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In this DESIGN4FILM  learning moment our first lesson of the day focuses on the film's property master. For those of you not familiar what a property master is or does, here is a short explanation. 

The property master is an artistic and organizational employee in a film, television or theatrical production who is responsible for purchasing, acquiring and/or manufacturing any props needed for a production. The property master also works with other members of the production managing the physical appearance of the stage or set, for example they might work with the script supervisor to maintain set continuity. The property master is on staff during pre-production, then continues on as a member of the physical shooting/production crew.

The second lesson focuses on location scouting and the perils of assuming that the reason you selected a film location will remain unchanged from the day you selected it to the day you arrive with the company for the first day of shooting. 

The film we will be discussing is called ISLAND IN THE SUN
. Here is a short synopsis

(Synopsis - With a steamy Caribbean isle as a backdrop, director Robert Rossen's racially charged drama boils over with intrigue. When Maxwell Fleury (James Mason), the son of a moneyed family, squares off against black labor leader David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte) in a battle for political office)The high-powered cast includes Joan Fontaine, Dorothy Dandridge(Margot), Joan Collins and John Justin (Denis.) 

The reason I was an eye witness to the following events on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean was that I was the lucky beneficiary of the well-established “nespotic” Hollywood system of dads giving job positions to sons. In my case at the tender age of 16 an art department runner and errand boy. So for 6 months I was assigned the arduous task of: working the set, dating lovely Caribbean ladies, scuba diving and (under duress) attending a Saturday morning Latin class conducted by a very laid back sandaled newspaper reporter who claimed Cambridge credentials as a Latin teacher. We stayed at a summer house called crystal springs. It was reportedly (although not officially credited) as having been designed by the well regarded architect Oscar Niemier. Difficult living conditions as you can see. From the following photos. 

Crystal Springs Villa

The renderings that follow, while not necessarily related to the design story we are telling, were created for by the film's designer, my father John DeCuir, Sr. 


So enough back story and on to the set in question. It was was a small cottage (the trysting place for Dorothy Dandridge (Margot) and John Justin (Denis)). It overlooked the sea (this geography was created via editorial license as the cottage was nowhere near the sea) and a lovely lagoon, which did take up residence just outside the cottage balcony. The dilemma was that when the company arrived that morning, the small lagoon adjacent to the cottage was literally covered, inches deep, with fallen leaves.

When we had scouted the location (before the storm) the lagoon was crystal clear. You might think this could be perceived as a lovely forested and opportunistic moment, and you would be right unless there was a line in the script (which there was) where Denis says to Margot something to the effect, “Your eyes are as crystal clear as the lagoon”. This followed by his waving his hand across the leaf strewn water surface, which was not clear by a long shot. 

Robert Rossen, the director, was reticent to remove or change the scripted line and so the company moved inside the cottage and it became the mission of the art department to remove the leaves. The effects, grips and craft service boys immediately put on their high top boots and waded in with rakes in hand, with the assignment to simply rake out the leaves. 

Now if you have ever tried to rake leaves off the surface of your swimming pool you know it is a relatively impossible task. You rake in one direction the leaves wander off in another. The rake action failing the boys next pulled out their high pressure water hoses and hoped they would be able to “squirt” off the leaves. After all it works on one’s front lawn. This also failed miserably as the leaves, being much more elusive than the streams of water simply wandered off back into the center of lake, secure and safe as before.

Fortunately, there were several pages written for inside the cottage, so the company moved inside and shooting went on as scheduled, through the morning, while the art department squirted and raked away.

