Skilled fabrication crews creatively hold production together in Hollywood and beyond
Welding and fabricating will not likely win a “Best Supporting Actor” Oscar for on-screen performances – and close-up equipment shots – in such films as The Green Hornet, Drive and the IronMan franchise. But, the combined efforts of these crafts still have a commanding role in many aspects of behind-the-scenes production and give welders and fabricators a challenging, high-profile outlet in which to practice their creative, and in-demand, skills.
Welding and fabrication are key technical components of many Hollywood productions even though they aren’t as highly visible as cinematography, costume and makeup design, or explosive, in-your-face special effects. Nevertheless, welding and fabricating help things take shape and stay together on film – quietly making sets, customized props, special effects and auto crashes a reality.
When you consider the role props play in a film, it’s clear that prop development, from the small knife wielded in a bar fight to a tricked-out sedan used in a high-speed chase, play integral roles in a film project, on-screen, and off.
Actress Gemma Arterton wields two prop guns built by Paul Pearson’s Custom Props, Inc. of Van Nuys, CA for the 2013 Paramoun® film Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Close-up view of one of the prop weapons designed and fabricated for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
While the cost of simple props obviously varies from project to project, depending on if it is a Hollywood summer blockbuster or small, independent film, the average props budget will range from 1 to 10 percent of the total budget, according to budget-planning information provided by various filmmaking industry educational resources. Add in the cost for cars required for street scenes or high-speed chases, and the budget climbs from the bottom of this range to the top, or even higher.
For example, a small indie film with a budget of $100,000 would be safe to allocate a mere $1,500 for props, according to a budget tutorial at 4filmaking.com, while fabricators at Picture Car Warehouse in Northridge, Calif., a long-time supplier of cars to the Hollywood film industry, spent roughly $7 million on just creating custom vehicles for the $76 million-budget blockbuster 2 Fast, 2 Furious in 2003.
As long-time entertainment-industry prop fabricator Paul Pearson sees it, in order to create Hollywood-caliber props, fabricators need to have a “mass of skills,” including not only welding, but also sheet-metal fabrication, model and miniature building, electronics and electrical know-how, and even mold making – creating everything from customized autos to small hand weapons such as pistols and knives.
A rough knowledge of hydraulics and pneumatics also comes in handy, as does an understanding of basic machine- and wood-shop operations. And while it’s not necessary in every situation to perform a certified weld, those in the industry still must do it not only well but as unobtrusively as possible.
“If we do our job correctly,” says Pearson, who got his start in custom auto fabrication and now owns Custom Props Inc. in Van Nuys, Calif., bringing nearly 40 years of prop fabrication experience to the table, “you should never know that we were there.”
A scale model prop plane prepared for use in the 2004 Miramax® film The Aviator depicting the early career of Howard Hughes.
From hotrods to stunt cars
Automobiles, motorcycles and other means of on-screen transportation are prominent areas where welding quietly performs in television programs, feature films, music videos and commercials.
“The cars you see on TV or the big screen aren’t just normal, generic cars. They’re modified for certain needs, and doing so requires welding – much of it hidden,” explains Los Angeles fabricator Paul Clarke. Moving from fabricating work in the motorsports industry to the entertainment industry, Clarke, over the past 20 years, has designed and/or worked on vehicles for such films as Looper, Saving Mr. Banks, Drive, Need for Speed, and the Terminator franchise, to name just a few.
Some cars are fabricated entirely from the ground up while others are modified from existing platforms.
Cars used in television shows, commercials and Hollywood blockbusters undergo complete transformations from the original models sold to consumers on a dealership lot. Thanks to careful cutting, welding and fabricating, these cars are dismantled, stretched, strengthened and rebuilt to accommodate filming angles and even safety requirements.
Cars used in movies and television often undergo significant transformations including structural, suspension, engine and interiors to help them reach certain speeds, withstand jumps, protect a driver or other requirements.
“We hide structural changes underneath, changes designed to help them do jumps or sustain a crash,” Clarke says. “And we need to do this as simply and structurally sound as possible, often adapting pre-built cars into something completely different.”
What’s more, for every one car that the audience sees on screen, many more identical vehicles are employed for different takes and uses during filming, notes Ted Moser, Picture Car Warehouse’s founder and owner, who entered the film production industry more than 20 years ago and has become a go-to source for vehicles used in films, television and advertising.
Ted Moser of Picture Car Warehouse pauses for a moment at his facility in Northridge, CA. Picture Car Warehouse inventories up to 700 vehicles and fabricates or modifies custom vehicles for use in television and movies.
“People don’t realize that we have built four or five different cars for each one they see on screen,” Moser says, noting that during the production of the film, The Town, starring Ben Affleck and Jon Hamm, the company custom-fabricated four different Dodge Caravans that the bank robbers used as a getaway vehicle.
Paul Clarke’s team prepared several vehicles for the March, 2014 Dreamworks SKG® release Need for Speed, including process and stunt cars.
