Prop Master Andina Aste-Nieto
Andina Aste-Nieto, Prop MasterDrenching the formerly edible in Day-Glo yellow cheddar and chain-smoking generic cigarettes might seem better tailored to any lower-rung level of service job hell, but it's all in a day's work for a film's prop master.
The job, in the words of PM Andina Aste-Nieto, involves creating or procuring anything that the actors touch or interact with in a scene. Aste-Nieto is currently working on Gretchen, a feature-length adaptation of SXSW Film 04 jury award winner for best short, "Gretchen and the Night Danger." The film charts the lovesick trajectory of an exceedingly awkward teen's unrequited infatuation with bad boy Ricky Marichino. In capturing the frumpy, middle American ennui of his characters, director Steve Collins alternates between a "suburban blah look" at Gretchen's school, and a warmer, more nested appearance at her home. After establishing the visual tone of his film with Carolyn Merriman, Collins' primary collaborator and "biggest creative force in the art department," it's up to the prop master to "go through the script, take notes on exactly what all the props are going to be," and secure them. This can mean any number of things. With budgetary constraints tight, props are bought on the cheap, borrowed from the Austin Film Society, or made by the art department. Aste-Nieto recalled the challenges facing her crew during one scene filled with food. Mike Judge regular Stephen Root plays Gretchen's father, a man trapped in a dead-end gig working at a fast-food restaurant. One of his scenes' visual gags involves his employer's insistence on serving their food afloat in oodles of disgusting cheese. For the prop master, this meant procuring a nacho cheese dispenser; a neighborhood rec center by her house proved fruitful, but did not end her crew's problems. "The dispenser decided not to work at the last minute," Aste-Nieto says. "We had to rig it up where it constantly poured out cheese," improvising the onslaught of liquid with a bag and a nozzle. "With food and cigarettes, you often have to have a whole lot on hand, in case you have to do that shot a bunch of times," she says. In another scene featuring Root, an overflowing ashtray was needed at a moment's notice. "We had bought these generic cigarettes for the look of the pack," Aste-Nieto explains. In a rush to keep production rolling, she, along with art director Elliott Hostetter and others, began smoking upward of three cigarettes at the same time. "We all felt so disgusting for the rest of the day," she recollected, noting that a good-natured Root even got in on the festivities.
"You really learn how to be resourceful," Aste-Nieto says, noting the scavenger-hunt-like technique her responsibilities sometimes require. "I just try to have everything organized enough so I can have it at the right time for the right actor, because otherwise, it can hold up the entire production." Director Collins, too, knows the important role the prop master and art department play; Gretchen conveys his characters' emotions through their belongings and surroundings. "It's very close to my heart, the art department," he says.