From money to drugs, here are 17 behind-the-scenes details about how realistic props are made in film and TV

How iconic props are made 2x1
Making props isn’t always easy. Marianne Ayala/Insider
  • Insider spoke with multiple production experts to see how props are made for film and TV.
  • Fake money has hidden optical illusions or a unique texture to differentiate it from the real stuff.
  • Fake cocaine was once made from powdered milk, and bar-fight bottles are made with breakaway glass.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Insider spoke with a variety of experts to uncover little-known details about making props in film and television.

From fight scenes to fake piles of money, they gave a behind-the-scenes look at noteworthy props in Hollywood that often go overlooked.

Bar fights are more expensive than they look

When it comes to pricey props, bar fights in television and film can get costly pretty quickly, according to Scott Reeder, a property master in Austin, Texas. Reeder is working on The CW’s “Walker” and has been sharing props secrets on his TikTok account (@scottpropandroll).

He told Insider the breakaway, smashable props could get expensive – breakaway beer pitchers are about $40, beer bottles are about $16 each, and a wine bottle is $30.

In addition to all the smashing bottles viewers see on screen, he said the multiple shots used during production could add up quickly – especially if a bar-fight scene took 20 takes.

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Breaking glass in a safe manner can get expensive. Fox

Sugar glass is also a convincing prop weapon for fight scenes

According to Samantha Shoffner, a prop supervisor in New York City who has worked in film, television, and theater, real glass isn’t used on sets largely because safety is so important.

For example, if a script calls for glass smashing over someone’s head, the props crew might call for sugar glass that can be turned into things like wine glasses and vases.

“Basically the sugar ‘glass’ is dissolved sugar in water heated to the ‘hard crack’ stage so that when it shatters, it doesn’t turn into sharp particles that could hurt someone,” she added. “It’s more of a sugar crystal particle when shattered.”

Teams ensure fake money doesn’t look too realistic by altering the texture and adding optical illusions

When it comes to fake money, making the prop too realistic can come with intense legal repercussions.

According to Rich Rappaport, the president of RJR Props in Atlanta, a production can be shut down and prop makers can get in legal trouble if their money doesn’t follow the federal government’s stringent rules.

“Nothing could be copied from real money: security features, holograms designs, security threads, ultraviolet, etc.,” he said. “Everything has to be made by hand.”

Rappaport said that for he and his team to operate within the strict laws, they created a special optical illusion in their prop money, which can be seen in “Logan Lucky,” “Ozark,” and “Fast & Furious.”

“When you’re holding money approximately 46cm away or further, it looks completely realistic,” Rappaport added, saying that makes it great for filming scenes at a distance. “But as you start bringing it closer, the optical illusion changes over, and then you can see that it’s not real.”

Ozark money
Prop money must follow a lot of guidelines. Netflix

On some sets, the fake money’s texture is altered to prevent actors from accidentally taking it home.

“Although it may look good, it doesn’t feel good,” Reeder told Insider. “You can tell just from the feel of the paper in your hand that it’s not the same thing.”

Some prop money goes through a faux aging process

Reeder said there was a production trick to making money look more authentic on camera.

On the set of “Mad Money,” which starred Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, and Katie Holmes, Reeder had to replicate $650 million for a high-profile robbery involving the federal reserve.

“Our money had the look really old and battered,” Reeder said. “So we were hand-dipping it in a dye to make it look old.

“We dipped it in the dye, very watered down dye, and then put it in the dryer with towels and poker chips. I’m not sure where that recipe came from … for aging money.”

Fake cocaine was once made from powdered milk

Reeder said Hollywood once substituted fake cocaine with lactose powder – but over time, prop masters discovered a safer alternative to powdered milk.

“Lately, the industry standard for that would be inositol,” Reeder said, describing a white vitaminlike substance. “Inositol seems to be the most sinus-cavity friendly.”

And sometimes actors use sleight of hand to avoid inhaling powders on set

Fake drugs have come a long way since the days of lactose powder, but there are still minor risks involved. For example, the actor Jonah Hill said he contracted bronchitis on the set of “Wolf of Wall Street” after inhaling too much faux cocaine powder in 2013.

