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The hard work and contributions of so many individual went into making one of the greatest SF franchises in television history.  Over the course of this blog’s run, I’ve invited various members of the extended Stargate family to talk about their experiences on the show(s).  We’ve spotlighted writers, producers, directors, actors, stunt coordinators, VFX and FX supervisors, and many more.

Today, we turn the spotlight to Mark Nicholson, a longtime prop builder for (and, it turns out, fan of) Stargate.  Mark has kindly taken the time to field your question – AND offer up some visual aids!

Take it away, Mark…

Patricia Stewart-Bertrand writes: “As for a question for Mark Nicholson – my question: I’d like to know if you needed any special education or training to get into your current field. Did you want to work in the entertainment industry so looked for a job you could do and enjoy within it, or did you have an affinity to creating props and the rest naturally followed?”

MN: Special education or training? Sort of. I don’t believe there’s any places here that specifically teach people how to make movie props as a course. Most of the people I worked with did have a lot of special training, or a lot of experience in something before bringing it to this industry. I worked with people who went to school for Pottery, Engineering, Photography, Graphic Design, Sign making.  It’s kind of a weird industry.

While I never specifically set out to work in Film, I did always want to work in entertainment, starting with computer animation when I was young (I blame Reboot), and later video games (which I did for a while before Film, and still want to get back into). I most certainly didn’t have an affinity for creating props, and my first year really felt like an apprenticeship, spending a lot of time helping more experienced builders with parts of their builds and learning a lot of ropes.

gforce writes: “Question for Mark: How much input/freedom did you have in designing the items for the franchise? Were you able to have a lot of creative leeway or were things pretty much drawn up for you already?”

MN: Input varied. You can find a lot of production concepts here on this blog in fact, and many times, what we delivered was exactly that. Sometimes when things were rushed we’d get a ‘paper napkin drawing’, which is like it sounds, and while the important aspects are laid out, you do end up getting the freedom to interpret it.

Disruptor
Disruptor

We also had things like working from established themes. By season 10 of sg-1 and season 3 of Atlantis, looks like ‘Ori’ and ‘Wraith’ were already established, and while we would sometimes have a lot of freedom with the specific prop, it would still have to be known instantly as ‘Wraithy’, so sometimes we couldn’t deviate too much. SGU was my favorite show to work on because we got to spend a lot of pre-production making up a lot of stuff with a lot of new tools and technology, and allowed us to establish a lot of neat building systems.

JeffW writes: “Did you also make the electronics (lights) for the props, and if so, was it mostly LEDs, incandescent, or electro-luminescent? (Sorry in advance if that was too technical).”

MN:We had a full time electrical engineer who did nothing but build electronics. As for what kinds of lights, I think at one point we used everything, but mostly LED, and second probably goes to small fluorescent tubes (often handled by the lighting department for larger, stationary things, like ships consoles, or the 1/3 section of Atlantis gate for ‘The Shrine’). My favorite was side-lighting laser engraved acrylic.

Ori ship chair
Ori ship chair

Ponytail writes: “Hey Joe could you post a few pictures of Mark Nicholson’s handiwork so I know who I am talking to and have a better idea of questions to ask him. Did he help make that minature Destiny?”

MN: I had a very small hand in the miniature Destiny (though, that hand is the one in the pictures holding it while I make flying noises wink

Destiny
Destiny

Choopy 49 writes: “Question for Mark – What equipment/technology/weaponry did you hope the crew of the Destiny would eventually discover on the ship had the show continued?”

MN: I should start this by saying I LOVED WATCHING SGU. I was a big fan of it, and as a fan was crushed when it was cancelled (let alone the fact that it was also my favorite employment ever). What would I have liked to see? or BUILD!? Either way, a Jeep or ATV would have been cool (the whole on foot all the time thing bothered me about the franchise as a whole). More adapted 3rd party tech (not human, or ancient, but from other sources that they could only reach once), especially weapons. Making weapons was fun.

Actually…

Joe, why didn’t they have jeeps and atv’s?

