Spoiler alert: Do not continue reading until you have watched the latest Murdoch Mysteries episode, entitled “Sir. Sir? Sir!!”
I can’t believe it’s been four years since Murdoch Mysteries’ props master Craig Grant and I last spoke. I just proves that old saying about time and fun. I contend Grant has one of the best jobs in the business, acquiring and building the props you set on every set of Murdoch Mysteries. And, in the case of this week’s Halloween-themed adventure, some otherworldly items. Read on for our chat on the inspiration behind the alien pod design and other tidbits of information.
Has your job changed much in the last few years? I do want to ask you more specifically about 3-D printers, but overall has the job kind of stayed the same? You’re able to come up with these awesome creations on a constant time crunch and under a budget?
Craig Grant: In some ways, our timeline has shrunk a little. We have a little bit less time to shoot an episode now. So, therefore everything’s crunched just a little bit. But otherwise, I think it’s about the same. It’s certainly easier now than it was 15 years ago or 12 years ago when we started because there’s a lot more information available, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. We put something out on the screen or on the story and within 30 seconds people are Googling it and, ‘Oh, this is wrong. No, that didn’t happen then.’ A good example of that was this past episode, somebody posted on Facebook about the triple entente. It didn’t happen until 1907.
Our showrunner responded almost immediately saying, ‘We didn’t say this. They actually ended the episode by saying, oh that’ll get signed sometime in the future.’ But how many people really had heard of that and knew that? Most people would’ve Googled it after the fact and found that we were sort of on track.
I spoke to production designer Bob Sher and he talked about coming into the show and making some changes visually and going a little bit lighter. How has Bob’s involvement in the show impacted on you? And how are things different now for you?
CG: It’s different in that Bob comes from a construction background. Bob has worked the floor. He knows what world well on camera. And what works well for a crew. It’s one thing to design a nice looking set and then walk in there with a crew and realize you can’t film it because there’s not enough room for the camera or just some weird thing right there that blocks the view. Bob has a good sense of space. And having come from a construction background, he can also flip our studio scene really well.
And for those people who don’t know, Studio C is kind of our swing stage at our studio where one week it’ll be the star room. The next week it’s the lobby at the Windsor Hotel. The next week it’s a barn and we always are forever changing. And Bob has really made it a point this season—especially of changing that as much as possible—so that you’re not going ‘Oh, that’s the hallway, but they’ve hung a different picture on the wall.’
How has technology impacted on your job? With the 3-D printing specifically, you’re doing more and more of that, aren’t you?
CG: It’s made it easier to prototype things. Years ago if I wanted to build something like Murdoch’s taser, you would’ve had to either farm it out of the building for certain parts of that, or you would’ve simplified it. With the 3-D printing, or the CMC machine, which I’ve used a lot more this season, you can make 12 different variations fairly quickly and see which one looks better and works better.
Let’s get into this Monday’s episode. The prop that you had to make for the alien cocoon, what was the inspiration for that?
CG: In the script, it called for a cocoon. And the first thought I had was the alien pod in Alien. But at the same time, we didn’t want to look like we were ripping off the alien pod from Alien. So I said, ‘We’ll go a little more hard, more like a meteorite type thing with some sharp edges.’ And then, with the technology these days of LED lighting, I was able to mount lights inside them that I can control with my phone and make them pulse, make them change colour. So there was that scene in the basement in the cavern when we had I think nine or 10 of these pods hanging from the ceiling. Each one of those was individually controlled to slightly change color and pulse in and out to give it a bit of life.
The actual design of them was by accident. I wanted to use a fruit called a jackfruit. And I made one, but it was going to be, it was too small. And Craig [David Wallace], our director said, ‘Oh we need something quite a bit bigger.’ So I had bought all this molding material and I ended up just throwing some crap on a balloon and it worked. And the stuff I used was actually this shell for when you make a mold. When you make a mold the inner part is like a latex that you pour your resin inside. But the latex was soft, so you have to cover it with a plaster or in this case a plastic substance. I ended up using the outer membrane, the outer plastic substance to make those cocoons.
And anybody who’s been to the office since we shot the episode, they’re all hanging in the prop room lit up. So I live with those every day.