For my part I was sitting next to my father when the prop master, a man as we might say “long in the tooth”. Sat down and offered a solution. Specifically he stated, “I can get those leave off that lake”. My father was all ears. The Prop Master only demanded that all the leaf "rakers and netters" get out and stay out of the water. He needed to be left alone with no meddling in the water for at least three hours. Well lunch was about to break so we knew we had an hour at least and we would have to talk our through the second and third hour. Shortly the company left for the lunch tables, set up down the road, and we did nothing much but stare at the water while the prop master walked the edges of the water sprinkling (ever so tenderly) small amounts of some sort of fine white powder over the water. And then we sat some more. Point in fact we sat through lunch until the crew returned. When they did they proceeded to head for their rakes and hoses to resume work. Unexpectedly my father stopped them.

Now there was all hell to pay as it was up to my father to convince Gery O’Hara, the Unit Production Manager that there was a plan afoot. A plan, as it turned out, he had very little confidence in. None the less the company went back into the cottage for the last pick up shots and then, as it seemed to me, in only a few minutes they made their move to the balcony where the infamous line ”and your eyes are like limpid pools of crystal clear water” as the camera panned over the leaf strewn lake. The director, seeing that the leaves were very comfortably strewn about the lagoon; through up his hands in disgust and stormed off to his limo to rewrite the metaphorically incorrect line of dialogue. 

The hands on my watch seem to barely move but they in fact were moving and in what seemed like hours the second hour approached. On cue the and as promised the prop master looked at his watch, and rolled his multi drawer red wooden prop box down to the edge of the lake. As a footnote I should explain to my non-film making audience that a prop box is a wonderful Pandora's box of gimmicks and goodies maintained and belonging to the property master and is reported to have just about anything one could need at just about any time during the shooting of a film. That of course is an exaggeration but, as this story proves, not far from the truth. 

From this red property box and from one of its draws the prop master pulled out a small bottle capped with an eye dropper. He then asked that men and rakes be stationed around the lake and be prepared to rake out leaves at his signal. Reluctantly and with great doubt the men took their intended positions. The property master kneeled at the edge of the lake opened his slightly pinkish bottle of liquid and put one, two, yes only three drops of liquid into the water at he edge of the leaf covered lake. 

The crew being English (and allowed beer for lunch) began to roar and howl in derision as if those three little drops of liquid could resolve a situation that 15 strapping grips and crafts service men and women had been struggling with all morning. 

Nothing happened at first, and then ever so slowly a very small hole of cleared water appeared where the drops of pink liquid had been placed. Ever so slowly the hole widened in diameter its center remaining clear and its edges pushing the leaves out of the way of the expanding crystal clear circle. The howling and background laughter dropped into complete silence as all watched the clear spot in the lake get larger and larger and larger. Within 30 minutes the clear hole in the leaves had increased to a diameter of at least 15 feet and it was evident that the clear area was getting larger and larger by the minute. Not much longer than another 30 minutes passed and all but a very few leaves had been pushed in an ever widening circle to the edge of the lake. On cue the rakers set about raking up the piles of leaves that were literally floating into their rakes, as if by invitation. They were subsequently swept ashore leaving a crystal clear lagoon.
About that moment Robert Rosen the director exploded through the foliage and announced in a booming voice, “its all right its all right, I have an even better line, the lagoon doesn’t have to be free of its G$# D#@* leaves. He then came to an abrupt halt and his mouth dropped open as he saw the crystal clear surface of the lagoon, completely free of leaves.

The property master was congratulated all around but kept his secret and would tell know one what was in that little pink bottle. Well, the crew was not about to let this go so that evening a small contingent of behind the camera folks were invited to drinks as was the prop master and after sever Johnny Walker Blacks the truth came out. For the physicists in the audience you will most like already have already guessed the answer, yes it was a simple issue of breaking the surface tension on the surface of the water with several drops of glycerin . Once done the viscous material that had built up on the surface expanded out carrying the leaves with it in an ever widening circle.


The cinematic moral(s) of the story are:
1. Never underestimate what may be found in a prop box.
2. Even more importantly never underestimate the intelligence of the property master who pushes the prop box around.
3. never ever assume that what yous aw on your location scout will remain unaltered through till the day of shoot!!
4. In film production if it can go wrong presume it will!