Exclusive Interview: Damages Prop Master

May 17, 2012

If you’re not familiar with film industry terminology, a prop master is a person who procures various props for a movie or a show. (Remember the bloody bookend in Season 1?) Jill Alexander was the prop master and it was her job to pay attention to all the details on the Damages set, from Patty’s cake catalog to the graphics running on McLaren’s computer. She also had to work closely with Josh Payne and his colleagues to make sure the writers’ vision materialized on screen.

JOSH PAYNE: What was the most challenging prop issue for you this season?

JILL ALEXANDER: Nothing in particular. The challenge was the short notice in acquiring something. Often we had literally 10 minutes to come up with paperwork we’re going to use for an insert. For example, the cake catalog was challenging. Angel (Catherine Hewes’ nanny) was showing Catherine the catalog of cakes, having her choose a cake. Then we had to find the actual cake the day before Thanksgiving with six hours notice to create this catalog and get cleared photographs and get text and a graphic artist to lay it all out and then print it out. Then we had to find somebody who could actually make a cake that was right for the scene in that short notice. That was a tough one.

JP: This season involves much more computer graphics than the show has used in the past. Was that difficult?

JA: No, because I was the expediter. I didn’t have much input regarding what was on the screen. It was either designed by the graphic artist or our post-production department was handling it. I was the person who hired the graphic artist or coordinated with post to confirm they were providing the graphics after the fact. Sony provided the computers, so that was no sweat. The difficult part about graphics was creating them and then getting approval from people who were sometimes on the West Coast who keep different hours than we do. Then pulling the trigger with the graphic artist to finalize it and then get it sent to me electronically. Outsourcing some of that work was challenging.

JP: So we never had a computer specialist on set? It was all flash drives?

JA: Yes. Or director files. A few times, we had a playback person who centralized the work when we had scenes that involved several computers. They were able to make changes in the speed of the graphic and tailor the colors.

JP: So the playback person was on set, running the actual graphics we see on McClaren’s computer?

JA: Yes.

JP: Was this a fun season for you?

JA: I had a great time this season. It was interesting to witness the writers’ creative process. Even though it was all last minute, it was important to telling the story. Every time we got a new script it got better. And we were able to understand more and more about it. I have a feeling if we were locked into a script days ahead of time it would not have been as good of a story line. It was just that the guys need that process to go through it and retroactively make the story work with what we’d already shot.

JP: As a prop master what was the toughest job you’ve had?

JA: There was a TV show called New Amsterdam. I think we only did seven episodes. It was about a New York City cop who was immortal and we’d flashback to him in a previous life, anywhere from the turn of the century to the 1600s. And we only had eight days of prep and a really small crew. We had a three-person prop crew. So ensuring that all the period props were accurate and then adding to it the current day police props was really tough.

JP: How big was your Damages prop crew?

JA: Three core members and a day player who shopped for us. That’s a small crew. Normally you have at least four core members and then day players come in. But Damages is a very prop-light show.

JP: We take it easy on you that way.

JA: It’s true. And the guys always gave me a heads-up when there was something they were considering putting in. They would let me know it was coming or ask me if it was even possible, which I respected. They understood our process and could identify when it might be a potential problem. If what they were asking for didn’t work they always reworked the story to solve the problem. It was pretty impressive. A lot of writers and producers would just hand out a script and say, “This is what we’re doing. Make it work.” But these guys aren’t like that at all. They’re very collaborative.

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