When he was 18 years old and fresh out of high school, Russell Bobbitt’s family home burned to the ground. His mother’s boyfriend, an art director, felt sorry for Bobbitt and got him two-week gig schlepping furniture on a movie set. Bobbitt quickly demonstrated a knack for turning fantastical concepts into practical realities and by age 23, he’d become a prop master.
Charged with the creation and care of a movie’s physical props, Bobbitt orchestrates research, design and 3-D modeling efforts during pre-production, then stage-manages the finished objects on set. The self-taught multi-tasker frequently serves as Marvel Entertainment’s go-to gadget guy and earlier this year team-built James Franco’s wondrous head-expanding contraption in Oz the Great and Powerful.
The Burbank native, whose handiwork can be seen next year in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, talks to Co.Create about hurling Thor’s hammer off-camera, gluing Iron Man’s Arc Reactor onto Robert Downey Jr.’s chest and confessing to Star Trek director J.J. Abrams that he’d never seen the TV series.
I am the liaison between the manufacturing world and the design world. I read the script throughout and figure out how each prop is a character in the story. “Okay, every scene that the thing needs to be in–how does it interact with the other actors? How does it interact within the set itself?” I assess all that and make a list: “Here’s what this prop has to do in the film.”
The director and I weed out drawings and find the design that we like. Then I hire a different team of people who turn these 3-D CAD drawing into a physical prototype using stereolithography 3-D printers.
For Iron Man, he has a light in his chest, the Arc Reactor. You have this three quarter-inch thick piece and you’ve got to put in transmitters and LED lighting and a little motherboard and a small battery. We built our own three-volt battery modeled after cell phone batteries.
Then I go to the actor, Robert Downey Jr., and the big part of that conversation is, “You’ve got to have a light glued on to your chest. I need to make a life cast of your chest so I can mold the piece to fit directly onto your chest cavity. The thing is going to get a little warm.”
I describe the characteristics of making the Arc Reactor practical, which is all part of saying to the team, ‘Hey guys I can give you a practical light on the chest; leave the CG boys out of this.”
The Arc Reactor turned out to be a grand slam in the world of props. Hasbro fell in love with it. When you see your work in the toy store and kids in the Iron Man aisle are grabbing these things off the shelf there’s a sense of pride knowing that I designed that thing.
When I went into my interview with J.J. for his first Star Trek movie, the first thing he said to me was, “Are you a Star Trek fan?” I said “Actually, I’m not.” J.J.’s reaction to me was “Great, because I have the fan boys already; I want to make Star Trek for people who are not the fans.”
That put me on the path of thinking outside of the box. A couple of guys had to walk away from the project because they couldn’t let go of the past; all their stuff looked like it belonged in the 1960s. So when J.J. said to me “How are you going to make a cool Communicator? I said, “Reach into your pocket.” He pulls out his cell phone. And I’m like, “That’s a cool Communicator.” The guy who invented the first flip phone based it on Star Trek, so I said “Why don’t we make the Communicator a flip, just to call back the fan boys, and then make it a holograph, so it’s not something attainable in our world today, but we know that’s the future?” J.J. fell in love with the idea.”
Whenever Captain America is on a mission, he’s got that shield in his hand. The challenge was to figure out how to get the shield through all these stunt scenes? It could start pristine and after Captain America fights three guys it has to have some damage on it, and then four guys shoot him so the shield needs some bullet hits on it. I had to figure out the continuity of the shield. For Captain American 2, I ended up making 46 shields.
I had to have hard metal for the “hero” shield. The harder the surface, the greater finish I can put on. When we do an extreme close up on this shield, it’s going to be a metal one.
Then I made hard rubber ones for stunt scenes where you’re running or jumping or flying on a wire. We had soft rubber versions so when somebody’s punching Thor they don’t break their hands. Sometimes you see them bend and then you need the computer graphics people to fix those shields.
When people visit the set, the producers send them to me and I open up these locked metal boxes with 20 shields lined up on shelves. People are in awe. If I hand somebody a shield, I don’t care if it’s a two-year-old or a 50-year-old, they take the thing and they strike the Captain America pose. It’s automatic.
When I got a call from Marvel to work on Thor, my immediate reaction was “I don’t know how sexy I can make Thor’s hammer. It’s Nordic. It’s a hammer. Don’t expect much.” They laughed and said, “Okay, well, draw a few.” 200 drawings later, we came up with the hammer that looks like the same hammer it should have been from comic books years ago.
Then we had to figure out what size would look good in Thor’s hand. We had three camera tests solely for that purpose. I’m not kidding. It was that intense. Once we had the size and scale, we started tweaking the look of it: Should it be a little darker, a little lighter, should it be shiny, should it be dull, is the leather on the handle aged appropriately, should the little strap on the end be there or not be there? The director Kenneth Branagh fought for the strap to not be there but the creative Marvel folks said it’s part of the lore and we have to hang on to the strap.
In Thor, in several scenes, Chris threw the hammer off camera to me, and I would throw it back at him so we could avoid doing it in post production. I’ve become that guy who’s off camera, catching something, throwing something, or if somebody slams through the door, I catch the door so it doesn’t break the set. I threw the suitcase to James Franco when he’s taking off in the balloon in Oz the Great and Powerful. I played baseball for 15 years, behind the plate. It’s all in a days work.
Production designer Robert Stromberg told us “This is the device that projects Oz’ s head. It’s iconic with moving parts and lights and projections. Make it mechanical and cool and believable. Ready? Go!
We shopped at antique stores for gears and levers and magnifying glasses and hinges. Every step of the way I had to remind everybody “Don’t go fantasy on me.” We didn’t want it to become steampunk. I found a great sofa with a beautiful foot. I bought the whose sofa just to get that little piece of hardware to use in our piece.
We spent two months building the piece from the ground up. For the desk we cut holes for all the gauges, and realize wouldn’t it be great if there’s gears here and moving parts there and this would move that? It’s very Rube Goldberg-esque. You had to make it all work when James Franco sits inside the thing.
I used to hoard props but now the only thing I’ve got in the house is a piece of the Yellow Brick Road. It reminds me that we do crazy things. One day I’ll be making a movie and look down and say “Holy you know what, I’m standing on the Yellow Brick Road.” And the next day I’m in an elevator with a 60-year-old naked women making The Hangover with Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis in Las Vegas. When I did The Good Shepard with Robert de Niro, I really got into the research and before you know it I’m hanging out with an Iraqi general and the CIA.
CGI visual effects people could design props and make completely computer generated pieces but there’s still this old school way of thinking among production designers, costume designers and directors. They want something tangible.
An actor will use a fantasy weapon that we know will be computer generated in the end. I will design it, I will build it and I will put it in the actor’s hand. They move around, they understand the weight of it. I take it out of the actor’s hand and we shoot. The performance is 150 percent better than if we didn’t have any reference. For computer green screen shots, when if I run in there and put the real prop in their hand, the actor’s pleased, the director’s pleased the visual effects supervisor is ecstatic because there’s a negative space and he doesn’t have to open up that fist later. I feel like the filmmakers are still giving me all the creative, and to me, that’s what’s important.
[Images: Jeff Bridges | Courtesy Rose Gallery]