In fact, in most productions involving automobiles, three different kinds of cars are used to serve as the single vehicle the audience sees on screen – the hero car, the process car and the stunt car.
The hero car is the eye-catching looker on the screen, used for both interior and exterior shots. To see a prime example of a hero car, Moser says, check out 2 Fast, 2 Furious, starring the late Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson. The Dodge Challenger created by Picture Car Warehouse for the film epitomizes a hero car, according to Moser.
“That hero car was visibly perfect, from the interior to the exterior to the engine,” Moser says. “We spent $7 million on cars and fabrications for this film – building roll cages, removing air bags and automatic braking systems, and performing other tasks, ultimately constructing 200 different cars within a 6-week time frame.
Process cars have a perfect interior for filming actors inside the car, but the exterior likely has been modified in a variety of ways to accommodate cameras at different angles.
“In Saving Mr. Banks, a series of limousines, each a different version of the same car, was modified in order to locate cameras for a shot,” Clarke explains. “This happens in most movies that involve cars. You might need to fabricate a removable roof or be able to easily pop a door on or off. Or if you need to see an actor’s feet changing gears, you might have a hole in the floor that allows cameras to be positioned tightly down there. We even have cut a Mercedes in half for filming purposes. Those kinds of modifications are things viewers don’t think about or don’t even notice, but the camera crew couldn’t get the shot it wants without these changes.”
The stunt cars, with pristine exteriors, include modifications such as welded roll cages, five-point harnesses, a third brake, a lower rear end and other safety features. Some films can have 20 identical cars, each designed to do specific stunts – jump bridges, rollover, explode and more.
Hollywood fabricators usually do not work with a detailed set of plans and often create solutions to solve specific technical, appearance or camera requirements.
For example, Moser’s team completely rebuilt one of the Caravans used in a chase scene in The Town. Crews retrofitted a Chevy 350 engine into the van and removed the entire original drivetrain. Modifications also included welding in a sub-frame and a 9-foot board rear end. The vehicle ultimately was reworked to make it rear-wheel drive instead of the standard, front-wheel drive, which assisted with speed and handling for the chase scenes.
In another project, the Picture Car Warehouse team customized a Mercedes Benz Unimog for a chase scene in Argo, winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture.
“In a planning meeting before the beginning of shooting, I explained that a Unimog would only reach about 37 miles per hour, so the film initially scripted with that in mind,” Moser recalls. “However, a week before they were ready to shoot, the filmmakers decided that they wanted it to go 75 miles per hour. We took the Unimog body off of its chassis and fabricated it onto a 1985 Dodge Ramcharger chassis. We had to stretch the chassis to make this happen – and it worked.”
On top of the obvious challenges of creatively designing and combining aspects of different vehicles into one to make them function as needed for filming, Moser, Clarke Pearson face an even tougher hurdle – tight time constraints.
“We sometimes have less than a week to build a fleet of cars that need to be done perfectly, on time and on budget,” Moser says. “Sometimes we have to do it overnight. There are times when our welding machines run 24 hours a day to meet production schedule demands.”
For the film Looper, on which both Moser and Clarke were involved, fabrication teams had five days to create unique hover motorcycles, a process that involved from-scratch design and a lot of cutting, welding and fabrication.
Paul Clarke created this motorcycle, fabricated primarily of aluminum componenets, for use in Looper. Set in the year 2074, Looper was released in 2012 by TriStar Pictures.
Clarke and Moser said they turned to Lincoln Electric equipment for this job, as well as other work that required intensive, constant welding on such substrates as aluminum. They relied on Lincoln Electric’s Precision TIG® 375 TIG welder for this high-visibility, fast-turnaround project.
“We need equipment that is reliable. We can’t have something breaking with the kind of turnaround times we face,” Moser said. “In this industry, there isn’t something called ‘downtime.’”
Setting the stage
Welding and fabrication’s importance in the entertainment industry reaches well beyond stunt cars. At Custom Props, Inc., Pearson and his team also fabricate a variety of custom props ranging from weapons such as knives and guns to special doors, sculptures and more.
Prop fabrication is an area where TIG welding skills are a must, thanks to the widespread use of a certain temperamental substrate – aluminum.
A close-up view of the aluminum frame for the bike fabricated for use in the 2012 film Looper.
“If you know how to weld aluminum in Hollywood, you’ll easily find work,” Pearson says, recalling how his crew of 3 welders constantly fabricates aluminum prop weapons to look like steel.
“We use TIG welding a great deal when we manufacturer weapons such as guns, knives and custom swords,” he says, noting that he frequently relies on his own Lincoln Electric Precision TIG® 185 welder to get the job done right. “TIG is essential because of the quality welds it produces on aluminum. You shouldn’t be able to tell the weapon is a prop. It needs to look like a real weapon.”
Prop weapon prepared by Custom Props, Inc. for the 1997 film Spawn distributed by New Line Cinema.
