Movie props have ‘undeniable charm.’ A new Disney+ series spotlights the fading art

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A scene from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” episode of “Prop Culture.” (Mitch Haaseth / Disney+) In Disney’s 1989 classic “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” two pairs of siblings learn that the backyard is a dangerous place when you’ve accidentally been zapped by a shrink ray. The four miniaturized kids ride […]

A scene from "The Nightmare Before Christmas" episode of "Prop Culture." <span class="copyright">(Mitch Haaseth / Disney+)</span>
A scene from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” episode of “Prop Culture.” (Mitch Haaseth / Disney+)

In Disney’s 1989 classic “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” two pairs of siblings learn that the backyard is a dangerous place when you’ve accidentally been zapped by a shrink ray.

The four miniaturized kids ride insects, climb flowers, sleep in Lego bricks and splash around in a bowl of cereal on the journey to reach their parents. It’s a magical adventure, made possible by special effects, that has captivated many over the years.

“It’s sort of a universal kids fantasy,” director Joe Johnston told The Times during a recent phone call. “Here’s your backyard that you know like the back of your hand, and yet when you’re a quarter-inch tall, it’s a completely alien environment. I think that was one of the things that was appealing to the kids.”

“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” marked Johnston’s directorial debut after he cut his teeth working on designs and storyboards for the original “Star Wars” trilogy. He was reunited with the film’s infamous shrinking machine in an episode of “Prop Culture,” a new documentary series out now on Disney+.

The show follows host Dan Lanigan as he looks into props and other film artifacts, then meets with cast and crew members who reminisce about how these films were made.

Because it’s a Disney+ series, some of the featured items are pulled right out of the Walt Disney Archives — the extensive in-house collection of the company’s history. Others are found with former crew members or borrowed from individual collectors. But every prop helped tell a story, and each is potent with nostalgia.

“These props, these costumes, these set pieces, the artwork — it’s all an extension of these films, because either this stuff was made for these movies or it was sourced and modified for [them],” said Lanigan, a prop collector and film historian. “It has some of that residual magic apparent from the making of these movies.”

Each episode of “Prop Culture” focuses on a different film, including “Mary Poppins” (1964), “Tron” (1982), “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993), “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) and “The Muppet Movie” (1979).

For Lanigan, collecting and learning about props stem from a desire to feel closer to the movies he loves. .

“If you’re not into movies, you’re not going to dig props,” said Lanigan. “The connection point for collecting these film-used artifacts is loving movies.”

The series is a celebration of artists, practical effects and how filmmaking used to be. It’s clear that Lanigan holds these classical techniques in high regard and believes in the special quality of the tangible: that actors in front of the camera can’t be matched by worlds built completely through CGI.

Among the artists featured in the show is animator Tom St. Amand, the armature supervisor on “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” He was in charge of getting the metal skeletons with posable joints for the stop-motion puppets built. Each of the armatures was custom-designed and made from scratch.

“Basically, you would start with a character design and then we would build an armature,” St. Amand explained in a recent phone call. “Then the sculptors would sculpt directly over the armature. That way, you can be sure that everything fit inside.”

St. Amand, who has worked on films such as “E.T.,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “The Rocketeer,” “Jurassic Park” and a handful of “Star Wars” titles, described working on “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as something special.

“You’d have liked visiting the sets because it was kind of like going to Disneyland in a way,” said St. Amand. “We had maybe 20 different setups going at the same time.”

Sally and Jack in a scene from Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas." <span class="copyright">(Walt Disney Pictures)</span>
Sally and Jack in a scene from Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” (Walt Disney Pictures)

Inspired by movies such as the original “King Kong,” “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” and “Jason and the Argonauts,” St. Amand said he “just wanted to learn how to do all that stuff.”

“Back in those days you wanted to learn how to sculpt. … You had to learn something about mold-making [and] things like taxidermy,” said St. Amand. “I really wanted to learn how to do everything, and I ended up specializing in doing the armatures.”

Every once in a while, however, he’d fill in as a sculptor or a puppet fabricator. He once did costumes for a show because there was no one else to do them.

“You couldn’t always do your specialty all the time; you were always kind of thrown into situations,” explained St. Amand. “But that was pretty good, because each of us got a chance to do a range of things.”

As the industry shifted to using more digital effects, St. Amand learned new tools of the trade and transitioned to working in CG — though he admits he and his peers had mixed feelings about it.

“But we could see it coming. It’s not like suddenly one week everything was different,” he said.

Though the evolution in technology allows for more complicated shots, even motion capture still requires “the eye of somebody like an animator” to fix anything that doesn’t look quite right. The technology has just changed the process.

Still, St. Amand says there is something special about making “something that you could hold and turn around in your hands and see from all sides.”

“You could put it up on a shelf and you could walk away and you could come back a day later and pick it up and go, ‘This is pretty neat. I can’t believe I made it,’” he said.

Johnston also recognizes that “there’s an undeniable charm to the way movies used to be made [with] the analog version of props and miniatures and three-dimensional things that you can actually build and pick up and touch.”

He’s welcomed the advances in technology, though he explains shooting on digital hasn’t changed the way he approaches filmmaking.

Nick floats in a bowl of cereal in a scene from "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." <span class="copyright">(Buena Vista Pictures)</span>
Nick floats in a bowl of cereal in a scene from “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” (Buena Vista Pictures)

“The visual effects should never overpower the story,” said Johnston. “It doesn’t matter if it’s stop motion or digital effects or if it’s a guy in a puppet suit, you’re still telling the story about people.”

For his next movie, on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson plans to use multiple techniques: He’ll be returning to the world of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” for the upcoming reboot, “Shrunk,” set after the events of the original film.

“When possible, why not build something that you can have the actors interact with as long as it’s cost effective?” he says. “I just think it helps ground everything — the actors and the audience and all the filmmakers — if the thing is really here.”

And at the end of the day, a prop is only as meaningful as the film for which it was created.

“It’s about the movie: You love this film, so you want to prop from it,” said Johnston.

“People will collect a bad prop from a great movie. They have no interest in a great prop from a bad movie.”

‘Prop Culture’

Where: Disney +

When: Any time

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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