Some of the best TV shows were made for a song — but did you know that some of your favorite movies have featured ridiculously cheap scenery and props, as well? We're not just talking 1950s "B" movies, but more recent stuff. Here are some of the most wonderfully cheap sets and props from classic films.
Some of the greatest Hollywood magic comes from the props and sets. Consider Ollivanders wand shop in Diagon Alley, lined with "more than 17,000 individually labeled wand boxes;" or the enormous "centrifuge" used for 2001's interior Discovery scenes—huge, expensive, detailed sets and props fill audiences with amazement. But sometimes, props and sets are amazing because they're just so cheap. See for yourself...
Note: We found a persistent rumor that the tomb in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 was made of styrofoam, and you can hear it when the tomb collapses — but we reviewed the video and couldn't really see it. Also, we heard that the Rebels in crowd scenes of the first Star Wars were actually cardboard standees, but couldn't substantiate that.
Okay, this one may not surprise anyone that much. Despite going on to become a huge cult classic and cultural touchstone for high school students everywhere, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed for a mere $365,274 (and made around $130 million—talk about your return on investment). This didn't leave a whole lot of room for extravagant set building, which resulted in the use of cardboard for some exterior shots castle shots. Like, apparently just actual cardboard cutouts of a castle.
Extras aren't particularly expensive individually — a few bucks a day and some food — but when you're talking about filling entire stadiums with them or shooting similarly huge scenes, the expenses can add up. Enter the mindbogglingly creepy inflatable extra, set dressing you don't have to feed. At around ten dollars a day to rent, these blow-up seat fillers cost about a tenth of a real life human extra, and they can be dressed up to order (one company has a warehouse filled with "30,000 dolls, 27,000 masks, and thousands of wigs and costumes to suit any time period," and I would pay actual money to be able to tour it.) The dolls have appeared in movies like Iron Man 2, Spiderman 3, and many, many more.
What's even better than cheap? Free! That was the philosophy of Mad Max art director Jon Dowding, who needed to dress the milk bar scene and didn't have a lot of money to do it with. According to the movie's DVD commentary, Dowding and his department liberated the props early in the morning, and then returned them to their rightful owners after the day's shooting was complete.
So this is a contender for one of the most horrifying things I've ever heard: that famous white mask began its life as Captain Kirk's face (cue distressed handwringing). It was apparently originally made as a Kirk death mask, and Halloween had so little money that they just took one and painted it white. The mask also has a pleasingly ring-like life cycle: first it was a Star Trek death mask, and then it was a scary white Michael Myers mask, and then William Shatner wore the Halloween mask, trick-or-treating with his kids one year. Here's Halloween 2 illustrator Rick Sternbach recounting part of the story:
In a supply cabinet at Pumpkin Pie Productions, we had one mask left from the original HALLOWEEN, and no idea where to get any others for the sequel. It appeared that we'd need to go check out some of the toys stores and such, but I noticed that there was some wording molded into the neck area. There was a model number, and 'Don Post Studios.' I made a call, read off the model number, and the word came back 'It's our Captain Kirk mask.' I asked if we could buy a number of them, and was told 'We'll give you a box, just give us credit.' With that, I turned the official dealings over to the higher-ups. Brush with greatness.
There are so many awesome effects in Ghostbusters that it feels almost churlish to focus on one not-so-awesome one, but hey, it's the flaws that make something lovable, right? At the end of the movie, when Dana's building is falling apart and huge chunks of it are smashing into the street below, one of those enormous chunks of stone...bounces. Right off of a wooden barricade. Because it's definitely some sort of foam. On the other hand, props to the set painters for making the chunks look great.
Another way around the whole extras-are-expensive-and-hungry thing? Do what Star Wars did, and paint them in. When the movies had scenes that required hundreds of stormtroopers, they employed artists to create matte paintings of them—with each stormtrooper impeccably painted on. The same technique was also used for the Ewok celebration in Return of the Jedi. Check out this stunning collection of Star Wars paintings here.
[Thanks to Jesus for the story idea!]