Hitting the big screen

By Simon Creasey, Monday 18 March 2019

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Unless you’re a total movie geek, it’s highly unlikely that you will have heard of Ross MacDonald. However, it’s highly likely that you will have seen his work on both the big and the small screen.

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MacDonald: “I went in there pretending I knew how to run a Heidelberg"

That’s because MacDonald has made props for Hollywood productions such as Silver Linings Playbook and Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, and for TV dramas like The Knick and Boardwalk Empire. But MacDonald isn’t just any old prop maker. He specialises in the production of printed ephemera and can create accurate reproductions of historical maps, documents and books, all the way through to more mundane present day legal documents.

Canadian-born MacDonald, who today works out of a studio in Connecticut, admits that he essentially blagged his way into the printing industry. His first job after leaving school was at a little hand paper making studio, where he “cranked out” sheets of paper day after day for a few months. But one day, the owner realised MacDonald had made more paper than he was ever going to be able to sell, so he advised him to try to get a job at a small printing and publishing house in Toronto called Coach House Press.

“I went in there pretending I knew how to run a Heidelberg,” recalls MacDonald, who admits he’d never seen a printing press before, never mind a Heidelberg. “I figured that if I didn’t say I knew how to run it, they wouldn’t hire me and that I would be able to pick it up just by watching someone else do it. So I said to the guy: ‘I’ve run presses before, but I haven’t run this particular type of press.’ He spent 45 minutes showing me how to do it and I said: ‘Ok, great – when do you want me to start?’ He replied: ‘You’re starting now, I’m going home and you’re working on the night shift.’” 

MacDonald remembers how “utterly terrifying” it was to run the giant press for the first time and he admits he spent “most of the night with tears running down my cheeks”, but the next morning he had produced a book of poetry by Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient. However, he couldn’t for the life of him figure out how to clean the press, so he left it as it was and thought that when he turned up for work the next day he would be fired.

“When I came in, the guy was outraged that I hadn’t cleaned the press and I’d left the rollers down. But the upside was I’d printed the job and basically it was a case of ‘you’re hired’.”

After learning the ins and outs of the printing industry for around 12 months, MacDonald left to set up his own letterpress business with his older brother called Dreadnaught Press, where he worked for about eight years. 

“We bought up a lot of old equipment and it was a good time to do that because computers were just starting to come in and everybody was bailing on hot type, so you could pick it up for a song,” he says. “So we got a great flatbed proofing press called a FAG Standard, which resembles a Vandercook, and we bought tonnes of type. My brother bought every conceivable size and weight of Univers.”

Around the same time, he started buying wood type and started making his own wood type posters using different inking techniques. Despite having no print or design training, he started picking up illustration jobs, many of which were linocut, and soon he had built up enough work to create a portfolio, which he used to get more illustration jobs from businesses in Toronto.

Lucky break

However, he still had to do construction jobs on the side to make ends meet and this is where he had his first brush with the entertainment industry – quite literally. One of the jobs he took on entailed painting the house of a local television producer, who said he needed someone to paint a background at the studio he worked at. In addition to painting the set, MacDonald was asked to make some props and he even played characters in some of the shows. “It was seat of your pants type stuff,” he says.

He got his lucky break in the illustration business in the early 1980s and started doing work for magazines based in New York like Esquire, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair. He was also producing illustrative promotional work for clients, which entailed working with printers, but he found the whole process increasingly frustrating.

“I was working with these printers and they were screwing stuff up. You’d go and do a press check and they would have already done the whole thing and it was off register. I thought ‘why am I hiring these guys and spending all this money for them to do a half-ass job when I can do a half-ass job for free’?”

So he decided to buy a table-top flatbed proofing press and started buying different sized type. He eventually bulk bought type from someone based in Indiana who had wood type and flatbed presses dating back to the mid-1800s. At this stage, MacDonald admits that he wasn’t particularly interested in printing, but as he started learning more about the history of the industry, he became hooked. 

His big movie break came in the early 1990s at a cocktail party in New York. One of the illustration styles he used to work in was a nod towards 1940s US school books called Dick and Jane.

