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Russell Bobbitt Interview: Marvel's Prop Master

Prop master Russell Bobbitt is a Hollywood mainstay. He’s done war films (Navy Seals), horror films (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), comedies (The Flintstones) and plenty of action projects, including a dozen with Marvel Studios. Screen Rant caught up with Bobbitt, who has been on the job for over 30 years to see what makes a property master tick and get some insight into his recent work with Marvel Studios on Avengers: Infinity War and its currently untitled follow-up.

Having worked on nearly every genre of film, Bobbitt’s experience has made him a legend and one of the most sought after prop masters in the game. Bobbitt was able to expound on how the job of a prop master is a little more than just picking out a good-looking prop and what it is about a Zippo lighter that makes it THE lighter of Hollywood’s master prop master.

Related: Infinity War Set Visit Interview With The Russo Brothers

Bobbitt teamed with Zippo to help design a series of movie tribute lighters which are inspired by some of the most famous designs that have been featured in Hollywood over the years. Think Die Hard, Constantine, Ocean's 13, and more! The Walk of Flame video features some of these iconic designs as Bobbitt walks us through an LA prop house loaded with over a million props.

Screen Rant: One thing that I found very interesting when I was reading up on you was your relationship between props and characters. Talk to me a little bit about that relationship, about how an item can make it character or break a character.

Russell Bobbitt: Sure. Part of my job as a prop master is that I'll read a script and I'll pick out all the obvious props, which is really easy to do. Anyone can be a prop master in that sense. What you have to do is sort of think of of what's not in the script and what will support a story and what will support a character. So I'll read my script and I'll make a list and then I'll go speak to the director and he looks at it and goes, “Oh yeah, great. Make sure the pencil’s green and the Zippo lighter’s huge.” And then I take it to the actor and I'll go, okay, you need a watch. You need a lighter, you need a pair of glasses. And they will say to me, “Oh, well, I only look good in Ray-Bans”, because all actors think they only look good and Ray-Bans.  And I'll say, “Okay, well there's a hot new Ray-Ban line and I need to show it to you and I’ll sort of get into it. And if I know the guy is gonna, you know, rob a bank, I'm giving him Ray-Bans with really dark lenses and if I know that he's having a romantic scene, I'm going to give him Ray-Bans with special lenses so that we see his eyes. So I need to provide all that support for the character, scene by scene, you know, and it may be that he needs 10 pair of Ray-Bans because he's robbing lots of banks and sleeping with lots of people.

So in essence, you're just as important in creating the character as the words on the page, obviously...at least the aesthetic.

Russell Bobbitt:  I think movies wouldn't be made without prop guys or prop gals, and it is important. It does support story, character and the look of the film. So we're sort of involved in every facet of it now. Don't think that the Ray-Ban conversation stops there. Then the costume designer gets involved and they're making their own movie. And the production designer who's in charge of the palate of the whole film...the color and the style and if it's a of period pieces if it’s a contemporary piece. So that the one pair of Ray-Bans will have months and months of meetings before we end up putting a pair of Ray-Bans on Bradley Cooper for The Hangover movie. And, and so everything is thought out, well thought out. Uh, we brought single handedly brought blue blocker back into play with the movie on Zach Galifianakis.

I remember blue blockers, I remember the infomercials.

Bobbitt: And so there you go. So, you know, I also play a part in a trending a little bit and figuring out what, what's going to be hot five years from now because you want to have all the cool stuff in the film.

So speaking of that, I know that obviously there's the costume designers and stylists. How closely do you work with them?

Bobbitt: I have to work closely with everybody. Films are poorly made when one person tries to make them. And I feel strongly that a collaborative team, a very talented collaborative team, makes a good film. I don't think you can do it without it. And so if, if there's a cog in the wheel, you sort of have to massage that a little bit. You have to oil that cog and make everybody feel good about the design process, so that if I have to show a pair of glasses, or a watch or a weapon to a director, and an actor and the costume designer, production designer...I gotta pitch it. I gotta sell it all so that they all feel good about that prop going onto a guy, or a window or however it's going to be used.