(I would love a detailed answer to this, apart from the obvious $$)

JM: Yes, part of it was $$$, but in my mind given that the teams would be heading out to make first contact or exploring a new planet’s eco-system OR, later in the series, heading into potentially dangerous situations that would require stealth, being on foot would make more sense.  Then, after that initial foray, IF transportation was needed, they could always go back and pick up a vehicle.  It just so happened that in most cases (well, all the ones we saw), there was either no time or necessity for vehicles, mainly because the civilizations they encountered were always located close to the gate – which made sense.  

DP writes: “Questions for Mark Nicholson…It’s hard not to hit duplicate questions this late in the game. What tools, materials, techniques, and resources are available now that you wish were available earlier in your work on Stargate?”

MN: Honestly, I can’t think of anything for this. We had a pretty high tech group, with several CNC machines, a 3D printer, a 3D scanner, and a laser engraver/cutter. I am not aware of any specific manufacturing technology that has been made available since that would have been handy.

“Is there anything that was available then that’s not available now?”

MN: I recall hearing that the quality of some Latex today isn’t as good as it was in the 60’s, due to tree farming practices, but I haven’t found any facts to back this up.

“How thoroughly were the needed props described?

MN: The function and role of most props could be described to us rather quickly, maybe 10 minutes to understand what it is they wanted (along with the concept art). But that’s also coming from my own perspective at the bottom of the chain. Prop meetings where it would be discussed what they wanted to have, and what was possible/affordable/deliverable were not things I attended, an were very long.

“Who did you go to for clarifications when you weren’t sure what was being requested?”

MN: Being off-site, it was a very rare day we would ever see a Production Designer directly. Often, we would see the Prop Master, but 95% of the time, I’d just go to our Lead Prop Builder.

“What’s an inexpensive thing to build with the help of a seven year old? If he can get plenty of big muscle movement during the build, during the use of it, or while destroying it, all the better.”

MN: I have no idea! …after some time thinking on it, I might suggest doing what my dad did, cut swords out of wood with a jigsaw (we did guns too, but that isn’t as well received today as it was then). Or candy glass.

“What examples of serendipity happened in your prop-building?”

MN: Ok. So you know that Jaffa Staff Weapon? The one that opens to fire? They only ever had one that actually opened. And it was only the front half of the staff weapon anyway. After Sg-1 ended, MGM expressed an interest in having a full, working staff weapon. So the working half weapon was pulled out, the back half was put on, it got a fresh paint job, and a custom box for shipping. It was finished, and out the door an hour later, never to be seen by any outside of MGM head office. So there was only ever a working staff weapon we could see and use for an hour. I just happened to get my brother from out of town a tour of the shop in THAT HOUR grin

“Did you think Lord of the Rings included too many visual details?”

MN: NO. Not ever. They did awesome work, and I would never wish them to do less, ever. And related to that, once you make a bunch of this stuff in movies, and really see what things look like, and how fake it really is, you pick it up when watching it in the theatre, or at home on TV. It then looks fake to you, ALWAYS. So getting to see something that manages to not look totally fake all the time then becomes one of the few movies you can watch and actually forget that it’s all fake. Captain America was another good example. The story was ok, and the acting was…eh. But the props and sets, those were always AMAZING.

Pontytail writes: “First some questions for Mark Nicholson then I have to watch The Shrine then I’ll be back for comments on that…much later.

1. Okay, Mark Nicholson, just answer the question. Did you make the mini Destiny as seen here on Joe’s blog on Aug. 28, 2010?”

MN: I did not make it, but I did make the stand and case for it, and did get to play with it, and make whooshing space noises flying it around the room.

“That model was the coolest thing ever! If you made it:
a. how long did it take?”

MN: I think my co-worker Jay spent a week turning the VFX model into something printable, and another two days to print the 5 parts (4 quarters and a shuttle), paint and assembly was a couple hours.

Destiny progress
Destiny progress

“b. what was it used for?”

MN: Ask Joe! It was asked for so directors could plan shots and explore what it actually looks like in depth, in 3D.

(seriously Joe, feel free to chime in here and talk about it’s fate)

JM: Alas, I am unaware of its fate (or the fate of most of those props with the exception of a handful of those Scourge bugs and the pain stick sitting in my garage) but, yes, you’re correct – the model was used to plan shots and sequences.