While many actors willingly ingest fake drugs, prop masters and suppliers always try to have practical alternatives on hand if an actor isn’t comfortable with snorting the fake powder.

“If somebody is going to snort something, often they use a clear hose that goes down the shirtsleeve and it’s taped to the underside of their hand,” Rappaport said.

“When they supposedly go to pinch off their nose on one side to snort, really what they’re doing is they’re just putting the polyethylene tubing down against the mirror, and it’s sucking up the white powder,” he added.

Scarface cocaine
Fake cocaine isn’t always safe to snort. Universal Pictures

Prop newspapers sometimes have more detail than you’d expect

With more and more people pausing television screens to find Easter eggs in their favorite shows, it’s no surprise that prop departments want to be as thorough as possible when it comes to creating fake newspapers.

Shoffner likes speaking with directors, actors, and screenwriters so that they can weigh in on the type of fake news stories she types up for a production, she said.

“Usually I’m looking to those folks for advice on what the major headlines will be,” Shoffner said. “I like to be as detail-oriented as I can, just to help do what I can to create the world.”

But Reeder added that on particularly large-scale productions, the newspapers in the background aren’t typically designed for close-ups.

“If it’s a background extra reading, we’ll use something that’s premade,” Reeder said. “There are prop houses in LA that make up already premade cleared newspapers with cleared images, through stock companies and all that.”

Real license plates are never used on screen

Every time a license plate is shown in a film or on television, prop masters have to ensure that it doesn’t exist in real life.

If they’re shooting a street scene, they have to check that every car captured on camera has a custom license plate “where the numbers are cleared,” Reeder said.

“There’s no one in the world with that license plate,” Reeder said, referring to on-screen plates. “It doesn’t belong to someone else.”

When it comes to fake babies, other experts are usually involved

When a script calls for a prop baby, production companies often call on specific experts within the industry, Rappaport said.

“There are a handful of people that do nothing more than make babies,” he said. “They use real strands of human hair, they use a glass for the eyes, and they’re all hand-painted.”

Prop babies are so realistic that they often feel uncanny, Rappaport added.

“They look exactly like real babies,” he said. “The expression on their faces, the way they sleep, the way they have their thumb in their mouth, and all sorts of things. … You can’t tell the difference.”

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Fake babies can be pretty realistic. Michael Yarish / Netflix

Real food can be used for food fights, but the menu is carefully chosen with the wardrobe department in mind

While he was working on “Friday Night Lights,” Reeder said he needed all hands on deck after an episode called for a massive food fight.

“When I was ordering food for that, it was like trying to go dry – stuff that wasn’t like wet, sloppy stuff that was going to ruin people’s wardrobes,” Reed said.

He added that unless a “particular character gets pudding slapped on his hair” the props department tried to opt for dry food. For instance, cafeteria food like salad, bread, and burgers are all easier to clean up than mashed potatoes.

“The cleanup was rough, but I booked extra help to help,” Reeder said. “Luckily we only did one take.”

Many props, like chip bags and pianos, are designed to be as quiet as possible

Most props, like beach balls and frying pans, are designed to be as quiet as possible so that sound effects can be added in post-production.

“For noisier props, I’ll do things like add felt inside of something,” Shoffner said, describing a gutted piano she once used on set.

She added that in order for the piano keys “to be pressed down and to not hear a kind of click, we had to felt all the undersides of all the hammers of the piano.”

When it comes to particularly noisy items like chip bags, Shoffner said they were typically made out of a different material altogether.

She added: “There are companies that make vinyl plastic bags and vinyl paper bags that reduce up to 90% of the sound but still look like a paper bag or cellophane or a plastic bag.”

Making computer servers visible on screen is incredibly difficult

Rappaport, who recently provided props for “WandaVision,” said using real computer servers was more challenging than most viewers might realize.

“To make real servers usable for television and film, you have to replace standard light bulbs and LEDs and displays with those that can be filmed,” Rappaport said. “The frequencies of the light that are used in filming are different from normal light bulbs nowadays.”

