- There are three types of prop money that are typically used by movies and television shows: “standard,” “high quality,” and real money.
- Standard bills are printed on both sides and look great from a distance, but they are noticeably different when viewed up close.
- High-quality bills are identical to real cash and are used for close shots, but they are printed on only one side so they can’t be used as real currency.
- Production companies also occasionally use real bills because they look great on camera and it mitigates any counterfeiting issues that can arise with printing prop money.
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One of these $US100 bills is real, and the other one is a piece of prop money made for movies. Can you tell which one is which? They both have a blue security ribbon, textured ink, and even the smallest detail, like text from the Declaration of Independence. The answer is obvious when you flip them over.
Bills as detailed as this one are required to be blank on the other side. That’s because if prop makers, like Prop Movie Money in Florida, print money that looks too real, they risk getting in trouble with the US government.
That’s what happened 20 years ago on the set of “Rush Hour 2.” Gregg Bilson Jr.: Money is more work than it’s worth, in the long run.
Narrator: That’s Gregg Bilson Jr., CEO of the Los Angeles-based ISS Props, one of the biggest prop houses in the world. In 2000, Greg got an order for and printed $US1 trillion of prop money for “Rush Hour 2,” most of which was going to be blown up on screen. And the prop money looks good in this scene. Too good, in fact.
Carter: Hello, Benjamin!
Narrator: The fake money looked so real that some extras on set pocketed some of it and tried to spend it at real stores. That alerted the US Secret Service, which confiscated and destroyed the fake bills and the digital files used to print them. It had cost $US100,000 to print all of that fake money, so losing all of it was a financial blow to Gregg and ISS.
Bilson: We didn’t try to make fake money to dupe the public. We made fake money to make a movie. But we just made the prop too good.
Narrator: The “Rush Hour 2” incident underscored an obvious dilemma for printing fake money. The money needs to look realistic on camera, but it can’t look too realistic up close, or people might try to spend it in real life. The problem has become even greater in recent years, with better cameras capturing more and more details from the background of scenes. So the prop industry has come up with two different types of prop money, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.
For scenes where the cash is filmed from far away, productions typically use standard-grade bills. The iconic money scene from “Breaking Bad” uses these bills, which were rented from Gregg and ISS. These bills look real from afar, but up close are obviously fake, with lots of clear differences when compared to the real thing. The portrait on the bill is poor quality compared to the real one. And instead of “one hundred dollars,” it just reads “one hundred.” The smaller details on the bill are also altered. The seals are a different design, and the signatures on the bill have been changed. Then there are the obvious additions, like the prominently displayed “for motion picture use only.”
In fact, if you zoom in to this scene from “Breaking Bad,” while it’s blurry, you can actually see that each bill says “for motion picture use only.” These changes should keep the Secret Service away, but they also mean standard fake bills are no good for close-ups. So for those shots, movies will often use high-grade bills. High-grade bills are identical to real money but are printed on only one side so that they can’t be confused with the real thing. Like the one we showed you earlier, which was printed by RJR Props in Atlanta.
You can see an example of a high-grade bill in this scene from the 2014 movie “Let’s Be Cops.” An alternate solution that Gregg and ISS have been using for the past several years is to simply use real bills. This is the first version that they offer. ISS will take a pile of completely blank bill notes and then place one real bill on the top of the stack and one on the bottom, making it appear as if the entire stack is full of real bills. The second method for using real dollars has a bigger risk attached, but it may be the best option. An entire stack of real bills. ISS will get stacks of $US10,000 from the bank and then deliver them to set. While having this much cash lying around makes some productions nervous, it looks great on film and eliminates any risk with the Secret Service. That’s what they did in this shot from “Ozark.”
Bilson: I see fake money used all the time, and I think it is appalling, because I’m a property master, and I want things to be authentic and accurate and look right.
Narrator: Take a look at this season one episode of “Girlfriends.” The fake-looking money is distracting to the audience. While productions may prefer to use real money, sometimes it’s unavoidable, like in scenes where bills are destroyed or in scenes that require an absurd quantity. In cases like these, Gregg says that he will still use fake money. Except he certainly doesn’t print the fake money himself, as he still has his cease and desist from the Secret Service. So he buys it from Prop Movie Money, one of the few printers that make prop money.
The ultimate irony of printing prop money is that it actually isn’t very profitable. Standard and high-grade bills sell for roughly $US45 for a stack of 100 bills. Gregg still has two bills from “Rush Hour 2” that the Secret Service didn’t confiscate. Even though these bills look less realistic than modern prop bills, he still has them encased in plastic so that no one can try to use them in real life. They’re a physical reminder of the risks prop makers take and the rewards they reap to get that perfect money shot.