The hard work and contributions of so many individual went into making one of the greatest SF franchises in television history. Over the course of this blog’s run, I’ve invited various members of the extended Stargate family to talk about their experiences on the show(s). We’ve spotlighted writers, producers, directors, actors, stunt coordinators, VFX and FX supervisors, and many more.
Today, we turn the spotlight to Mark Nicholson, a longtime prop builder for (and, it turns out, fan of) Stargate. Mark has kindly taken the time to field your question – AND offer up some visual aids!
Take it away, Mark…
Patricia Stewart-Bertrand writes: “As for a question for Mark Nicholson – my question: I’d like to know if you needed any special education or training to get into your current field. Did you want to work in the entertainment industry so looked for a job you could do and enjoy within it, or did you have an affinity to creating props and the rest naturally followed?”
MN: Special education or training? Sort of. I don’t believe there’s any places here that specifically teach people how to make movie props as a course. Most of the people I worked with did have a lot of special training, or a lot of experience in something before bringing it to this industry. I worked with people who went to school for Pottery, Engineering, Photography, Graphic Design, Sign making. It’s kind of a weird industry.
While I never specifically set out to work in Film, I did always want to work in entertainment, starting with computer animation when I was young (I blame Reboot), and later video games (which I did for a while before Film, and still want to get back into). I most certainly didn’t have an affinity for creating props, and my first year really felt like an apprenticeship, spending a lot of time helping more experienced builders with parts of their builds and learning a lot of ropes.
gforce writes: “Question for Mark: How much input/freedom did you have in designing the items for the franchise? Were you able to have a lot of creative leeway or were things pretty much drawn up for you already?”
MN: Input varied. You can find a lot of production concepts here on this blog in fact, and many times, what we delivered was exactly that. Sometimes when things were rushed we’d get a ‘paper napkin drawing’, which is like it sounds, and while the important aspects are laid out, you do end up getting the freedom to interpret it.
We also had things like working from established themes. By season 10 of sg-1 and season 3 of Atlantis, looks like ‘Ori’ and ‘Wraith’ were already established, and while we would sometimes have a lot of freedom with the specific prop, it would still have to be known instantly as ‘Wraithy’, so sometimes we couldn’t deviate too much. SGU was my favorite show to work on because we got to spend a lot of pre-production making up a lot of stuff with a lot of new tools and technology, and allowed us to establish a lot of neat building systems.
JeffW writes: “Did you also make the electronics (lights) for the props, and if so, was it mostly LEDs, incandescent, or electro-luminescent? (Sorry in advance if that was too technical).”
MN:We had a full time electrical engineer who did nothing but build electronics. As for what kinds of lights, I think at one point we used everything, but mostly LED, and second probably goes to small fluorescent tubes (often handled by the lighting department for larger, stationary things, like ships consoles, or the 1/3 section of Atlantis gate for ‘The Shrine’). My favorite was side-lighting laser engraved acrylic.
Ponytail writes: “Hey Joe could you post a few pictures of Mark Nicholson’s handiwork so I know who I am talking to and have a better idea of questions to ask him. Did he help make that minature Destiny?”
MN: I had a very small hand in the miniature Destiny (though, that hand is the one in the pictures holding it while I make flying noises😉
Choopy 49 writes: “Question for Mark – What equipment/technology/weaponry did you hope the crew of the Destiny would eventually discover on the ship had the show continued?”
MN: I should start this by saying I LOVED WATCHING SGU. I was a big fan of it, and as a fan was crushed when it was cancelled (let alone the fact that it was also my favorite employment ever). What would I have liked to see? or BUILD!? Either way, a Jeep or ATV would have been cool (the whole on foot all the time thing bothered me about the franchise as a whole). More adapted 3rd party tech (not human, or ancient, but from other sources that they could only reach once), especially weapons. Making weapons was fun.
Joe, why didn’t they have jeeps and atv’s?
(I would love a detailed answer to this, apart from the obvious $$)
JM: Yes, part of it was $$$, but in my mind given that the teams would be heading out to make first contact or exploring a new planet’s eco-system OR, later in the series, heading into potentially dangerous situations that would require stealth, being on foot would make more sense. Then, after that initial foray, IF transportation was needed, they could always go back and pick up a vehicle. It just so happened that in most cases (well, all the ones we saw), there was either no time or necessity for vehicles, mainly because the civilizations they encountered were always located close to the gate – which made sense.
DP writes: “Questions for Mark Nicholson…It’s hard not to hit duplicate questions this late in the game. What tools, materials, techniques, and resources are available now that you wish were available earlier in your work on Stargate?”
MN: Honestly, I can’t think of anything for this. We had a pretty high tech group, with several CNC machines, a 3D printer, a 3D scanner, and a laser engraver/cutter. I am not aware of any specific manufacturing technology that has been made available since that would have been handy.
“Is there anything that was available then that’s not available now?”
MN: I recall hearing that the quality of some Latex today isn’t as good as it was in the 60’s, due to tree farming practices, but I haven’t found any facts to back this up.
“How thoroughly were the needed props described?
