The prop guys

By Erick Peterson Source:Global Times Published: 2011-9-21 8:59:00

A prop maker's life is one of hard work and tedious details. Poring over molds and sculptures - often in poorly ventilated rooms - a prop maker can spend hours, days and months struggling with a single object. And at the end of this labor, the item may end up never being used.

Al Zequira stands behind a dragon boat on the set of Oyeeo. Photo: Erick Peterson/GT


Tough life


It's a tough life, but at least three Shanghai prop makers rave about their careers. They endure this hardship because they love the process. They enjoy coming up with new designs, and then making models, some of which are as big as a person. Shaping clay, foamed plastics or other materials, they experience the joy of creativity. And when their employer sees the final result and compliments them on a job well done, the prop makers are delighted.


Al Zequira from the US is one of the prop-making professionals employed in Shanghai. Zequira is the man behind the playful designs on the TV show, Oyeeo: The Singing Island, which started in 2009. The show features a slew of colorful characters, from anthropomorphic carnival rides to a mad scientist.


Zequira is especially excited about the show because it has an aesthetic that sets it apart from many other programs. The trend these days is toward more and more computer-generated effects, which makes television shows look like video games. Oyeeo, with its hand-sculpted puppets and sets, is more realistic. Zequira says that he was hired precisely to help distinguish the show from similar Chinese programs.

When making props for the show, he often finds inspiration in the world around him. He might notice a discarded piece of plastic on a shop floor. Zequira may not know what the piece is, or where it came from, but it may help him work out the problems of a certain design. Following this example, the unknown plastic piece may influence the design of a character's elbow. Zequira may later see a wind-up toy that gives him an idea for how another character moves.


But this is not the end of his influences. Zequira draws upon a lifetime of enjoying television and movies for ideas. For the show he is working on now, he thinks back to Thunderbirds, Supercar, and The Dark Crystal. He harked back to his favorite science-fiction movies when working for movies during his Hollywood days, before coming to Shanghai.


But he is not the only person doing this kind of work. The Malaysia-born artist Mike Loh has been making costumes and props in his Shanghai office for a couple of years after he graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. He has worked on movies, and has worked in other Chinese cities as a freelancer. He found that movie work was not so profitable and stable, so he searched out alternative buyers for his creations. Loh now sells his elaborate costumes and props to movie fans who often wear these items to conventions.


"Right now, the level of quality that fans demand for costumes is very 'movie-accurate,' and they're willing to pay a lot more than movie studios," Loh said.


Loh said he can earn 500 yuan ($78) to 1,000 yuan per day for film work. Meanwhile, he can sell a single costume to a fan for $3,000 to $4,000.

Mike Loh stares down one of his creations. Photo: Erick Peterson/GT

Dream job


Loh says this business is doing well, and he is happy to be doing the job of his dreams. Starting back in high school when he made "Predator" masks out of plastic bandages, and watched prop-making videos, he has long enjoyed creating things. As he got older, he learned, through trial and error, how to make better props.


Taiwanese prop maker Zhang Guo has been in the business since 2004, when he graduated from Shanghai Haisu Art Design College. He actually started learning earlier as an apprentice for a fellow Taiwanese prop master based in Shanghai. This person inspired Zhang through his love of prop-making. He started studying under this individual at night, while attending university classes during the day. The hours were long and Zhang says that he would sometimes be up making props until one o'clock in the morning. "I devoted a lot of time to learning prop-making, so I learned a lot and became interested in that," he said.


After graduating, he worked for an animation production company, and was in charge of the model-making for TV comedies, advertisements and computer games.


For a children's TV series, Tiantian 2088, he spent half a month making a pentagonal spaceship model with diameter of 1.4 meters. Inside the spaceship, you can see sparkling LED lights. Some pictures inside the spaceship have reflective effects, which make it look like a real spaceship.


In September 2010, he set up his own studio. According to Zhang, today there are many companies making props in China, but most of them charge low prices and don't regard quality as a top priority. "I want to make more refined works," he said. "When I see a finished model, I feel I have really accomplished something."

Gu Jia contributed to this story

Posted in: Diversions, Metro Shanghai

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