Now I have a question about Zippos, in particular. Every movie you see if there's a lighter that's on screen, it's never like a normal lighter. It's usually a Zippo. Why is that?

Bobbitt: There's one true answer to that: it's the most reliable lighter on the market, no doubt. You can be in the wind, you can be in the cold, you can be in front of a fire. The Zippo of is going to light. The mechanics of the Zippo lighter are so old school and great, that they don't fail. And now the only reason they would fail is if you fail to push fluid in the lighter and then you have a very embarrassing moment in front of a director or an actor.  So it's, it's a go to lighter. When a director calls for a lighter and he doesn't say any brand or any style of lighter, I show up with my Zippo collection because I know that I'm safe. I’ll back up a little bit. It costs on a big film, $250,000 a day to film and Marvel movie or a movie of that stature. And if a lighter holds up a scene, it could cost upwards of $25,000-30,000 while we're waiting to fix a lighter or go buy a new one. So I've never held up a scene using a Zippo lighter. That's why I go to the Zippo.

As the conversation turned to Marvel Studios films, Bobbitt, who was on board at the beginning with 2008’s Iron Man and has been back time after time since then, had nothing but glowing remarks about his working relationship with the studio and some insight on how he brought some of the more iconic accessories to life.

Bobbitt detailed how while bringing classic comic book props to life, there’s more to it than just making them look the part. Form and function seem to be a bit of a prop master’s yin and yang and, as Bobbitt details, there are several iterations of each prop (such as Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, and Cap’s Vibranium shield), each with their own reason for existing.

Speaking of Marvel, you've said you've worked on plenty of those films and Infinity War is almost out, in like a few hours, I guess. How challenging are those projects and do they ever get easier?  Because it just seems like they just keep growing.

Bobbitt: The Marvel projects have been really great for me. I'm part of the Ten Year Anniversary because I started on Iron Man 1 and I've been there ever since. I started on Iron Man 1 and I have now, I think up to my 11th and 12th film with Avengers 3 and 4, which we shot consecutive, so it's really, it's insanely challenging in that if you have a period piece, there are rules. 1940, looks like 1940 and you can't really sway from that. We're making movies in outer space, and so there are no rules...so your imagination comes into play...your projection of what could happen in outer space. You have to play with and play by some of the rules like gravity or no gravity.  And you have to still sell the audience on humans being superheroes. So we're addressing a guy called Thor and he's got a big hammer, you know, and that's like the layman the lowest common denominator. Now I gotta think about Mjolnir. What's Mjolnir made of? Uru metal? Why is it made out of Uru metal? Because I have to satisfy the lore, right? So I'm challenged in that, a comic book, which is awesome and people, you know, we wouldn't be here without comic books, but the Marvel teams are brilliant and Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, and it's our life. But you look at a comic book and if I copied that prop from the comic book in real life, I have a bunch...I now have an audience of non-comic book people that are looking at it going, that's kind of looks like a toy or you know, it's like kind of goofy. So I have to figure out where to draw the line between appeasing a fan and appeasing non-fan. And so we go through hundreds of drawings before we come up with Mjolnir. I think I drew 200 Mjolnirs before we came down to what it was on the films and rightfully so, we have to figure out the size and the scale and  what did she look like and how does it look like? It's really heavy for everyone else but Thor, right? So there are scenes where, we've all seen the iconic scenes where everyone tries to lift up the hammer and nobody can. And then Thor can. I literally bolt the hammer into the ground to sell that it's heavy. Like we really go as far as I, I provide the actor everything I can to make us successful shot like that.

And in some cases, that means taking it easy on the actors, even for some of Marvel Studios’ more physically impressive actors such as Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans.

So how many hammers are usually on set? You see them  flip it around and obviously it seemed lighter and then you see the real one and it's still fairly dense. It's pretty heavy.