MN: The function and role of most props could be described to us rather quickly, maybe 10 minutes to understand what it is they wanted (along with the concept art). But that’s also coming from my own perspective at the bottom of the chain. Prop meetings where it would be discussed what they wanted to have, and what was possible/affordable/deliverable were not things I attended, an were very long.
“Who did you go to for clarifications when you weren’t sure what was being requested?”
MN: Being off-site, it was a very rare day we would ever see a Production Designer directly. Often, we would see the Prop Master, but 95% of the time, I’d just go to our Lead Prop Builder.
“What’s an inexpensive thing to build with the help of a seven year old? If he can get plenty of big muscle movement during the build, during the use of it, or while destroying it, all the better.”
MN: I have no idea! …after some time thinking on it, I might suggest doing what my dad did, cut swords out of wood with a jigsaw (we did guns too, but that isn’t as well received today as it was then). Or candy glass.
“What examples of serendipity happened in your prop-building?”
MN: Ok. So you know that Jaffa Staff Weapon? The one that opens to fire? They only ever had one that actually opened. And it was only the front half of the staff weapon anyway. After Sg-1 ended, MGM expressed an interest in having a full, working staff weapon. So the working half weapon was pulled out, the back half was put on, it got a fresh paint job, and a custom box for shipping. It was finished, and out the door an hour later, never to be seen by any outside of MGM head office. So there was only ever a working staff weapon we could see and use for an hour. I just happened to get my brother from out of town a tour of the shop in THAT HOUR😀
“Did you think Lord of the Rings included too many visual details?”
MN: NO. Not ever. They did awesome work, and I would never wish them to do less, ever. And related to that, once you make a bunch of this stuff in movies, and really see what things look like, and how fake it really is, you pick it up when watching it in the theatre, or at home on TV. It then looks fake to you, ALWAYS. So getting to see something that manages to not look totally fake all the time then becomes one of the few movies you can watch and actually forget that it’s all fake. Captain America was another good example. The story was ok, and the acting was…eh. But the props and sets, those were always AMAZING.
Pontytail writes: “First some questions for Mark Nicholson then I have to watch The Shrine then I’ll be back for comments on that…much later.
1. Okay, Mark Nicholson, just answer the question. Did you make the mini Destiny as seen here on Joe’s blog on Aug. 28, 2010?”
MN: I did not make it, but I did make the stand and case for it, and did get to play with it, and make whooshing space noises flying it around the room.
“That model was the coolest thing ever! If you made it: a. how long did it take?”
MN: I think my co-worker Jay spent a week turning the VFX model into something printable, and another two days to print the 5 parts (4 quarters and a shuttle), paint and assembly was a couple hours.
“b. what was it used for?”
MN: Ask Joe! It was asked for so directors could plan shots and explore what it actually looks like in depth, in 3D.
(seriously Joe, feel free to chime in here and talk about it’s fate)
JM: Alas, I am unaware of its fate (or the fate of most of those props with the exception of a handful of those Scourge bugs and the pain stick sitting in my garage) but, yes, you’re correct – the model was used to plan shots and sequences.
“c. was it your proudest moment?”
MN: No, but it was one of the coolest things we made. We also did some test prints of a Wraith Dart and an F-302.
“2. What was the funnest item you made, and why?”
MN: Anything we did for 200. Weapons, and webbing, and incredibly acurately detailed uniform details including campaign badges for O’Neill, Carter, and Hammond, all at 1/3 scale.
“3. Do you ever hang out on set just to see your art in use?”
MN: Every chance we got, which were unfotunately few.
“4. Do you get to keep anything you make?”
MN: Technically, no. On rare occasions, we would make samples that would not get used, and it was okay if those went missing. One of these was a spare of Tyre’s sword, made of ABS plastic, to see if the material was viable for stunt work. It was too wobbly, and thus discarded and sat in a room for a few years. It now hangs on the wall of a friend of mine who introduced me to Stargate, and is a huge fan.
“5. What have you made that got the most attention from the cast or crew?”
MN: Ironically, the same thing got the most attention both positively and negatively. The Asguard Suits in ‘The Lost Tribe’ and ‘First Contact’ got the most positive, and the same suits got the most negative attention in ‘Water’, when actors had trouble breathing in the new helmets.
“6. What was the craziest thing you ever were asked to make?”
MN: So tough to answer. Many things were crazy, and more importantly, I can’t even remember half the stuff we made, so I’ll just list what I can think of that was rather out there:
Wraith Ultrasound Device
1/3 of an Atlantis gate (for the water scene at the beginning of ‘The Shrine’, no movable version of the Atlantis gate was ever built before this, it was all camera trickery and cg).
The Ark of Truth (or as those frustrated with it by the end called it, THE ARK OF LIES!)
A ‘Space Dishes Rack’ for The Destiny
A ‘Wraith to USB’ adapter
And I know I’m forgetting so many ridiculous things we did.
“7. How do you feel about seeing your work pictured on Joe’s blog?”
MN: Happy Memories, every time.
“8. Where are you working now?”
