How Peak TV and DVRs Raise the Stakes for Period Props

Inside the Art of Period-Accurate Props - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Subject

Ross MacDonald, Hollywood's go-to for "graphic props," explains why technology and prestige content have changed his craft and reveals a little-known anachronism in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.'

“People have gone from not really caring if a prop is period accurate to wanting it to be dead-on,” says Ross MacDonald. And that means even more painstaking work for the prop designer, illustrator and typographer whose encyclopedic knowledge of typesetting and keen attention to detail have made him Hollywood’s go-to for “graphic props” — from posters and passports to magazines and maps.

MacDonald, 60, who’ll speak Thursday in conjunction with a show of his work at New York’s Type Directors Club, has crafted mop patents for 2015’s Joy, morgue toe tags for Cinemax’s The Knick, the Red Apple tobacco tin for Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 The Hateful Eight and passports and business cards for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (he pored over Prohibition-era patents to get the size of staples right on documents for the drama).

It's not all about nostalgia, MacDonald notes. “For Mr. Brooks [a 2007 psychological thriller starring Kevin Costner], the director wanted me to research the handwriting of serial killers and produce a style of handwritten notes that are consistent with the handwriting analysis of serial killers based on Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson. It was sort of creepy as hell but fascinating in a creepy way, too,” he says, recalling another unsettling assignment: “For the final season of Boardwalk Empire, I was asked to produce Victorian-era erotic pictures of little girls. I eventually found a whole bunch of Victorian photos of women on the public domain in the 1880’s and de-aged them. They weren’t exposed and my conscience was clear.”

Upcoming projects include HBO’s Torture Report, which involved re-creating 7,000 pages of redacted CIA documents, and 2019’s Greyhound, starring Tom Hanks as a WWII destroyer captain. Hanks, who also wrote the screenplay and is a producer on the film, “wanted to know everything from the type of clipboards they would carry” to the furniture design of the ship’s command center.

Starting his career as a printer back in the late '70s in Toronto, MacDonald got a lucky break when director John Hughes hired him to design a children’s book for 1994’s Baby’s Day Out. Some 40 TV shows and films later, the Connecticut-based craftsman says peak TV and viewing technology have increased the demand and the stakes. “I love watching period shows and seeing it done right as everyone has upped their game. DVR is driving this as people who have super high-res TVs are pausing frame by frame,” he says. “I get fans sending me screen grabs and asking, ‘How did you do this?’ You can’t get away with fudging it anymore.” Fudging it how exactly? “Really bad gaffes,” says MacDonald, include “the classic scene where an airplane is flying over the map in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the cities are labeled in modern font,” he says. “No one knows that but a few graphic designers!” 

A version of this story first appeared in the May 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.