“I met this guy at the party who was working with John Hughes on the movie Baby’s Day Out. He knew my work and he said: ‘We’re looking for somebody to do this faux 1930s children book for this movie and you would be perfect.’ I got a call from the producers and the next thing I know, I was out in Chicago for six months working on this movie. I came back to New York and thought: ‘That was fun, I will never do that again because when will they ever need a kid’s book in a movie again?’”

He was wrong. On Baby’s Day Out, he made lots of contacts and through word of mouth he started getting more and more prop work and his movie and film career has just snowballed from there. MacDonald says that although he spends a lot of time making the props, a big part of the job is consultancy.

“It’s not the scriptwriter’s place to describe things in detail – it’s the director’s job to decide how things look and the production designer. So the script will say: ‘These guys pull an old book off the shelf.’ Then the director, production designer and the prop master put their heads together and say: ‘What would this be?’ Usually because they are dealing with so many things they will say to the prop master: ‘Find someone to figure out what this would look like.’ That’s usually the first part of my job and often it involves doing a lot of research. It could be a big fancy occult book or it could be something as mundane as a legal form or a driver’s licence.”

And it’s not just a case of working out how something looks so that he can accurately reproduce it. He also has to look at how the document is going to work in a scene and how to age it.

“With every job, you have to think what kind of paper would this be printed on, how would it be printed and what’s the personal journey that this piece of paper or document or book has gone on? Was it sitting in a file for its entire life, was it being carried around in a saddle bag, was it a book sitting on a book shelf for 300 years, did it just sit in an envelope somewhere or was it handled a lot? Every piece of paper looks different depending on what happens to it. You don’t just slop tea and coffee on every piece of paper.”

Armoury of presses

To produce these different effects, he has an armoury of presses including two letterpress machines – a Vandercook SP20 proofing press and a high speed letterpress called Little Giant – in addition to a number of large format Epson printers. 

“If it’s period stuff up until the 1930s, I do some of the higher end stuff on the letterpress usually by hand, but a lot of the other stuff like documents and maps I usually print on the larger format inkjet printers.”

MacDonald’s workload is pretty intensive. In the past six months, he’s worked on props for four Broadway plays and about 10 movies including Zombieland 2 and the World War II film Greyhound. “On some of them you just do two or three things, but on others you’re working for a couple of months doing lots of different stuff.”

This was the case with the ‘book of secrets’ he created for the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets which he says was one of the most fun gigs he’s ever had. “They were writing that movie as they were shooting it, so they basically said to me: ‘Make a book of secrets and put in it what you want.’ So I went hog wild coming up with all these crazy conspiracy theories.”

While he was allowed to let his creative juices run wild on that job, he says it’s equally fun and challenging to produce jobs for historical productions that require props to be faithful to the original piece of printed ephemera. MacDonald says Boardwalk Empire is a good example of the sorts of challenges that he faces on a regular basis. He produced lots of different printed props for the hit TV show ranging from a Cuban lottery dream book to a passport for the lead character Nucky, played by Steve Buscemi.

“You know from the start that you’re going to do stuff and there is a good chance it’s not going to appear [in the film or TV show]. When you see the scene with the [Cuban lottery] dream book it’s sitting on the table, there are three people in the shot and it’s a medium shot, so you’re not really getting a great look at it – they don’t do a close up. Nobody knows any of this stuff going into the shoot – they figure it out when they’re shooting it and when they’re editing it. 

“Later on you see the dream book displayed on a shelf. So you look at that and you say ‘ok, it made it in – it’s not a loving close up, but it made it in the shot’. And then you have Nucky’s passport, which required a massive amount of research and production work to create that document and he doesn’t even open it. He just throws it across the counter. It could be a folded piece of paper for all you see it and you just kinda die a little inside when you see that.”

Having worked in the TV and film industry for a number of years now, MacDonald accepts that this is all part of the job and for every prop he produces that barely gets any screen time at all, he knows that others will play an integral part in a production. 

“The important thing about the show is the story and everything is done in service of the story, and if it helps the story to show the prop prominently, then they do it – but if it pulls you out of the story, they’re not going to do it. There are plenty of times when a prop will convey something really important in a very subtle way and that’s when you feel like ‘I get why I did all that work on that piece’. You hope for moments like that and it makes all the moments where the piece just slides across someone’s desk and you never really see it worthwhile.” 

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