As with cars, weapons also fall into hero and stunt categories. Directors will shoot the “hero shot” with a real knife, but when the knife-wielding villain starts to chase his victim, he’ll really be carrying an aluminum stunt knife. And in the stabbing scene, the aluminum blade is actually retractable. Weapons even can be outfitted with blood tubes or molded rubber components, depending on shooting requirements, Pearson says.
Aluminum welding goes beyond on-screen weapons and props and moves onto the actual set of films, television programs, commercials and music videos. In the movie Heat, starring Robert DeNiro and Val Kilmer, a series of what appear to be heavy steel bank-vault doors actually are aluminum doors, welded with Pearson’s Precision TIG 185.
A set of prop vaults were fabricated in aluminum and prepared to look like heavy wall steel for the 1995 Warner Brothers® film Heat.
“We brushed the doors and hinges to look like steel,” he explains. “Aluminum really is like a stunt actor in Hollywood, too. It fills in for stainless, chrome and a lot of other heavier materials.”
For a sculpture designed to hold helium balloons in a Dunlop tires advertisement, Pearson’s team welded a 35- by 35-foot square aluminum structure of polished aluminum in the shop, then dismantled it to move and rebuild it in the shooting location – the New Mexico desert outside of Santa Fe.
Prop fabrication crews sometimes accompany their work to the film site to make quick repairs when necessary, as in this Dunlop® tire commercial on location shoot.
“We supply a set crew for shoots, to ensure that we can perform repairs quickly and keep production running,” Pearson says.
When it comes to prop welding, one thing is certain from film to film: It only has to last as long as it takes to get the shot.
“That’s why you don’t find a lot of certified welders in the business,” Pearson says. “What we’re welding doesn’t have to last 20 years. We’re done with it after the director calls cut for the final time.”
However, it’s a different story off-screen – literally behind the camera on cranes and rigs.
“That’s where certified-welding comes into play,” Pearson says. “The crane business is where the real precision welders make their money.”
As Pearson notes, there is an entire business market devoted to camera crane construction and maintenance.
“You have camera rigs and Louma cranes (versatile, modular, remote camera cranes) that require constant welding adjustments. All of these different things have to work on set and on location day in and day out, and many of them have to hold a $350,000 camera. You don’t want that camera to fall off the end of a 50-foot crane and smash, or hit someone on the set.”
While Hollywood remains the heart of the U.S. entertainment industry, changes in the economic environment increasingly have pushed film production into states other than California, thanks to tax breaks and other financial incentives. This means some of the work goes to shops in other states, making businesses such as Pearson’s find other ways to land contracts and keep up with their craft.
“We no longer survive off of movies, television commercials and rock videos,” Pearson says, noting that his company has branched out to creating sets and trusses for live rock tours, specialty features for retail dressing and even trade show booths, among other areas. “It became necessary to expand as more and more film work goes outside of Los Angeles.”
Recently, Pearson and his team worked with Lincoln Electric to create a futuristic, custom motorcycle featured in the company’s “This Future Made Possible With Lincoln Electric” video that provides a look toward the fabricating future. The video premiered at FABTECH 2013 and now can be viewed at Lincoln Electric’s “Made Possible With” campaign website.
Recently, Custom Props, Inc. prepared a conceptual ‘hoverbike’ for use in a Lincoln Electric movie and display at the 2013 FABTECH 2013 tradeshow.
“We used a lot of steel in that project,” Pearson says. “We hand-formed the panels and used fiberglass and foam shaping. In that one motorcycle, there’s probably one form of everything I learned over the past 40 years. It really was a great creative fabrication project for us to tackle – it’s a pretty interesting piece.”
After watching the theater presentation in the Lincoln Electric FABTECH 2013 booth, many visitors inquired if the fabricated prop ‘hoverbike’ on display was a functioning model.
A satisfying welding career
Whether they’re working on something related to the big screen, television or even on-stage at a live event, welders and fabricators have found that a career in the entertainment industry poses unique challenges and rewarding results.
“In some ways, it’s always different,” Moser muses, “but in other ways it’s no different than any other welding or fabrication job – we have to get it done on time and stay within budget. “
Clarke agrees, noting that his initial experience in motorsports paid off with his transition to fabricating for the entertainment industry. It taught him to work quickly, efficiently and creatively… and to expect the unexpected.
Paul Clarke, who moved into automotive prop fabrication following experience in motorsports, summarized his work, “I love being able to get creative with welding and fabrication and figure out what we want to do and how to make it happen.”
“I usually never know what I’m going to encounter in a particular day,” he says. “I don’t normally get blueprints and often work only from some general information on what the exterior is going to look like and what the safety structure might be. I then have to use that little bit of information to create the steps and design needed to achieve the end result. I love being able to get creative with welding and fabrication and figure out what we want to do and how to make it happen. And to do this, you really need to know how to master your welding machine.”
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