He added that this difficult process involved taking all the LEDs out of a server and replacing them with film-ready LEDs and lights.

“It may look easy when you see it on TV, and you see computers with interesting flashy lights and things like that,” he said. “But it’s much more complex than you can imagine – having to change out all the electronics and make them usable.”

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Filming computer screens isn’t as easy as it looks. The CW

Fake medication can be made from gelatin capsules or sugar pills

When a script calls for a character to take medication, the actor downs a harmless replica of the real thing.

“If someone’s popping pills, we’ll use placebo,” Reeder said. “You can buy empty gelatin capsules that are colored off of Amazon.”

It’s also typical for actors to chew and swallow sugar pills, which come in all shapes in sizes, the property master said.

“They’ve got different types. You’ve got the blue, white, oval, oblong, or round,” Reeder added. “I keep a good selection on the prop truck.”

Fake cigarettes are relatively simple to make, but imposter marijuana buds are more challenging

Cigarettes and joints are commonplace on film and TV, but manufacturing fake marijuana is more difficult than viewers might expect.

“There’s herbal cigarettes for cigarettes,” Reeder said. “If it’s supposed to be marijuana, there are these herbal blends that you can get out of Los Angeles that looks like it. And when you roll it, a lot of times we’ll just take the herbal tobacco that’s nicotine-free and additive-free.”

But Rappaport said making realistic-looking marijuana that’s not wrapped in a joint could be very challenging to fabricate.

“Fake marijuana buds are one of the most difficult drugs that we do,” Rappaport said. “It’s something that grows in South America, and it gives the texture and the feel and the look that we need.”

“But it’s blended with a lot of other things,” he added. “So it’s just a very, very difficult process. A small batch takes 12 hours. People have no idea. It’s very time-consuming.”

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Fake marijuana buds can take hours to make. Columbia Pictures

Any prop that needs to look old is hit with an ‘aging kit’

When props need to be aged, Reeder said, he hits them with his aging kit.

“If all of a sudden they say, ‘I want this actor to have a duffel bag.’ Well, we’ll run to the store and get the duffel bag,” Reeder said. “But you don’t want it looking brand new if it’s supposed to look like this character has had it for a couple of years.”

Using the kit, Reeder and his team do things like hit the object with a sock filled with different colors of clean dirt. This helps the object look older than it is.

“We’ll hit it with sandpaper, and we’ll do whatever they need,” Reeder said. “It’s aging things, so we’re always depreciating.”

Coffee cups are often weighed down to look more realistic

When a TV character holds a coffee cup on screen, viewers at home sometimes question whether the cups are actually full. But according to the pros, cups are typically weighed down by something, even if it’s not coffee.

“If it’s a main character drinking out of a coffee cup, we put liquid in it,” Reeder said. “A lot of times, it may not be coffee – it’ll be tea.”

When it comes to background extras, Reeder said, he uses a special silicone mixture to make coffee cups appear heavier, but main characters have priority.

Shoffner also acknowledged the importance of weighing down items like coffee cups so that they look and feel more believable.

“Even if we never see what’s inside a to-go cup, I’ll weight it with some washers at the bottom or something glued into the inside so that it feels like there’s a little bit of weight,” Shoffner said.

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Coffee cups have something in them even if it’s not brew. Gilmore Girls

Fake alcohol comes in an array of flavors and colors

Reeder said that wine and champagne could be easily swapped out with drinks like sparkling grape juice, diet ginger ale, and even something called “de-alcoholized wine.”

While hard liquor entails a bit more fine-tuning, when an actor takes a shot on-screen and grimaces, that reaction is “pure acting,” Reeder said.

“They say, ‘Act like it’s whiskey,'” he added. “But, you know, they don’t want to be drinking something rancid.”

Reeder added that his secret to a convincing bottle of whiskey was pretty simple.

“I do two drops of caramel coloring in a standard 566.99g bottle of water,” he said. “Actors always seem to dig the caramel coloring.”