THE SECRET WORLD
ALEX MACK PROP GUY
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.
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.
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 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.
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
-b u r k