Alex Mack Props part III
Do You Have a Giant Bee?
By Burt Salks
One of the most enjoyable parts of my job as "Special Props and Graphics" guy on The Secret World of Alex Mack is creating phony consumer products. Whenever someone on the show is seen eating cereal or drinking a canned soft drink, it is necessary to "Greek" the label in order to avoid conflicts with advertisers. Greeking a label in the most minimal sense sometimes means simply obscuring the brand name with paper tape or magic marker. I always hated seeing something on TV that had obviously been Greeked using the paper tape method.
We have all seen episodes of "Rhoda" or "The Bob Newhart Show" where someone pours a bowl of cereal from a box of Cheerios and therešs a big hunk of blue tape over the word "Cheerios." It looks dumb and it blows the illusion.
On our show, a decision was made early in the first season to avoid at all costs this ugly type of Greeking and go for something more realistic, and whenever possible, funny. With easy access to computers and color printers, this is an attainable goal. I like to think that occasionally a viewer will tape the show and use the"pause" to get a closer look at some of these goofy labels. I use Adobe Illustrator and a Power Mac to design most of the graphics for the show. This includes all of the labels, book covers, signs, company logos, lab paperwork and school paperwork.
The labels are fun, because I like to make them as bizarre as I can while still keeping it all believable. I like the idea that something would look completely real until you take that second look and realize that instead of canned pear halves, you're looking at a can of "Delicious Pickled Gristle Squares." The main "store brand" in Paradise Valley (the fictitious home town of Alex Mack), is "Aunt Peanut's" brand, and some of the fake canned goods in the Mack kitchen pantry are "Crunchy Nuggets", "Cheese Hair", "Pre-Baked Knobs", "Alfalfa Pellets" and "Strained Felt Tips". These cans are rarely, if ever on screen long enough for the home viewer to actually read them, but the crew gets a laugh and thatšs important.
Several times a script has called for a character to be reading a book. and the trouble with this type of shot is the fact that all of the books on the show need to be something that isn't copyrighted. This means that the book's cover needs to be completely fabricated from scratch. One script called for a character to be reading a romance novel, so I snapped a few digital photographs of two crew members in a passionate embrace, and using a photo-editing computer program called PhotoShop, I arranged several elements together to make a romance novel called "Wildfire". At the time, in Valencia, California, where we shoot the show, there were real wildfires burning out of control all around us, and the "burning sweaty passion of two extremely hot co-workers" on the book's cover was a reference to the 120 degree temperatures we had been shooting in, so the book cover was basically an inside joke for the crew that doubled as a realistic-looking prop.
I have made many posters, flyers and book and magazine covers for the show and almost every one of them has featured at least one altered photograph of a crew member. One "lost dog" flyer even featured a shot of Sadie, the Production Designer's Australian Shepherd.
Sometimes a director will request a unique prop or graphic that involves some serious thought, especially if it needs to perform some real function in the show. Recently, I had to make a high-tech hyperbaric transportation cage for a full-grown chimpanzee. The container was made to appear as though it had atmospheric and pressure controls, yet it needed to be easy for a cast member to carry around the set for several scenes. The basic shape was a hexagon with a sliding dog door on one end. This basic shape was beautifully constructed from thin wood by a talented craftsman named Tony Clack, and I simply painted it and added the blinky doo-dads. It had blue segmented tubes running from a small box on top, a panel with several multi-colored LEDs and nice tough aluminum handles on both sides.
Sometimes the most outrageous requests end up becoming the most outrageously effective props. There are, however, situations where the director will ask for something that just isn't possible. I guess they feel like they might as well ask, just in case we happen to have one of everything ever conceived of by mankind in a special drawer on the prop truck. My favorite "absurd request" happened on location early in the morning.
We were shooting in a park, and the scene consisted of our two main characters walking and talking. The director suddenly wanted something in the foreground other than branches, so he approached the prop department and said (and I'm not making this up), "For this next shot, do you guys have a giant bee about the size of a football? It needs to look pretty realistic because we want to fly it past the camera. Picture"s up, so if you could get that to the set really quick, it would be great."
Todd, the Propmaster and I looked at each other in astonishment, simultaneously repeating the phrase, "Do you have a giant bee?!"
Needless to say, we didn't have a giant bee, and being several miles from the shop, we were unable to make one in the three minutes we had before they were ready to shoot. We give that director a hard time about the giant bee to this day, and the phrase still seems to come up whenever anyone makes an absurd request for an impossible prop.
Despite the fact that we were unable to provide him with the prop he wanted, the director presented our department with a beautiful giant stuffed bee at the end of the season.
Another strange prop was known as "Chappy's Water Filter." The episode introduced a character named Chappy, who lived in the woods in a strange little shack. The character had once worked for the local chemical plant, but lost his job and went into seclusion. The character was a highly intelligent, but occasionally absent-minded inventor. The script included a scene where Chappy pours a glass of water for Alex and Ray using a complicated contraption allegedly designed to purify water from a nearby stream.
I used almost fifty feet of plastic and nylon tubing connected with "Y" and "T" connectors, PVC pipe and various "found' objects. A heavy-duty aquarium pump pushed water through the tubing while an aerator provided bubbles to make the water more visible as it meandered and spiraled around this vaguely funnel-shaped gizmo. At the bottom of the funnel was a valve that the actor opened, drizzling water into a glass.
I think the crazy, challenging props are more fun because I get an opportunity to actually invent things. I get a kick out of trying to imagine what a non-existent thing would look like, or trying to design a realistic futuristic device that does something very specific.
Whenever I have time, I like to draw sketches of the more elaborate props and show them to the directors before I start. Sometimes it seems more like a hobby than a job, but as long as someone is willing to give me a paycheck for having fun, I'll be happy.