- Loud objects on a movie set can prevent the sound team from picking up the best dialogue possible.
- Prop people have come up with quieter alternatives known as silent props.
- Racquetballs take the place of real pool balls, while silicone ice cubes are quieter than real ones.
Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Look at these two paper bags. They don’t appear very different, but they sound different. One of these is a real, everyday paper bag,
and the other one is a silent prop.
[bag quietly unfolding]
This fake paper bag was an innovation thought up by prop maker Tim Schultz.
Tim Schultz: Props is always about solving a problem.
Narrator: And one of those problems is everyday objects that don’t look distracting, but sound distracting. I often say that a sound guy can hear grass growing when you’re on location.
Narrator: Silencing some props, like drums, can be fairly simple, like adding a drum mute.
[muted drum thuds]
[muted drum thuds]
But others require getting a bit more creative, like with pool balls, which were too loud for these two bar scenes in season one of “Friday Night Lights.”
Man: Nice shot!
Narrator: Property master Scott Reeder needed to find a ball that would create a softer sound on impact.
First, he experimented with plastic balls from a ball pit. They were much quieter, but he couldn’t get paint to stick to the surface.
Then he remembered a trick he used on 1991’s “Necessary Roughness” during a shot where a character is thrown onto a pool table in a bar fight. Reeder swapped real pool balls with racquetballs, so the actor would land on something softer.
Scott Reeder: We didn’t really clue in at the time that, oh, you know, these would be good for sound.
Narrator: Listen to how real pool balls sound.
It’s too noisy.
Narrator: Compared to the racquetballs.
Reeder: Much better.
Narrator: To get it to look like the real thing, Reeder added a layer of primer to make sure the paint stuck, followed with a glossy spray to give off the signature shine of a real pool ball.
Reeder: You gotta pick them up to tell that they’re not real.
Narrator: And Reeder also had to know when to swap the props in.
Reeder: If actors are playing in a scene, we’ll typically do real if the camera’s going to see them hit the ball. And then when the camera goes to where it’s just on their face, we’ll throw the fake ones on the table so they can actually play pool. That way, the sound man can catch the dialogue.
Narrator: Prop masters don’t always need to find a replacement. Some silent props are made by just modifying the real thing.
For example, in this scene in “Tammy,” actress Melissa McCarthy needed to wear a paper bag on her head to hide her identity and another one on her hand to hide a gun.
Schultz said it was important for her to use the real thing, but a real paper bag would sound something like this.
Tammy: You want some pies?
Worker: I like pie.
Tammy: Well, get a pie,
you get a pie for —
Narrator: Quieting these real bags down meant adding more weight to them. So Schultz sprayed the bags with a mix of water and glycerin, which is typically used to add the appearance of sweat or water droplets on anything from human skin to beer bottles.
Schultz: Takes quite a bit of — well, it takes time and finesse, ’cause you don’t want to overdo it.
Narrator: He also taped the bags inside to hold them together and prevent them from crumbling. But this fix was only temporary, since the bags would eventually lose their color and fall apart over time.
And this wouldn’t work for when actors have to handle bags consistently.
So for other projects, Schultz developed a quiet, durable, alternative using fibrous nonwoven fabric. This is actually the same material as coffee filters. To make it look like the real thing, Schultz wraps the fabric around a mold, then he glues and folds the sides by hand.
Schultz: We’re trying to copy the bottom of a standard bag that’s really made by a machine. It’s important to get the corners so that they’re square. A lot of times we’ll, when we’re using them, we’ll crinkle them and make them look more used, so they have a more realistic look. Instead of cutting it smooth, it’s going to cut it with a little jagged edge to it.
Narrator: This fabric can be used on other paper products as well, like when this butcher in “The Kominsky Method” talks to Alan Arkin while grabbing a handful of cold cuts. That butcher paper? Fake.
It’s these small handheld props that give prop masters the most trouble, especially in scenes with dialogue. For example, an actor with a drink will likely hold it near their midsection, where microphones are often attached. It’s especially important to make sure whatever is in that drink doesn’t produce any unwanted sounds. So if you’re watching a show like “Entourage” with lots of scenes at parties and bars, it’s safe to assume that these ice cubes are all fake.
But not all fake ice is the same. Plastic cubes don’t melt, which is great for continuity, but they’re still really loud.
So when sound is crucial, Schultz often opts for another type of fake cubes. These ones, made out of silicone. These rubber cubes can either be molded in trays or ripped apart. Since the final product floats in a glass, they look more convincing.
[ice softly clunking]
And, best of all, they’re completely silent.
Schultz: Background actors can move this stuff around without having to worry about the sound.
Narrator: So when this waitress walks by with a trayful of cups with ice, you can hear …
Turtle: What time’s dinner? We’re starving.
Narrator: And not …
Turtle: What time’s dinner?
Narrator: While ice cubes only pop up in certain moments, other loud materials are everywhere. Like plastic.
Everything from sandwich bags to potato-chip bags make loud crackles. So Schultz will create fake ones out of vinyl. So, this material,
it’s that dull sound.
Narrator: And it comes in handy for other places you might not expect, like flower bouquets that are wrapped in cellophane.
Take this moment from “The Kominsky Method” where Michael Douglas’ character brings flowers to an ailing friend. If Schultz had used real cellophane for the bouquet, all the sound team would hear is …
What kind of flowers
I have no idea.
Narrator: So, he used a transparent vinyl material to replicate the look without all the noise. What kind of flowers are those? I have no idea. Uh-huh. So your daughter bought them? Yeah.
Narrator: But no solution is one-size-fits-all.
Schultz: Noisy tissue, but a quiet bag.
Still doesn’t solve the problem.
Narrator: Some objects need multiple layers of silent material to effectively kill any noise, like with these gift bags.
Schultz: So, quiet tissue. Quiet bag. Done.
Narrator: So, next time you see a scene set in a grocery store, a bar, or even just around the office, look twice at the everyday objects you can see, but can’t hear.
We can all thank the prop makers for that.