cast Away. It is one of the very few objects used in this deliberately basic and under-designed prop list. Wilson is a humble, washed-up ball with a bloodied, handprint face and throughout the film becomes a character in its own right, turning into a beloved companion to the stranded Tom Hanks over his four years as a cast away.

I will always remember the devastating moment that Wilson falls off the raft and is lost at sea. This is simple and classic storytelling at its best, admittedly quite basic in comparison to the prop designs featured in the Barbican sci-fi exhibition, but no less powerful in my opinion. Wilson’s cult following proves that sometimes the simplest things can become the most meaningful and iconic.”

Philip Hughes, project director, Ralph Appelbaum Associates

“It is no surprise to me that many sci-fi props are made out of repurposed oddments from superstores. Doctor Who has wielded a gun made from hose reel attachments, a spray-painted Dyson Airblade was used in Star Trek as a door security device, and Star Trek’s scanner was – apparently – a potato peeler with some luminescent paint.

On the other hand, what surprises me is the lengths that brands go to in order to make their products look like products of a parallel universe. The Gillette Mach 3 is a humble razor made from plastic, but packaged and branded like a galactic projectile. Other plastic razors claim to be ‘turbo’ razors with the powers of a Formula One car.

But my favourite sci-fi object is still Men in Black’s neuralyzer that can cause instant memory loss. A single flash of light, and Donald Trump and Brexit never happened…”

Paula Benson, co-founder, Form

“I’m pretty obsessed with furniture and décor in films, in fact I founded the website Film and Furniture to explore this very subject. My latest fascination is with a chair that appears in the White Room of Alien: Covenant. The film opens with the Weyland Corporation robot David sitting in a distinctive Carlo Bugatti Throne Chair, next to an Eileen Gray E1027 side table.

The original Throne chair by Carlo Bugatti and was made in 1905. An Italian sculptor and furniture maker, he strove for originality in his work, choosing unusual materials and taking inspiration from far and wide – the Gothic era, Japan, Islamic art, North Africa and Orient-inspired exoticism. His designs are striking, immediately recognisable and truly creative.

For the White Room, production designer Victor J. Zolfo had two replicas of a Carlo Bugatti Throne Chair recreated in-house. An unusual and inspirational choice for a sci-fi movie.”

Eduardo Lima, co-founder, MinaLima

“When I was 10 years old, I watched the Never Ending Story – a film that remains one of my favourites of all time. Bastian Balthazar Bux, the main character of the film – also a 10-year-old boy – discovers a magical book when taking refuge from bullies in a bookstore, which leads him into a world of fantasies.

Although the design of the book featured in the film isn’t particularly elaborate or vivid, it plays a central role within the film – almost as important as a character. This is something which really struck me and I think in some ways influenced my decision to become a graphic prop designer.

Now, creating books as props is a fundamental part of my studio MinaLima’s work. For the Harry Potter films, we created hundreds of books, some of which were integral to the plot such as Advanced Potion Making and Tales of Beedle the Bard.

Incidentally, the original book produced for the Never Ending Story is now owned by director Stephen Spielberg!”

Nick Scott, creative partner, Studio Hansa

“Plenty of fan-made posters show how powerful the iconography of Stanley Kubrick is. Many of his films are instantly recognisable from their props and production design – long eyelashes and a bowler hat for Clockwork Orange, heart-shaped glasses for Lolita, and so on.

I think you also need to give credit to Ridley Scott in terms of visual curation. Choosing artists like H. R. Giger for Alien and Syd Mead for Blade Runner were masterstrokes in terms of envisioning a plausible but cinematic dystopian future. Coincidently both of these films are being rebooted this year, with very little of their brand bible visual language changed.”

Wayne Hemingway, founder and director, Hemingway Design

“It has to be the Sea Devil mask and costume from Doctor Who in the early 1970s. Throughout my life, I have spotted and warmed to people on the Tube with a face that evokes a Doctor Who Sea Devil, and have always loved string vest dresses. I have yet to meet a Sea Devil-faced person wearing a string vest style garment, but I live in hope.”

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