Setting the Stage

Digital printing adds realism to film and TV productions.

The next time you’re watching a film or television show, focus on the posters on the wall, the books, magazines, and products around the room. They may look like everyday items, but odds are some are impostors, produced on a digital printer.

“Our job is often not about making ‘pretty things’ but about mimicking reality,” says Agnieshka Jane, graphics director for Los Angeles-based HPR Graphics (, a division of The Hand Prop Room, which specializes in props for the entertainment industry.

“If you’re watching network TV and you see the actors eating, drinking or reading, unless there’s a specific product placement (by an advertiser), they’re not using real brands; those products have to be faked.”

Why? First, there are the legal issues and brand implications for products featured on the big or small screen. It’s easier for producers to turn to a company like Jane’s for a reasonable facsimile than invest the time, effort and money to secure legal clearance from a brand or trademark owner.

Then, there’s heightened demand for realism because of advances in imaging technology. “HD is just a lot more exacting,” says Jane. “People are more concerned than ever that anything an actor handles looks as real as possible.”

Prop masters, the ones charged with securing items for the set or scene, turn to companies like hers for those realistic touches. “If it’s something that can be printed, we’ve probably done it,” says Jane.

She and her eight-member staff routinely design and deliver the variety of times you expect to see on the street, in a home, or at the office: packaging for every conceivable consumer product; all types of published works; signs; business, medical, legal, or law enforcement documents; identification tags; even license plates. Sometimes the prop is something you might see today, sometimes it’s the relic of a bygone era.

“Period shows are all the rage these days,” notes Jane. “They are usually more challenging, but also more creative and fun.”

You Name It, We’ll Make It
The Hand Prop Room maintains its own inventory of more than one million items that it rents or sells to film and TV producers. The graphics department launched in the 1970s, offering custom design and fabrication of items not already available.

Jane heads a staff of nine, including herself. The graphics team includes two full-time designers and three project managers who work directly with clients, guiding each prop from concept to delivery. Artwork is created on Macs then output on the appropriate print system. The department is well equipped with a variety of digital printers to produce whatever a film or TV set requires. An office manager and a three-person production crew (production manager, silkscreen, and license plate fabricator) comprise the rest of the team.

Plastic ID cards and credit cards are produced on the Evolis Pebble 4, a specialty printer. Documents you might see on a desk or in the hands of an actor are printed on the Canon ImageRunner c5180, a business laser printer.

For higher quality prints, there’s Canon’s color laser ImagePress C1. “It allows up to 13 x 19-inch media, has good color reproduction, and can achieve a nice gloss finish,” says Jane. “This is our choice for magazine covers and brochures.”

It’s been used to create cereal boxes and other cardboard packaging, too. For these, the design is printed in two sections on paper, which is then cut and spray mounted to chipboard and, finally, scored and folded to the desired shape and size.

There’s also a Gerber Edge FX thermal foil vinyl printer/cutter, which can produce prints on media up to 12 inches wide. “Prop masters love vinyl printing because the finished product is durable and waterproof, and we can achieve chrome level metal effects,” Jane says. In the past, this was the preferred system for rewrapping soda and beer cans, and any application requiring a bright metal finish.

“We also use vinyl to cover up existing graphics on objects where we have to obscure logos or brand names or change them to fake ones,” she adds.

Doing It All
The graphics department also has two large-format printers: Canon’s 44-inch, 12-color inkjet, the imageGraf iPF8300; and the most recent acquisition, a Mimaki CJV-30-60 printer/cutter. When choosing a printer, Jane says, versatility is key: “We mostly care about how many different things we can stick in a machine. Thicker media, adhesive media, different paper finishes, ability to print on both sides with good registration, these are crucial when doing the variety of work we do.”

The Canon produces some larger props, such as jumbo lottery checks and specialty items. It’s been used to print on adhesive-backed vinyl, backlit film, and Tyvek. “Canon’s 170gsm glossy paper works great for things like posters or hardcover book jackets,” Jane adds.

“For things like road maps, we use nice quality bond paper. We also use a lot of newsprint for newspapers and Japanese hand made papers whenever we need something to feel old timey.” Maps printed on handmade papers were used in the film “Oz The Great and Powerful,” while others, printed on transparency film, appeared in “X-Men: First Class.”

The Mimaki CJV-30-60 printer/cutter was added last year. Its capabilities, and range of media available for it, filled a gap in the department’s services. “The bane of our existence has always been fabricating realistic food packaging,” says Jane. “It’s pretty much impossible to outsource packaging to another printer since we normally only need to produce a few pieces, and we need it in two days.”