Bobbitt:  So all the different materials I use for Mjolnir. I have a metal one which is about 60 pounds and then we do a fiberglass one. We do a hard rubber and a soft rubber. The soft rubber is for stunts, if he's throwing it or catching it or hitting somebody or it hits somebody, we use a very soft rubber. The softer the material, the harder it is for me to sell as metal because it's more porous and it's harder to paint. The metal one looks beautiful because it's metal. The next one down is fiberglass. I can put a really beautiful paint job on a fiberglass hammer. That's the one he'll carry around a lot, you know, if he has, if I see that he's going to have a 12-14 hour day, I'm giving them something lighter because it's, eve if you're the perfect specimen that Chris Hemsworth is, and I'm sure lots of people will agree with me when I say that ,it still gets heavy after 12 hours, no matter how strong you are. So I provide lightweight ones and rubber depending on the stunts and whatnot. And I will, just a little trivial fact the paint for that fiberglass hammer to make it look like the real metal hammer and make it look like Uru metal, is $1,000 a gallon. That's a crazy long process, that takes two to three days, and that doesn't count the labor. If there's anything expensive out there, I find it.

While many of us have our own idea about what it is that makes one worthy of lifting Mjolnir, Bobbit’s insight into what goes into making it look the part can certainly force us to reevaluate those thoughts. It’s also good to know that even Chris Hemsworth can’t heft around 60 pound hammers all day.

Earlier in the interview, Bobbitt spoke about his work on period pieces; we tried to dig in on how the theorized time travel in the untitled fourth Avengers’ film might deal with that idea... but Bobbitt wasn’t talking. He was, however, more than willing to share how important the attention to detail on something as simple as the handles on Cap’s shield is to his craft.

You spoke a little bit about working on Avengers and I know that they were shot back to back. Can you talk a little bit about the period pieces-I know that there's time travel that's involved-specifically about the 1940s because that's the World War II era where a lot can't be changed really. It's 1940. What were some of the challenges in doing a 1940 look, because that stuff doesn't, I don't feel like you can find that stuff everywhere. Some of that stuff needs to be made. Right?

Bobbitt: Right. If I'm doing something 40s, it does have to be made. And good try, by the way. I don't know that there's time travel in Avengers 4, I don't know that. You'd be surprised, actually a while we were filming both movies, the crew did not get a script. It's true. And uh, and so there's a lot of things that I don't even know. There are a lot of things I do know.

Maybe I spoiled that for you.

Bobbitt: Maybe you may have spoiled for me, but when do a period piece, It is and isn't challenging. It's kind of fun. Like my favorite era is the 40s. I know what went on in the 40s. I know that about rations and I know that they ran out of steel or copper rather, and went to steel for awhile.  And so I know the rules. That's why I was saying earlier, there are rules to doing a period piece and if you go to the 40s, like let's talk about Captain America, the first Captain America movie. Period piece, right? And a lot of army and, and, and cars and weapons that we know what they are because we have Google, right? You can, anyone can research a what went down. So the challenge there is to, to find what you need that applies to your script and, and dial in our craftsman are painters and our welders and, you know, to build things like they would build them in the 40s and Cap’s shield is one of the, you know, a top contender there. Like how do you come up with Captain America’s shield? The front of the shield is a no brainer. The comic books is all, it's all there, it's what you expect to see out of Cap’s shield. But if you look at the back of a shield, you'll see that I hand crafted a lot of leather strapping and materials that existed back in the 40s so that when the very few times that we see the back of the shield, and we do because when I'm watching the movie, I watched for the back of the shield, not the front, I see that he's wearing leather straps and not some, you know, more modern material. So, so that, that's really where our minds go is like every single detail, if it's ever revealed, we want it to be authentic.

Funny enough, you worked on Iron Man too?

Bobbitt: I did.

I worked on Iron Man. I was a researcher. My job was to read every Iron Man comic and make notes of when there was a costume change. So I know how extensive a part of the process is. Can you talk to me a little bit about the research that you have to do for a project when something like that occurs?  A small example is, you were just talking about Captain America’s shield and in a Captain America: The First Avenger, they show you different prototypes of the shield. What went into those designs and were there any mandates from Marvel at the time that said, you know, we kind of want this design and this design is homages to the past?

