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For Period Films, the Key to Design and Audience Engagement Is in the Details

Films set in recent history face the challenge of balancing accuracy with creativity. During pre-production, prop masters and set decorators working on these pictures collaborate with the directors to determine just how closely they should copy the details of the period.

One such movie, Fox Searchlight’s “Battle of the Sexes,” moves between scrupulous exactness and inspired re-imaginings, depending on the scene. “Sometimes real is good, but interesting is better,” says Dwayne Grady, the film’s prop master.

Grady focused on such items as eyeglasses, tennis rackets and luggage. Tennis pro Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) has a distinctive look, in part because of her iconic spectacles. Grady found the frames King wore, but also had a pair that weren’t exactly the same model, but fit well on Stone’s face. “You always have something this side or that side of the original as choices, because what looks right on the actor is ultimately what you’re going for. It’s the feeling you get when you look at it.”

Another consideration: Rebuilding and re-creating every item in a film with historical accuracy has the potential to blow out a budget. Drew Petrotta, prop master on Warner Bros.’ “Dunkirk,” spent more on the two main pilots’ gear than all other props combined.

Since they were going to be shown in close-ups, director Christopher Nolan upped the initial budget to get it right. The gear was built meticulously, though some film-friendly adjustments were made. While all masks and helmets should have been the same two colors, “Chris wanted to be able to tell the two pilots apart very quickly,” says Petrotta. The solution was to use slightly different colors, a plausible variance within dye lots. “It’s creative cheating.”

Open Road’s low-budget “Marshall” used artistic license as well. “Period is important, but really you’re telling a story about people,” says set decorator Kara Lindstrom. A combination of authenticity and believability are at work. The film was shot almost entirely on location in Buffalo, N.Y., where word-of-mouth led Lindstrom to a woman willing to rent the her pristine, period-specific furniture.

On the flip side, when it came to the train station where future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) and attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) discuss the case’s closing argument, the cafe where they eat no longer exists. Lindstrom and her team created a new one based on European stations. “My goal is to make it a world that you enter and you’re never startled out of,” Linstrom says.

At times, the best way is to adhere to the highest standards of exactitude. Margaret Court’s (Jessica McNamee) tennis racket became a challenge for Grady. First, there was extensive research and then a hunt ensued; King herself became involved, even checking with the original players for a match.

At last, Grady found the right brand and profile racket for the period. He had it refinished and painted before employing a graphic artist to create and apply the appropriate images. Next, it went to a tennis shop for proper period strings. This small, seemingly-simple prop? “It took four or five people.”

Likewise, period guns aren’t simple when 1,000 soldiers need to be outfitted with them. Petrotta wound up with three levels of accuracy, from period-specific rifles to $16 toys that had to be aged and painted for 700 of the deep-extras.

Petrotta shares one secret to aging equipment: cement mixers. “We put rocks, sand, hockey pucks, baseballs and gear in there and tumble it together,” he says. “It breaks it down quite a bit. It worked out fine and you can’t tell.”

Sometimes, inattention to accuracy can destroy credibility. Aged toy guns may work in the background, but something as simple as tape can leave the wrong impression. Grady says, “If an actor’s taping up a flier and they’re using the wrong type of tape, like Magic Tape that hasn’t been invented yet,” then someone hasn’t done their job right.

As with God, success is in the details.

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