I also wanted to ask you about Murdoch’s dart gun watch. The fans really like that. Was that something that you made from scratch? Or did you manipulate an existing watch?
CG: That was actually one of the simplest props ever because I just took a pocket watch, drilled a little tiny hole in the bottom and shoved a brass tube in it. The actual firing and all of that was completely CGI. So that was actually the simplest thing of the episode to make, that particular episode.
What was the most difficult thing then for that episode?
CG: Probably the cigarette case with the knife in it, only because we wanted it to come in and out. But because of the size of the cigarette case, the blade couldn’t be very long. So we actually had multiple blades depending on what the scene called for if it was sliding in and out it was the short blade. If it was the scene where we held it up to the guy’s neck, we actually put the longer blade in so it looked more menacing. And that was actually 100-and-some-year-old cigarette case that we modified for that action.
When it goes from episode to episode or season to season, are you always trying to one up yourself from season to season as you go along?
CG: I would like to think so. Because if I don’t, it would be kind of boring. There’s a reason I stay with this show because I do get to build things like those gadgets. The Roomba, which is still one of my favourite gadgets of this season. It is really a remote-controlled device that we can drive around the studio. And it will be making another appearance this season.
And coming up, there’s an episode that Pete has alluded to where we invent television. And I had a lot of fun building the items for that. Just because we did the research and we tried to get them as close as Murdochly possible to what a real thing would have been.
You’ve already mentioned the fans. You’re very active on social media, you like to share images of the props that you’ve made for particular episodes. Why do you like engaging with the fans so much?
CG: Maybe it’s just sheer egotism, but I like to show how we did things. I like to show how I built this stuff. So to me, that’s kind of interesting. I really enjoy Adam Savage and some of his one-day builds and how he goes and tries to figure out how people build things or whatever. So if I can give back a little bit of that to the fans, I would like to … I have pitched a couple of times that we should get a little camera and put it in the prop room when I’m building some of these gadgets and do time lapses or whatever.
We’ve never done it, but I think some of that would be interesting. People seem to be very interested in the behind the scenes and I think props have kind of gotten a little bit more notoriety in the past few years and stuff as people who grew up on Star Wars and things like that have gone back to that and want to collect the items. So I think that’s become a thing. And for some reason, people want to listen to what I have to say or see the pictures. So as long as they want to see them, I’ll keep throwing them out there. There’ll be some fun ones of this episode ‘Sir. Sir? Sir!!’ because the bugs are an interesting part of the episode.
What happened with the bugs is we read the script, we went, ‘OK, we need some bugs.’ So I went to the store and bought basically every toy bug I could find. We brought them back, cut them all up, ended up with a praying mantis with all these other bits and pieces and turned them into what we ended up with.
We sent pictures of that to our prosthetics department who normally just do our dead bodies and stuff and said, ‘OK, we want this bug. Can you guys make us some?’ So they hand-sculpted one, sent us back pictures. We said, ‘Change this, change that. OK great, we love it.’ So we had five or six, I think it was, practical prop bugs on our set. So when Daniel was picking the bug up and looking at it, he was actually holding a real bug in his hand.
They then erased and CGI’d the moving one on his hand. And when they were crawling all over the tree we put a couple on the tree, and our computer geniuses then got rid of those and made them run all over the place. So we had real ones in each situation or prop ones for the actors to interact with, to look at, just so that they had a size of scale and a size of what they were looking at.
And if you look carefully in the episode, in the cavern and in other places around, we were placing our prop bugs in the shots in the background. I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to see them, but some of the times when the guys were carrying the leafy plants around—which was basil by the way—we had bugs hiding in those plants. We had bugs hiding on the water cooler and places in between station. It was just another way that if people are really eagle eyes, they might see them just kind of lurking about.
It’s so great to be able to plant those little Easter eggs for the eagle-eyed fans because you know they’re out there.
CG: Yeah. And I like doing that too. I’m always happy when they get to reintroduce something from past seasons. Later this year there’s a moment where we open the armory and take some guns out. And Murdoch’s taser is dressed into the gun cabinet just as a throwback.
Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.
Images courtesy of CBC.