Bobbitt:  So, we all as a team sit there and try to figure all that out and what, what's where I go is to my illustrators. Again, it's, it's the whole team effort kind of thing. I have illustrators drawing 20 different ideas of a prototype and 18 of them are okay and two of them are really great and so what I'll do is I'll take the two really great ones and two really bad ones and show the director...because directors love to say no to things...and we'll come up with what's the best for the scenario. One great example in the shield world is that ILM did a prototype, broken up shield like as if it would be in layers like what's inside the shield, right. And the team knew about that and they saw it. It was a pitch. It was actually just a pitch that ILM threw out there and it was never going to be used for anything. Well, as it turns out, I saw the turntable of it, which is like a 3D drawing and I fell in love with it. I thought it was great and I literally built that prop from that drawing and it's the one that Coulson hands him when he wedges up his arc reactor and slices his workshop in half. That's the one. So that design came out of ILM and we just, I saw it and loved it as a prop and there and that was a great little Easter egg, that one who was just like crazy, like, you know, he pulled it out of Howard Stark’s case and he was like, “Oh, you know what this is?” And he used as a wedge and it's, it was just like epically popular.

As the interview came to a close, we asked Bobbitt about his work on Avengers: Infinity War, his most recent Marvel Studios film. As you might expect, the prop master had his hands on the development of the most important prop in the 10 year history of Marvel Studios: the Infinity Gauntlet! Bobbitt gave us a little history lesson on the Gauntlet and how it evolved since its first on-screen appearance.

Obviously Infinity War was a big project that Marvel has coming out. Uh, what prop are you most proud of in that film?

Bobbitt: With Infinity War, my most proud prop has to be the Infinity Gauntlet.

I wore that thing the other day.

Bobbitt: You wore the big one or the small one?

The small one. It barely fit in my hand, the one that Josh Brolin put on and it barely fit me.

Bobbitt: Yeah, so the, the Josh Brolin one was a complete courtesy prop for Brolin.

Oh, was it?

Bobbitt: Yeah, it, it's never really used in the film because it was so big and the one that he uses is 35 pounds and so we have it there for every shot and we model it directly off of my prop, which was great. It was at the premiere the other night and sitting in a case and I walked by to go into the party and I see people just standing there taking pictures of my gauntlet. I stood back and I usually do stand back because I don't walk up to anyone and go, I made that right. But I had that moment, that moment of like, wow, people care about a thing I did.

Here's our own Rob Keyes holding the actual full-size Infinity Gauntlet prop that Bobbitt brought out while we visited the set of Avengers: Infinity War in June 2017.

I found all six Infinity Stones. #AvengersInfinityWar #InfinityWar #SetVisit

A post shared by Rob Keyes (@failcube) on

It's iconic now.

Bobbitt: It's very iconic and it's a great. There's a great quick story about it in Thor 1, Kevin came up to me, he goes, hey, I need a Gauntlet mate and it's just going to be in the background and it's not a big deal. Maybe it's brass and put some colorful stones in it. And that's all I got now. I didn't read the comic books, okay. So I'm admittedly saying that this is a thing. And Kevin said to me, make a comment, and I made a Gauntlet and at that time I didn't know that the Gauntlet would have its own movie. So there's a lot of props and things and actors that we see that are a little Easter Eggs that we don't even know about. Seriously. I made the Gauntlet, and through the years that basic design stuck. So for Infinity War I bumped up the design a little bit. We've remade them in. I really crafted the stones because there were so important. So now they're like every facet and every cut is precise and planned. And those stones are like, again, months of meetings to come up with the color, the size, where they go. It's a pretty brilliant prop, uh, in terms of like what it says to that movie, like what it does for that movie and so that, that hands down has to be the Infinity Gauntlet and the stones.

MCU fans will agree that Bobbitt has no reason to feel anything other than pride for the wonderful design of not only the Infinity Gauntlet, but many of the most iconic looking props associated with the films. While he’s not working on Captain Marvel, his enthusiasm for working with Kevin Feige and crew means we could potentially see him again on 2020’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which will film early next year in Atlanta, and on future properties such as Black Widow and Eternals.

MORE: Every MCU Movie Released So Far

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Russell Bobbitt Interview: Marvel's Prop Master