TV and film are masters at imitating life. This means that everyday objects that we interact with are featured in some of our favorite projects like The Office, Friday Night Lights, and pretty much any Marvel movie. One thing that goes unnoticed by the audience but is on every prop master’s mind is how to achieve clean and clear-cut audio when everyday props are so loud.
There is a saying that a sound technician can pick up the sound of grass growing when on location. Because of how much sound can be picked up, it’s on the prop master to find creative solutions to minimize the amount of unnecessary sound in a scene. Some solutions are easier.
Insider sat down with prop master Tim Schultz and Scott Reeder to find out how they find creative ways to eliminate the unwanted sounds from everyday objects.
While muting some objects like drums can be achieved by simply placing a sound ring or a piece of foam on top of the drum or between the cymbal, other objects need a more creative solution. Think of pool balls. When they collide with one another, they have a sharp sound that can be heard from the other side of a bar. Although it sounds cool as hell, that sound is going to ruin the audio and make any dialogue incoherent.
Reeder has to get creative to solve this problem. He tried using plastic balls from a ball pit to soften the sound but had a hard time getting any paint to stick to the surface. Then, Reeder remembered a trick he used for a bar fight scene in 1991’s Necessary Roughness.
During the bar fight scene, a character is thrown onto a pool table and the pool balls scatter across the table. Instead of using real pool balls, Reeder used racquetballs layered with a primer and coated with a glassy spray to give that trademark shine of a real pool ball. You have to pick them up or look really hard to notice that the prop pool balls are not real.
I know what you must be asking yourself right now. “When the characters play pool, it actually sounds like they are playing pool.”
Well, they are and they are not. Prop masters are geniuses when knowing when to switch in the fake thing for the real thing. Real pool balls are used when the camera is focused on the game, but the fake ones are swapped in when the camera is focused on the character’s faces to capture clean dialogue. It is all about knowing how to make the unreal look too real.
Silent pool ball props created by Scott ReederCredit: Scott Reeder
Prop masters don’t have to replace objects all of the time to minimize sound. Some silent props are created by modifying the real thing.
In Tammy, it was important for Melissa McCarthy’s character to use a real paper bag to hide her identity and gun. Unfortunately, paper bags are pretty loud on their own and would drown out McCarthy’s lines. Schultz solved this problem by spraying the bag with a water and glycerin mix. Spraying that bag takes a little finessing to get the right consistency. Adding tape to the inside will help the damp bag keep its structure. The downside to using this method is that the paper bag will lose its color and fall apart over time.
When actors have to handle paper bags constantly in a scene, Schultz created a quiet, durable alternative made of fibrous nonwoven fabric. To make these new types of bags look like the real deal, Schultz molds and shapes the bag by hand, then crinkles it to make it look worn in. Small details such as the ridged top edge and logo are added later to ground the prop in reality. This fibrous nonwoven fabric, the same fabric used on coffee filters, is also used as butcher paper and other small hand-held props.
Melissa McCarthy with silent paper bag mask in 'Tammy'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
Another small hand-held prop that gives prop masters a bit of a headache is ice.
While we don’t think of ice being loud, sound technicians have a hard time capturing dialogue from characters who are holding their drinks too close to the mic attached near their midsections. The ice clinks the glass and becomes too noisy for the scene. Fake ice made out of silicon is used to replace the noisy real ice because rubber cubes can float like the real deal while staying silent. This allows background actors to move their cups around without compromising the audio.
Another everyday object that we know is loud is plastic. Have you ever tried opening a bag of chips quietly so you wouldn't have to share? Schultz found that using vinyl as a substitute for plastic works pretty well. Vinyl can also be used as a replacement for cellophane wrapped around flowers. If it's a plastic-like texture, vinyl is your go-to solution since it comes in multiple colors and can be cut into designs and all sorts of shapes.
Silicone ice cube prop in place of ice cubesCredit: ForensicFX Studios
As much as we would like one solution to all of our noisy prop problems, there isn’t one. Some objects need multiple layers of soundless objects to eliminate unwanted sound. Even worse, there could be no solution out there that exists yet. That is where the creativity of prop making comes to life. Minimizing everyday noise is a difficult task that people are finding new solutions to all of the time, so what is stopping you from trying something new? Your invention might be the solution that everyone in the world of filmmaking may need.
Do you have a trick to make everyday props silent? Let us know what they are in the comments below!