Package Deal
In the past, she could get by printing packaging designs on paper or vinyl, applying them to actual samples, then adding a layer of clear laminate if a glossy finish was required. “If anyone needed a food bag that was clear or had a window, the only way to do it was purchase some kind of off brand and hope the graphics were simple enough we could cleverly cover them up with bits of vinyl printed and cut on the Gerber,” she says.

That was acceptable in the past, but expectations changed. “With the advent of high def, it was getting increasingly difficult to make props which can pass the most invasive close-ups,” she explains. “Our clients were becoming increasingly picky, and rightly so, about the materials and finishes, and the ‘feel’ of the thing.”

They were also bringing their own designs to her shop for printing on vinyl, with fancy die cuts. “It was becoming increasingly difficult to explain why their Photoshop images were just not suited for the Gerber.”

Looking for an alternative, Jane realized a newer digital inkjet printer/cutter could be the answer. She wanted one which could handle a variety of media, output at a larger size, yet not claim much floor space, and asked vendors for recommendations.

One invited Jane and her senior designer to a local Mimaki reseller where they could test the CVJ 30-60 printing some of their designs. As they were preparing to leave, convinced it would enable them to produce fancier labels, the Mimaki rep shared a binder of samples he’d been collecting. It included prototypes of food bags, foil wrappers, shrink wrap labels – the very items which were proving so tough to recreate. Jane showed those samples to her boss, and they ordered the printer.

The Mimaki rep also put her in touch with ChromaSpec Systems, distributor of the JetComp System. It’s a line of specialty films, foils, and shrinkable media for producing prototype packaging on digital presses. “We’ve used that Mimaki and JetComp media for a variety of things: chip bags and candy wrappers, any type of food bag with a clear window or requiring a foil label,” says Jane.

One of the first props produced on the Mimaki was a hemostatic agent pouch for the TNT series “The Last Ship.” In the real world, it’s a medical bag filled with blood-clotting granules for treating wounds.” The pouch had to feel ‘army issue’ since the show takes place on a naval destroyer,” Jane notes. “We printed the graphics on a poly material, filled it with the powdered milk, sealed it, cut little notches for easing tearing, and that was that.”
When not printing on JetComp products, the media most used on the Mimaki is Arlon’s adhesive-backed white vinyl. She says it is especially good for showcasing the metallic ink look of modern labels and packaging. Its adhesive qualities also make it easy to update vintage packaging with a fresher look.

“A good vintage prop involves lots of research, which we like to do ourselves. It’s always best if you can get the real item in your hand and examine the type and finish,” she says. Ebay is a good source for products from any era. Still, the design team sometimes has nothing but a photo of an old product pulled from the Internet to inspire their work.

“The first part of the challenge is to capture the look, which requires understanding the history of typography, design styles, and printing methods throughout the decades,” she explains. “The second, and often more difficult part, can be figuring out the most authentic way to fabricate the item.”
In the best situations, it’s a matter of designing and printing a vintage label, then applying it to an appropriate package. This summer, Jane and her staff were busy “cranking out all kinds of packaging” on the Mimaki for a new NBC series, “Aquarius.” Set in the late 1960s, the work included designing labels for the pull-tab cans of soda and beer popular at the time.

One scene in the WGN America series “Manhattan,” about development of the atom bomb, required cans of Similac baby formula from the early 1940s. Her staff found and recreated period labels, printed them on the Arlon vinyl, and the client applied them to containers.

Newspapers featured in the Manhattan series were printed on sheets of newsprint on the imageGraf iPF8300. For that, the staff had to research stories appropriate for the time and location, and design a fictitious newspaper, complete with masthead. “We had to write copy, script headlines, and recreate halftone photos for two editions of a newspaper,” she says. “Sometimes we can spend a week working on something like that. Then, when you see the show, it’s only visible for a minute or you don’t see it at all.” Some work done on the Canon is guaranteed visibility around the set: the names of crew, actors, and project logos. These are printed on a heavy duty canvas paper, then affixed to the back of the chairs used during production. “It’s something we can silk screen, too, but lately we’ve had some requests for super-complicated and colorful logos, and the only way to print them is digitally,” Jane says.

There’s no chair anywhere for her graphics team, but they certainly deserve some recognition for the design expertise and creative output which help make watching a TV show or movie such a believable experience.

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