“c. was it your proudest moment?”

MN: No, but it was one of the coolest things we made. We also did some test prints of a Wraith Dart and an F-302.

F302
F302
Wraith dart
Wraith dart

“2. What was the funnest item you made, and why?”

MN: Anything we did for 200. Weapons, and webbing, and incredibly acurately detailed uniform details including campaign badges for O’Neill, Carter, and Hammond, all at 1/3 scale.

Scale weapons
Scale weapons

“3. Do you ever hang out on set just to see your art in use?”

MN: Every chance we got, which were unfotunately few.

“4. Do you get to keep anything you make?”

MN: Technically, no. On rare occasions, we would make samples that would not get used, and it was okay if those went missing. One of these was a spare of Tyre’s sword, made of ABS plastic, to see if the material was viable for stunt work. It was too wobbly, and thus discarded and sat in a room for a few years. It now hangs on the wall of a friend of mine who introduced me to Stargate, and is a huge fan.

“5. What have you made that got the most attention from the cast or crew?”

MN: Ironically, the same thing got the most attention both positively and negatively. The Asguard Suits in ‘The Lost Tribe’ and ‘First Contact’ got the most positive, and the same suits got the most negative attention in ‘Water’, when actors had trouble breathing in the new helmets.

“6. What was the craziest thing you ever were asked to make?”

MN: So tough to answer. Many things were crazy, and more importantly, I can’t even remember half the stuff we made, so I’ll just list what I can think of that was rather out there:

Wraith Ultrasound Device

Universe Gate

Universe gate
Universe gate

1/3 of an Atlantis gate (for the water scene at the beginning of ‘The Shrine’, no movable version of the Atlantis gate was ever built before this, it was all camera trickery and cg).

The Ark of Truth (or as those frustrated with it by the end called it, THE ARK OF LIES!)

A ‘Space Dishes Rack’ for The Destiny

A ‘Wraith to USB’ adapter

And I know I’m forgetting so many ridiculous things we did.

“7. How do you feel about seeing your work pictured on Joe’s blog?”

MN: Happy Memories, every time.

“8. Where are you working now?”

MN: Kodak, which is boring compared to making props, but reliable. (see Joe’s post last week about the state of the film industry in Vancouver)

for the love of Beckett writes: “Mark Nicholson — How cool was it being a Prop Master for Stargate? And now your creations are collectibles! A different kind of question would be about the overall style or look of each show, and getting the props to match the set and scene. What were your points of inspiration? It looks sort of like there’s an Art Deco feel to Atlantean objects, but still sci-fi. I liked the tall, copper standing piece of art in Woolsey’s office that Joe liked. Also, I’m not normally big on weapons, but Ronan’s/Jason Momoa’s big ol’ gun that charged up with sound effects was my favorite. Did you get to design that?”

MN: I was a prop builder, not the prop master, and it was VERY COOL. Most of the design feel came from the production designer, and coming in later in SG-1, and Atlantis, many themes were already established. We got a lot more leeway with SGU, and it was so liberating and fun to get to design things from scratch. I’m quite sure the tall copper thing in the office was done by the Set Decorators, who tend to handle things in the background that never get touched. Ronon’s gun was cool, and I didn’t get to design it. I did get to repair it a few times (and repair the rubber stunt ones even more. Rumor has it Jason didn’t like carrying the real ones, which were much heavier).

Mike from Canada writes: “I have questions for Mark Nicholson, if he doesn’t mind. I’ll repeat the questions I had on the shotguns with drum magazines if that’s OK.  How did you make them, what did you use, fiberglass? Actual metal parts?
Did you base them on actual firearms?
How long does it take you to make them?
Did you make each one a one off, or did you make molds?
Do you weight them so they feel more realistic?”

MN: Those shotguns are AA-12’s, and were cast from real ones. Real ones were used on set. I recall hearing not many exist tho, and they’re hard to find. We aim to make things as light as possible.

“New questions:
Do you make all your props pretty much the same way?
How did you get started building props?
Are you working on any other shows these days?”

MN: Yes, most were made with a lot of pre-established techniques.

