Thor’s hammer. A volleyball named Wilson. One ring to rule them all. What do each of these things have in common? You’re probably thinking that they’re all movie props, and that’s true, but that’s not what makes them distinguished. When used properly (no pun intended), props become synonymous with the stories they tell. So, filmmakers, how do we turn objects into icons?

Importance of Movie props

Why movie props matter

The importance of movie props and their effects on filmmaking are explored in depth in Rishi Kaneria’s video essay Why Props Matter, using a wide variety of examples from classic and modern cinema.

Props, unsung heroes

A prop is essentially any object that plays a part in the story. However, as Rishi points out, good movie props can become so much more. So how do you take a run-of-the-mill item and turn it into a meaningful symbol? Outlined below are six different ways in which a movie prop functions and how to help it gain significance.

Establish the World

1. The effect of movie props on films

When used correctly, a prop feels so in place with its surroundings that it is essentially invisible. Anything that looks out of place in the world will immediately snap the audience out of your film. While the perfect prop can draw the audience in, or move the story forward, just as easily can the wrong prop shatter the illusion.

People know a lightsaber even without having seen the movie

Luke’s first interaction with his father’s Lightsaber in Star Wars: A New Hope, is not only an introduction to his past, but also a way to draw the audience into the world. This lightsaber, more than the dirt huts or blue milk, truly suggests a galaxy far far away.

Create deeper symbolic meaning

2. Add meaning to transitions

A more cinematic approach to movie prop usage, inserts and shots that heavily feature film props not only highlight the object’s importance, but are also an opportunity to create deeper symbolic meanings. At the end of Titanic, when Rose is on the deck of the ship, she opens her hand, revealing The Heart of the Ocean.

Props as symbols for something much grander

The reveal of the heart she’s been holding on to in secret carries deeper significance by this point, and also serves as a seamless transition.

Represent Characters With Movie Props

3. Make prop part of the story

Apart from being an emotive tool, a movie prop represents a way of life, character traits, social status, or can even become a character itself. When a character has a deep emotional connection to an object, such as Thor and his hammer, the prop becomes a pivotal part of the story.

Movie props can also communicate theme

Mjölnir not only represents strength, it is Thor’s best hope for survival, and as such, is an essential part of his identity.

Further the Plot

4. Movie props set the story in motion

A prop can reveal truth, create or solve problems, and also facilitate a character’s thoughts or actions. As a result, objects are often used to move plots forward. A simple and relatable storytelling device, some film props are so important that they put entire plots in motion.

Movie props reveal hard truths

An example of this is the pregnancy test from the opening scene of Juno. A single shot of this commonplace item sets the entire story in motion.

Movie Props Set The Tone

5. Reaction of characters to props

The way movie props are used, a character’s reaction to it, or even the actual presence of the object itself can trigger a visceral response. This sort of visual storytelling elicits an emotional reaction, and helps to set the tone of the piece.

Ambiguity can give movie props power

A great example is John Travolta’s reaction to the briefcase in Pulp Fiction — it adds mystery and intrigue to the moment while effectively building tension every time it makes an appearance.

Symbolize the Themes

6. Movie props as themes

Beyond being functional, a film prop can communicate subtext regarding the messages and themes of a film. Suddenly, it becomes an iconic symbol that makes a statement and acts as a commentary.

Totems, symbols, themes

The spinning top from Inception exemplifies this concept. In the film, reality and knowledge of the truth are two major recurring themes. Not only is the spinning top representative of these themes as it spins in balance ever precariously as we await it’s inevitable end.

The attention paid to this object, along with its underlying meanings, elevate it into icon status as it becomes synonymous with the film.

It seems to me, that by considering the functions listed above, almost anything can become a meaningful prop. However, one thing Rishi doesn’t discuss is the importance of selecting the exact right prop, which I feel is a major component of turning an object into an icon.

Do you have personal experience with movie prop selection either making or breaking a scene? What resources do you use for rare or uniquely original movie props? Let us know in the comments.

Up Next

Production design in 'The Boys'

Now that we have a primer on how movie props can become icons, let's look at a recent example that takes this idea to the next level. In Amazon's The Boys, the approach to production design is fully committed to using movie props, set design, costumes, and more to make these superheroes iconic. In our video essay, we'll break down key scenes and character designs that aim for iconic status.

Up Next: Iconic Production Design in "The Boys" →
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  • A freelance writer and producer, Mary has worked on a wide variety of independent and commercial projects, in addition to her ongoing work as a digital comedy writer. Currently, Mary works with several notable YouTube channels including Legend of Katie, Chocolate Ghost House, and Nani Nani Kids. She is also a co-founder of Infinititty Comedy, a female-centric sketch group dedicated to placing women in the film positions which offer creative control.

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