Replica Movie Prop Obsessions: Part 1

PAD 2007 - 155: If You Recognise This You're As Big A Geek As Me

I was digging around through boxes in the basement this weekend when I came across a couple of boxes of partially finished movie prop replicas I had once slaved over and it took me back. It's a story of obsession, betrayal, politics and the main stage for this story was a forum called the Replica Prop Forum. What period does this story take place in? Star Wars action figures had just been re-released with their new buffed, body-builder physiques; VHS was still king and George hadn't yet broken every fanboy's heart by diluting the franchise into something targeted at pre-teens and appealing to their video-game aesthetic.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself. This obsession started out as a way for a recent emigre to California to pass some time. It starts out with me obsessively combing through every Toys R Us within driving distance looking for 'rare' action figures freshly put out the shelves. It quickly progressed to a tiny apartment looking like a KayBee outlet and a feeling that toys were not enough. I wanted harder, more grown-up stuff. I wanted exact copies of the props I saw in my favorite movies.

In those days the community was small and centered around an Internet forum called The Replica Prop Forum, or to those in the know, the RPF. Back then a as yet undiscovered Adam Savage hung out there with the rest of us obsessives although I didn't pay him much attention as his obsession was making a perfect replica of the Maltese Falcon. My obsession was much more mainstream; I wanted to own the SciFi Excalibur, Luke's lightsaber hilt from the original movie (ANH). Unlike Adam Savage, I wasn't alone, and it wasn't hard to find out that many of the original Star Wars screen used props were modeled around hardware ready accessible in the 70's. Unfortunately, that hardware was a lot more scarce in the 90's and there where a lot more people looking for it.

The lightsaber I wanted was based on the flash handle of an old, large format press camera. It's a tube that held the flash bulb at one end, the 3 battery cells went at the other and it joined to the camera via a clamp at the middle. I now knew the name of the thing I was looking for (a Graflex 3-cell flash) but so did everyone else. Ebay was in its infancy but it was full of fanboys like me looking for our 3-cell flashguns. It was equally full of merchants trying to trick you into buying the wrong flash tube with illegible photos, hinted at authenticity and fained ignorance.

After some time, I grew tired of being outbid at the last minute for a genuine Graflex flash (in eBay parlance, ‘sniping' was a new phenomenon that had to be executed manually not via some web-service or bot) but I learned via my new RPF friends that I could build an acceptable analogue out of hardware store parts. I was still relatively new to the US and rented my apartment so I had never been in Home Depot before. I was like a kid in a candy store and I, and many others, spent many hours trawling the isles of our local hardware store looking for common, cheap components we could substitute for the actual components of a genuine Graflex flash. I knew every piece of the Graflex flash even though I had never even held one on my hand. I poured over prop-geek porn: the Visual Dictionaries, The Power of the Myth, The Art of Star Wars, and a hugely expensive and massive, illustrated Japanese tomb ‘The Star Wars Chronicles'. I learned to use my first CAD software (2D DeltaCAD - long before Google bought Sketchup) just so I could make working diagrams that I shared on the first website I ever built on Geocities (I learned HTML just to be able to create this site). I've actually tried to kill this embarrassing website many times but, even though Geocities died off ears ago, my old website won't go away. It is one of the skeletons in my closet.

Via the RPF we hardware saber builders shared out discoveries. A Dremel was the badge of office and when I finally completed my own Luke ANH lightsaber I was immensely proud of it. From a distance it didn't look too bad. It was the right size and if you squinted when you held it in your hand I could almost believe that it was the movie prop. The few friends I deemed geeky enough to show it to were fooled but I knew the guys on the RPF would recognise it as a cheap fake in no time. So, for a few weeks, it tided me over but soon enough I was back on eBay searching for the hard stuff again.

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