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5 minutes with: Jimmy Chow

The Vancouver-based “propmaster” has crafted on-screen artifacts for numerous Hollywood blockbusters.

The Vancouver-based “propmaster” has crafted on-screen artifacts for numerous Hollywood blockbusters. Most recently, he lent his talents to Tron: Legacy, which debuts this week.

What exactly is a “prop”?
Anything that’s handled or used by an actor is usually called a prop. So you’ll read a script and there’ll be certain specific things in it, and you’ll underline them, and research them. If it’s a period piece you would have to research that actual historical period, or if it’s a movie like Tron, you have to go into consultation with the production designers, illustrators and director, and render it, draw it and make prototypes.

In a movie like Tron, where so much of what we see is CGI, how exactly is it decided what should be a real-world prop and what should just be done with computers?
In my position, I want to push the physical as much as I can. Looking at these movies and where it’s going, they could just about generate it all with CG, but it’s very, very expensive. I think actors still prefer a physical thing to hold on to; it helps with their performance. The lines can be drawn anywhere now, though. It’s a fluctuating grey zone.

It was interesting seeing some of the futuristic meals in Tron. What was your thinking in deciding how the food and drink in that universe would be?
The drinks had to glow. That was one specific thing that Joe Kosinski, the director, really wanted. So that was quite a challenge. At first we thought that we’d use a cyalume solution, but it only had a shelf life of 10 minutes — plus it’s toxic poison. What we did in the end was light the drinks with individual little lights underneath.

A lot of the space-age technology we see in Tron, such as touch screens and tablet PCs, actually exist in modern day. Do you feel like it’s getting harder to do good sci-fi props as real-world technology begins to catch up with fantasy?
It is. You have to project ahead as to what’s going to be current. It’s one of those things where you depend on bleeding-edge technology. I have contacts with Motorola, and they have prototypes I get to see, where they say, “This is what we think the future’s going to be.” For me, it’s like a good graphic design. If you look back 10 years from now, you should still go, “Oh, that’s good.”

 
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