by Burk Sauls

If you have kids (or if you happen to BE one), you've probably seen the show I build props for. THE SECRET WORLD OF ALEX MACK airs on Nickelodeon, and has developed a strong following over the years.

We can no longer do location days without groups of autograph-seeking fans calling for "Alex" and "Ray." The show is about a young girl, played by the gifted young actress, and all-around sweet gal, Larisa Oleynik, who was accidentally doused with an experimental chemical called GC-161, and discovers that she has acquired strange, "super" powers. Her powers include the ability to "morph" into liquid form, which allows her to fit under locked doors, travel quickly between point A and point B via the plumbing and hide in small places. She can emit electrical "zappers" from her fingertips, and levitate objects.

Several episodes have followed the various attempts by the evil Paradise Valley Chemical Plant to find and capture the mysterious kid who was doused with the GC-161. This is where the cool hi-tech props come in...

The primary antagonist is a former CIA Operative, Navy Seal, mercenary, undercover cop and security expert named Vince, played with maximum intensity and zeal by the amazing John Marzilli.

As "Special Props" agent, it is my weekly duty to devise several intimidating gadgets for Vince and the chemical plant to aid them in their pursuit of the elusive Alex.

Alex Mack's older sister, Annie, played by the lovely Meridith Bishop is the family "genius" and her character creates the occasional odd contraption as well.

I put these "tech" props into three categories: 1) Vince stuff, which is generally a very cool, deadly-looking device painted flat black with some form of red blinking light or glow. 2) Chemical plant stuff, which appears more "handmade," as if it had been hacked together by lab engineers from secret military surplus. 3) Annie stuff. Annie uses mostly household items to create her elaborate projects.

In reality, all of these gadgets are made in a small shop behind a sound stage in Valencia, California on a limited budget and in limited time. Not only do these props need to look good on TV, they also need to be durable, because our cast sometimes uses the "method," and have been known to go a little nuts with their props (especially Vince).

Lucky for me, I have almost complete freedom with what I design and make. I have been on the show from its beginning almost three years ago, and the directors generally trust my judgement.

Sometimes we disagree on what a particular prop should look like, but even the compromises turn out good thanks to our cast and crew.

Everyone works well together, and the goofs can always be fixed "in post," right?

Last season, I wrote an episode called "Operation Breakout" which might have been called "A Propmaker's Nightmare" if it hadn't been written by the show's propmaker. There were more special props per square inch in that one episode than any four others combined.

I built a functional robot that was required to chase our lead actress through the chemical plant's labrynthical hallways and fire laser blasts at her (these were done in post production - I still haven't figured out how to construct an actual death ray).

This small robot was built up from a radio-control truck, purchased at a hobby shop. I used corrugated plastic for the body, reinforced with aluminum strips. The details were all styrene and various do-dads from my many junk boxes (you can't call yourself a prop-maker unless you have at least a billion or more junk boxes - and a significant other who hates them all).

The robot's crazy, hypnotic "eye" was actually a lens I found at a very cool surplus shop in the valley called "Apex," and the lighting effect in it was pulled from a bicycle safety flasher. I put the flickering array of super-brite LEDs behind the lens, lined the inside of the lens with refracting "hologram" adhesive-backed plastic and slapped the whole thing right in the middle of the robot's "face." Knowing that the robot would only be seen in low-light situations, I wanted the "eye" to be the main focus.

To get a "feel" for the high-speed robot, I rehearsed for a few days with a stand-in, chasing her up and down the hallways, taking corners on two wheels, ramming doors and popping wheelies. Is this a dream job, or did my brain just stop developing at age twelve?

A scene near the end of the episode required the robot to explode in a "shower of sparks," so, working together with our intrepid special effects gurus, we rigged a dummy "breakaway" robot with low power explosives and a small air cannon filled with small fragments and glitter. The dummy was packed with circuit boards and other electronic innards so that when he flew to bits, we'd see that he wasn't just a hollow plastic shell (which he was).

The same show featured a prop that has become my personal favorite of all the stuff I've ever made, simply because its so stupid. The scene involves a chemical plant spy who has infiltrated the local Jr. High school posing as a janitor. His communication device is "cleverly" hidden in his feather duster.

This ridiculously simple prop was nothing more than a feather duster with a pull-out antenna on the end! It was the actor's performance with it that sold the gag. He hears a beep, extends the antenna and speaks discretely into the duster. It was an intentional "Maxwell Smart" moment as he continues to dust the lockers while kids look at him suspiciously.

Vince has tried many, many times to "detect" Alex using an assortment of devices, and I decided early on that he would never be seen with the same GC-161 detector twice.

I imagined him working with his engineers to develop the perfect one, with each new detector being an evolved and enhanced mutant of the one before it. The nice looking devices that sometimes get close-ups are generally the ones I had a little more time and budget on.

Regrettably, though, I occasionally have to slap something together at the last minute. These rush jobs sometimes end up being featured more prominently than I would have liked. Sometimes I find myself speeding to Fry's or Radio Shack, grabbing a small project box and a handful of switches and LEDs, zooming back to the shop - grabbing a cup of coffee while the soldering iron heats up, drilling some holes - slapping it all together and tossing it into the hands of an actor who is undergoing "last looks" by the make-up person.

There are times when I'm able to draw diagrams and actually put some real thought into the prop. A recent episode found Vince hiding in Alex Mack's house. He was trying to get some information that was on a computer screen, but from his vantage point in the air-conditioning vent, he couldn't see it clearly with his hi-tech binoculars. The script was vague in its description of Vince's "goose-neck" camera, which was to snake out of the vent, move around behind Alex Mack's dad (known affectionately on the set as "Mack Daddy" and played by the remarkable Michael Blakley), to read the information on his Power Book's screen.

I suggested to the director that the gooseneck thing might be awkward and that it might not "read" as a camera. I drew up some designs for a flying camera that I called the no-grav-cam. It was exactly the sort of thing Vince would just happen to have in his black ballistic nylon backpack! It was about the size of an Easter egg, and had pop-open wings, a

dimly glowing lens, and tiny stabilizer wings on the back. I found some of the parts at the local Toys R Us, and made the rest from styrene, a dental floss container, a plastic Easter egg and the front of a small flashlight.

Vince's VR glasses through which we was able to see what the flying camera saw, were a pair of eye-protection glasses from the Sears hardware department (one of my favorite places in the whole world), painted with Krylon "aluminum" and detailed with more do-dads. The scene worked perfectly.

Post production effects "floated" the camera and provided some cool "treated" images for the inside of Vince's cam-glasses and some neat sound effects.

I owe a great debt to the effects folks for turning my cheap little plastic props into something very real and, for the most part, believable. In addition to the nifty digital effects that add the electrical sparks and chemical glow, the sound effects folks really add a lot to the "life" of a prop.

Sometimes I watch shows with lager budgets than ours and I imagine how much fun it would be to have the time and money to make something really nice like the props on the Star Trek shows or Babylon 5. I see props in movies like "Blade Runner" and "Judge Dredd" that I would love to have tackled, but in all honesty, I think I secretly enjoy dashing out to Radio Shack and Target to buy toys and oddly shaped containers.

The freedom I have on Alex Mack probably makes up for the time and money those "other" shows have. At least I hope it does.

... more as it happens...

-b u r k

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