A Collectors' Guide To Hand Props:

An In-depth Look.

By Richard A. Coyle


So what is a hand prop?

A hand prop is anything that can be held in a person's hand. In this context, a hand prop will refer to an item held in the actor's hand during filming a scene or scenes within a movie or television show.

A hand prop is any knife, cup, cellular phone, medical instrument, handgun, rifle or any other common everyday thing that an actor can pick up and hold.

For the purposes of this discussion we will concentrate only on the not-so-everyday type items, i.e. the hand prop seen within science fiction/fantasy movies and television shows.

Millions of people have been touched by the awe and wonder of these movies and TV shows. Within their dramatic action nature, the protagonist is usually portrayed in a very heroic manner where the fate of the entire planet, or even the universe, hangs in the balance. Some viewers have been caught up in these high adventures and identify with that hero. This is one reason for the desirability of these collectibles, especially the aptly-named "hero" prop.

Other people have enjoyed the epic sweep and uniqueness of the story telling. Many have become fans not only of the movies and programs but fans of the complete processes that bring these stories to life, the film-making itself. They study every aspect of the production, the costumes, the makeup, the special effects, the set design, etc. Some have become movie and TV show producers, an occupation evolving naturally from their studies.

One important aspect of movie making has always been the hand prop. It can set the personality of the character. The right type of hand gun and holster can define the cowboy from the gunslinger. The right hand prop can even set the whole plot of the whole movie; 'The Maltese Falcon' was one such hand prop.

Hand props do not stop there. There are many types of the same model needed for film work. There is the "hero" or closeup model, the special effects model, the special working model that fires blanks, the background prop and the stunt prop.

Of Heroes and Stunts

At the top of any collectors' prop buying list would be the "Hero" hand prop which was shown in the hand of the lead star in an important scene within the movie or TV show. Standard practice would require two or more fully functional heroes. "Hero" is movie slang for the best model with the most features used for the closeup or insert shot. This is usually shown in those shots where just about all you see is the hand of the actor holding the hand prop. One such scene is the closeup of Cpt. Kirk's hand welding the door knob of a room he had just herded the doctors into during the hospital scene in the movie Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home. The number of "hero" props depends on how many scenes the prop may be in and the possibility of the actor dropping it to the floor destroying it. Adam West of Batman was infamous for this.

In the Star Trek IV example, there were no stunt props made of this hand prop. There was only one stunt planned and the low risk stunt of throwing the prop to the Navy FBI man could be safely done with the model already on hand.

Were this a scene with firing props, there would be both of the first two types used: a "hero" prop and the special rigged special effect prop to produce the flash and bang of a firing weapon. They would, of course, use the non-functional copies for the majority of the scenes where you would not see the gun fired. The special realistic firing props would be reserved for the scenes where it would be fired and secured for safety reasons after the scene was "in the can". This ensured that all during the rest of the filming the actors would be carrying safe and harmless non-firing props.

The Background prop is used when there will be many actors or extras in the background to be seen with props. A background hand prop is usually made from a mold taken from of the "hero" props, then cast in plastic for low cost and usually only receives minimum detailing.

The background Phasers made for the first Star Trek movie were cheaply made, vacuum-formed copies with two halves taped together and no detailing. They were commonly and irreverently referred to as the "twenty-five cent models".

Last is the Stunt prop. The standard practice would be for a mold to be taken from one of the hand props to produce rubber stunt props for any action scenes where someone could be harmed by a hard prop. These rubber stunt props, so important for the safety of the actors, are the least collectible of props. This is because the detailing is normally very poor as detailing does not usually show in fast moving action scenes anyway and also because the use of foam rubber abbreviates their shelf life for the rubber has a dismaying tendency to rot away unless preserved within a special atmosphere.

Identifying and Verifying

One of the main problems for the collector of these pieces of movie history and memorabilia is correctly identifying the actual prop. Normally research gives you only enough to narrow your search down to the actual number of hand props made for each movie or TV show.

It is usually almost impossible to prove which of the two or more hand props made for each scene was "The One That Was Actually Used." Again, using the Cpt. Kirk hand prop scene in Star Trek IV as an example, there were two of these props on the set for the filming, so there are two "original" props from this movie. Either could be seen on the movie screen or conversely, either could have been shot in take after take and not been seen on the screen. Confusion is multiplied.

Adding to the confusion of which prop actually made the final cut of the scene is the common practice of prop makers everywhere to produce copies of these hand props both at the same time or at a later date for their own archives, friends, co-workers, even to have their own copies and sometimes to sell to collectors.

There is also a growing number of prop makers outside of Hollywood (who never worked in Hollywood) who produce "copy props," often in their garages, which is why such props are commonly known as "garage kits." Sadly, these copy props are sometimes mistaken for real ones.

And last to all our sorrow and shame, some prop makers produce forgeries and reproductions made to be sold as "real original, right off the movie set, right-out-of-the-actor's- hand-prop." Perhaps the government should require a stamp of certification?

So it is a buyer beware...Letters of Authenticity are not any guarantee as many of the letters are fakes too.

Other officials, producers, stars and crew did not care nor really know what the props really looked like in the early years. They gave little thought that some of their signatures could be put to fraudulent use.

Auction houses do the best they can to verify authenticity of props sold, but even then can be deceived.

I have witnessed three experts fighting over whether a prop was real or not.

Last word, buy for the fun of ownership and for yourself. Investing in props can be risky so you should never spend more than you can afford to totally lose. A fake is worth almost nothing.

Good luck.

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