Russell Bobbit is a veteran prop artist who works with Marvel Cinematic Universe, and has associated with Hollywood films like Iron Man and Ocean’s Thirteen. He speaks to Bulbul Sharma.
Q. What inspired you to start your career as a prop artist and how did it finally happen?
A. My mother was friends with a set decorator named Robert Gould and he gave me my first job when I was 20 years old. I thought it was the greatest thing ever. The job itself was a huge challenge in the first few days. He threw me on set and essentially said, “make it work”—and I did. I completely fell in love with the magic of movie-making that week. From a young age, I’d always had an interest in how things work. When I was six, I took apart a record player and put it back together—it was a really defining moment for me. I remember thinking , “Ok, I think I need to explore engineering and how things work”.
Q. We all know about your work with Marvel Cinematic Universe. What sort of challenges do you face while working on Marvel projects?
A. The Marvel projects have been great for me, but of course sometimes challenging. I’m actually part of the 10 year anniversary of the Marvel Universe because I worked on Iron Man  and have been working on the movies ever since. The most challenging part of working on Marvel films is the context. For example, if I were working on a period film set in the 1940s, there’s a clear visualisation of how that should look. In space, there are no rules so your imagination comes into play. The biggest challenge is to sell the audience the idea of humans as superheroes!
Q. If you could pick one prop that has been your favourite, what would that be? Any particular reason/story behind this choice?
A. One of the most memorable scenes and props I’ve worked on was for the cave scene in Iron Man 1. It was tricky because the crew didn’t know what it was going to be, or how to truly visualise the scenes. All we knew at the start was that we were making a movie about a man who flies in a metal suit. Putting together the Arc Reactor has been the biggest challenge in the Marvel Universe and is one of my favourite props. I had to create cold fusion and nuclear power to bring it to life. Robert Downey Junior and I sat down together, and I had to teach him how wiring works before we got started with the filming. It has been my greatest accomplishment and most memorable project to date.
Q. How do you go about building a prop? What is the thought process like and how much time does it usually take?
A. A prop-master usually has about 8-12 weeks to prepare for a film. There are thousands of props per film and it’s a huge amount of work, so it’s important to have a reliable set of go-to items in the prop house. Once I have a shortlist of props, the focus is on collaboration—successful films are all about working with a group of talented, creative minds.
Q. Marvel is a big family. So what is it like to pay attention to every detail of props used by actors in Marvel movies?
A. My job can be really challenging in this—I essentially have to pitch every prop, big or small to everyone from the director to the costume department and the actor who will actually use it.
Q. Do you think it is important for a prop artist to understand filmmaking? If yes, why?
A. Yes, absolutely! I work very closely with all the different departments to ensure that the props I choose, work for the character and plot development. I once had the pleasure of working with Betty Thomas—she taught me how to make the audience laugh and how that can be achieved with different camera angles, cuts and of course with props.
Q. For your recently released video, in partnership with IMDb and Zippo, you gave viewers a peek into the famous LA prop house. It also throws light on the real-life heroes, who contribute in making reel heroes possible. But do you think artistes working behind the camera are given due credit?
A. Yes, certainly. This project with Zippo has actually allowed me to talk about the importance of prop mastery in more detail than ever before. Part of a prop master’s role is to build relationships with the right people who can supply and create bespoke prop designs if needed. In the film, Ocean’s Thirteen, Zippo created a bespoke lighter design with a lightning bolt, which was used as a prop to take down the casino.
Q. In a lot of films—for instance, in period or historical films—props are used as a narrative device. But some big productions and filmmakers, in India particularly, don’t pay much attention to props, and even do without hiring prop artists. Your thoughts?
A. I think movies can’t be made without prop guys or prop girls, and they are
important. Props support the story, character and the look of the film. So, we’re sort of involved in every facet of it now. The right prop can help define a character and drive the plot forward, whether that prop is big or small.
Q. Could you name some films in which you thought the use of props was exceptional?
A. Captain America’s shield is a top contender for this. The comic book told me what it should look like, but if you look at the back of a shield, you’ll see that I hand-crafted a lot of leather strapping and materials that existed back in the ’40s. I knew what the front of the shield should look like so I really had to focus on the design of the back. It’s a great example of how our minds go over every single detail in a prop—it needs to be authentic.
Q. What are your thoughts on the commercialisation of props—using props for product advertisements?
A. I think props can actually set trends and if something I feature in film triggers the use of props in advertising, I think that’s pretty cool.
Q. How does the use of props differ across genres? What role do you think props play in realist cinema?
A. Props differ with genre—in that a site prop for a comedy may need to be used in many different ways. The actor may have to fall with a prop, therefore we would have to make many different versions of that prop. Different materials have to be used. Soft rubber, for instance. Props play roles in all genres of film differently. Sometimes a simple piece of paper or a book tells the narrative which can drive a story, or a colour of a flower, and perhaps a feather—all props make a difference.
Q. A lot of people say that props are used in a much better way in American TV shows, for instance in Mad Men, than in American films, where the focus is on the star/actor or on the plot. What do you have to say to this?
A. It has not been my experience that props are treated differently in TV compared to films. But I will say that when we design a prop for a scene with a director, we scrutinise the importance of the prop to determine how much screen time the props will need to support the story. Sometimes it upstages an actor and sometimes not. But I will say that if you make a prop look really good and it has a “wow” factor, it will get more attention.
Q. Tell us about your future projects.
I can’t say too much at the moment—but there are some exciting projects coming up in the next few months. Keep an eye on my social channels, that’s all I’ll say for now.