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Q. So you made mostly “winky blinkies”?
A. Mainly, that was what got me the calls and thus the jobs. Sadly, it bugged a lot of the LA crowd of would be prop makers to see this come-out-of-nowhere hick from Phoenix get all these jobs, but most of them had worked on model making and had no electronic skills and often did only copies of props already used in films and TV shows, and the film makers wanted new props and new ideas, which I often did have. And the electronics, the lights and so on.
Q. So you were a little unpopular with the local boys?
A. A little. I did make a few friends, and they got to work on a few of the projects with me.
Q. Like what projects?
A. We got a deal making Nautilus reproductions with Disney, thanks mainly to a friend, Mr. Scott Brodeen. He made a great 16 inch model of Captain Nemo’s boat, so we were getting commercial work as well. We made props and models for the fans and collectors between film work.
Film work like Star Trek Four, Five and Six. A couple of small films like “Nightmare at Noon,” “Titan Find,” and others. We got to visit the Paramount lot and see some of the films being filmed and walk the film sets.
Q. What was that like, to visit the sets?
A. It does kind of disturb your enjoyment of the films’ suspense of reality, once you have seen how crudely made most of the sets were. The Star Trek skit on “Saturday Night” with the lamps hung behind panels and the old clothes wringer used to feed the paper through the wall to look like an automatic print out is just about dead on.
I saw that the turbo elevator was a wood frame with a pretty interior and a crude wood frame exterior. The green textured panel detail of the wall interiors shown in the films were, in real life, just carpet padding. More reality busting, one panel had a small tear in it.
Q. That was bad?
A. Oh yes, because I’d be watching the film, a scene with Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock in the turbo lift, a dramatic scene, very intense, and then I’d spot that tear in the carpet padding and would be blown right out of the film’s suspended reality. Now all I could see were William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy acting in front of a wood framed box with carpet padding on the walls. It really blows the movie fantasy once you’ve seen the reality.
Q. That happened a lot?
A. On almost every film I worked on, either I would visit the set and see the harsh reality of film making OR I would spot a prop I made and drop out of the film, as I would critique my work and see how realistic (or not) it looked on film and how many (or few) of its functions got used.
Q. What are some of these props you have spotted on film?
A. Let’s begin with the best and important: the Klingon hand disruptor from “Star Trek Four: The Voyage Home.” It was featured when Chekov tried to get away from the US Navy interrogators and received a close up when Cpt. Kirk hustled the doctors into a small room off the operating room and then welded the door shut with one of the hand weapons. Interesting note about insert shots and bloopers, watch the screen, first the Prop is in his left hand, then in the close-up, it’s in his right hand and, pop, it is back in his left hand. On another note, that the design was the work of my then 16 year old son, Robert Coyle, who was working with me that summer.
Next would be the wrist communicator from “Star Three: The Wrath of Khan,” where Cpt. Tyrell tears his off with his teeth. Cpt. Kirk grips it in a later scene and bellows into it.
For our final group of props we return to “Star Trek Four.” Uhura and Chekov used a “Power Leach” to collect photons from the Nuclear reactor aboard the USS Enterprise. Our Clipboard for Scotty gets a scene, and, lastly, there was our Plex Welder. The welder was a particularly electronics intensive prop. We rigged it with fifty yellow and red LEDs and three settings: red and orange with both colors running, or red all blinking with one or both sides running, all settings controllable by the actor with even a speed adjustment.
But, frustratingly, it could be three blocks of wood from what is show in the film. They simple rigged a “flaming match,” which is a stage gag that burns on command in a line. It made the welding action of Scotty welding the plexi-glass together look real, but they did not show the lighted panels we worked so hard to make. Like an actor’s best lines, many of a prop’s best scenes end up on the cutting room floor.
A lot of these props were made with the help of my friends and crew then, Scott Brodeen, (Specially the “Plex Welder” body, helped on the “Power Leach” and others) Bob Rokes, (he did most of the painting) Shawn Crosby and Roger Farnham, (model makers).
Q. Sounds like your career was really taking off at this point.
A. That was what we all thought, but this was the peak. I made a pitch to Ralph Winter executive producer for prop work on “Star Trek Five: The Final Frontier” but did not get the job. A little later I got a call from Greg Jein asking if he could get a few props. Well, this was a bit of a letdown, but by then I had so many friends who wanted to do movie props, we took the work.
And that is what happen again with “Star Trek Six: The Undiscovered Country.” Again Greg ordered props and electronic drivers from my shop. Eventually I pulled out of LA and returned to Phoenix and have been making a living as a model maker.
Q. What models?
A. I had let the deal with Disney fade away when my buyer, Ms. Lois Fulmer, retired back in about ’91, so I contacted Disney and offered the Nautilus again. We made a run of it, the Monorail, Moon Liner, Submarine Ride, the Autopia ride and Flying Saucer ride. This was due to the help of Mr. Shawn Crosby who helped get the ball rolling and to Mr. Arron Mack who really helped with all the production work. Sadly, due to major miscommunication between us and Disney, this fell apart after only one delivery of 24 Nautilus, 50 Moonliners, 24 Monorails and a few of the other models.
Q. What advice do you have for up and coming propmakers?
A. I give this lecture called, “Mothers, don’t let your children grow up to be propmakers” It is an underpaid, under- credited job. And nowadays the very thing that got me so much work, electronics, is no longer the draw. Things have become so miniaturized that I have to go to other electronic manufacturers to get my drivers. You have to be able to work with surface mounted components and “chip on board” devices. No longer can you simply perf-board a dip IC and hook up a couple of LEDs. And I have even seen CGI done onto a wrist com face, so less of our work is needed.
If you’ve got the talent to work models (3D work) with your hands, go for make-up effects. There you stand a small but real chance of steady work doing normal make-up between the special jobs and you might end up becoming tomorrow’s Mike Westmore or Stan Winston.
Q. So what is in your future?
A. I continue to make model s and am currently running a webzine, FX Propmaker’s Journal at my website www.racprops.com . It covers much of what I have learned about the real props being used in TV and Films and is loaded with pictures starting with the early black and white classic phasers on up to the present day.
Also we have begun making recreations of the classic phaser from Classic Star Trek at www.roddenberry.com operated by Gene Roddenberry’s son, Eugene W. Roddenberry, Jr. This is akin to a “voyage home” for me, as in the beginning, I am making props for fans.
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