MN: Kodak, which is boring compared to making props, but reliable. (see Joe’s post last week about the state of the film industry in Vancouver)
for the love of Beckett writes: “Mark Nicholson — How cool was it being a Prop Master for Stargate? And now your creations are collectibles! A different kind of question would be about the overall style or look of each show, and getting the props to match the set and scene. What were your points of inspiration? It looks sort of like there’s an Art Deco feel to Atlantean objects, but still sci-fi. I liked the tall, copper standing piece of art in Woolsey’s office that Joe liked. Also, I’m not normally big on weapons, but Ronan’s/Jason Momoa’s big ol’ gun that charged up with sound effects was my favorite. Did you get to design that?”
MN: I was a prop builder, not the prop master, and it was VERY COOL. Most of the design feel came from the production designer, and coming in later in SG-1, and Atlantis, many themes were already established. We got a lot more leeway with SGU, and it was so liberating and fun to get to design things from scratch. I’m quite sure the tall copper thing in the office was done by the Set Decorators, who tend to handle things in the background that never get touched. Ronon’s gun was cool, and I didn’t get to design it. I did get to repair it a few times (and repair the rubber stunt ones even more. Rumor has it Jason didn’t like carrying the real ones, which were much heavier).
Mike from Canada writes: “I have questions for Mark Nicholson, if he doesn’t mind. I’ll repeat the questions I had on the shotguns with drum magazines if that’s OK. How did you make them, what did you use, fiberglass? Actual metal parts? Did you base them on actual firearms? How long does it take you to make them? Did you make each one a one off, or did you make molds? Do you weight them so they feel more realistic?”
MN: Those shotguns are AA-12’s, and were cast from real ones. Real ones were used on set. I recall hearing not many exist tho, and they’re hard to find. We aim to make things as light as possible.
“New questions: Do you make all your props pretty much the same way? How did you get started building props? Are you working on any other shows these days?”
MN: Yes, most were made with a lot of pre-established techniques.
How did I get in? Like most of the people I worked with, we never intended to be there, it just sorta happens through opportunity. My initial contact was through the model shop asking my old school for any grads who could help with 3D scanning tech they were testing.
I am not currently working in the Film industry.
Mike from Canada also writes: “Hey Joe. I thought of another question (or two or three or four) for Mark Nicholson. Was there any projects that Mark was particularly proud of?”
MN: The Replicator Chip Merek uses in ‘Ark of Truth’
The backs of the chairs in SGU (I got to do whatever I wanted with them)
The Universe gate
Destiny’s bridge consoles
“Was there any that he particularly detested, that were a mess, or screwed up terribly?”
MN: The Ark of Lies (formerly the Ark of Truth) was built in 7 days.
“If there was any show he would really like to work on, what would it be?”
MN: Tron Legacy. We were asked to help, and had to decline, as we were in pre-production for SGU, and currently building the Universe Gate. (Second place goes to A-team, which I DID get to work on :D)
“Does he work on any software based graphic tools or such for his work? Maya, Vue, cad program, photoshop, etc.”
MN: YES. All of it, lots! Solidworks and Rhino were comonplace, as well as a lot of Corel Draw. And at some point we tested out anything that would help. I prefer 3ds MAX and Zbrush for 3d modelling too.
“How did Mark wind up doing this kind of work?”
MN: Like everyone else, through strange circumstance and lots of luck.
“Did you work on the sets/stages as well as props?”
MN: Not as such. But we did often work on detailed components that would get integrated into sets, like consoles and special panels.
“What is your current favourite TV show?”
MN: Top Gear.
“Have you read anything lately you would recommend? Fiction or nonfiction.”
MN: I just finished the last book in ‘The Wheel of Time’ series. Also, Zoe’s Tale (from scalzi’s ‘Old Man’s War’ series, which has gotten plenty of attention here), and my favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo.
“Can we see pictures of your workroom?”
MN: Keith almost gave me a heart attack when I came back to see this guy, sitting there, all sad with his coffee (and again the next morning when I walked in, having forgotten about him).
“Sorry if I repeated any of the questions, or if I’m too late, or if I’m getting carried away. Curious monkeys want to know!”
MN: No, it’s good. We love monkeys!
BMc writes: “Mark Nicholson – are you AKA confracto? I’ve enjoyed your comments here! What was the most used/re-used/re-adapted piece of equipment you made? And, were you involved with those great suits worn by the Pegasus Asgard, which I believe later re-appeared as Ancient EVA suits on the Destiny?”
MN: Yes, confracto is my online handle. It was the result of ‘Hey Mark! What’s the weirdest word you can think of!?’. We were bored and checking out what domain names were free and taken years ago. Confracto.com will take you to some of my work.
Most re-used peice? Probably all the knobs and buttons for Destiny.
Yes, I was involved with those suits. It was actually one of the best building experiences, since it took 100% from everyone for weeks to do, and really bonded the team. I have never felt more accomplished than seeing those go out the door. My wife tells me I have to mention that I missed our anniversary one year for these suits, due to working 14 hours that day. But they look so cool!
Thanks to Mark!
And today’s entry is dedicated to birthday gals mamasue9 and Ganymede!