How did I get in? Like most of the people I worked with, we never intended to be there, it just sorta happens through opportunity. My initial contact was through the model shop asking my old school for any grads who could help with 3D scanning tech they were testing.

I am not currently working in the Film industry.

Mike from Canada also writes: “Hey Joe. I thought of another question (or two or three or four) for Mark Nicholson.  Was there any projects that Mark was particularly proud of?”

MN: The Replicator Chip Merek uses in ‘Ark of Truth’

The backs of the chairs in SGU (I got to do whatever I wanted with them)

The Universe gate

Destiny’s bridge consoles

Bridge console
Bridge console

“Was there any that he particularly detested, that were a mess, or screwed up terribly?”

MN: The Ark of Lies (formerly the Ark of Truth) was built in 7 days.

“If there was any show he would really like to work on, what would it be?”

MN: Tron Legacy. We were asked to help, and had to decline, as we were in pre-production for SGU, and currently building the Universe Gate. (Second place goes to A-team, which I DID get to work on :D)

“Does he work on any software based graphic tools or such for his work? Maya, Vue, cad program, photoshop, etc.”

MN: YES. All of it, lots! Solidworks and Rhino were comonplace, as well as a lot of Corel Draw. And at some point we tested out anything that would help. I prefer 3ds MAX and Zbrush for 3d modelling too.

“How did Mark wind up doing this kind of work?”

MN: Like everyone else, through strange circumstance and lots of luck.

“Did you work on the sets/stages as well as props?”

MN: Not as such. But we did often work on detailed components that would get integrated into sets, like consoles and special panels.

“What is your current favourite TV show?”

MN: Top Gear.

“Have you read anything lately you would recommend? Fiction or nonfiction.”

MN: I just finished the last book in ‘The Wheel of Time’ series. Also, Zoe’s Tale (from scalzi’s ‘Old Man’s War’ series, which has gotten plenty of attention here), and my favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo.

“Can we see pictures of your workroom?”

MN: Keith almost gave me a heart attack when I came back to see this guy, sitting there, all sad with his coffee (and again the next morning when I walked in, having forgotten about him).

Suit
Suit

“Sorry if I repeated any of the questions, or if I’m too late, or if I’m getting carried away. Curious monkeys want to know!”

MN: No, it’s good. We love monkeys!

Space monkey
Space monkey

BMc writes: “Mark Nicholson – are you AKA confracto? I’ve enjoyed your comments here!
What was the most used/re-used/re-adapted piece of equipment you made? And, were you involved with those great suits worn by the Pegasus Asgard, which I believe later re-appeared as Ancient EVA suits on the Destiny?”

MN: Yes, confracto is my online handle. It was the result of ‘Hey Mark! What’s the weirdest word you can think of!?’. We were bored and checking out what domain names were free and taken years ago. Confracto.com will take you to some of my work.

Most re-used peice? Probably all the knobs and buttons for Destiny.

Wall panels
Wall panels

Yes, I was involved with those suits. It was actually one of the best building experiences, since it took 100% from everyone for weeks to do, and really bonded the team. I have never felt more accomplished than seeing those go out the door. My wife tells me I have to mention that I missed our anniversary one year for these suits, due to working 14 hours that day. But they look so cool!

Thanks to Mark!

And today’s entry is dedicated to birthday gals mamasue9 and Ganymede!

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dasndanger
dasndanger

AAAAARRRRRGGGGHHH!!!! I totally forgot to ask a question! Too busy tormenting Joey, I was. sad

das

gforce

@Mark: I totally loved “Reboot” when it was on (in the 90’s? I can’t remember.) For the time, it was pretty ground breaking CGI, not to mention tremendously clever. Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions, it was very interesting!

Deni

I wasn’t tormenting Joey, but I totally forgot, too! Thanks, Mark, it was a fun read!

Ganymede
Ganymede

grin Thanks JOE!
It was a not so temporally-challenged day…

DP
DP

I believe the lack of vehicles was also addressed in the DVD commentaries for SG-1’s Momento.

Thanks, Mark! This Q&A was awesome!

confracto

I’ll be reading comments for this one for a few days if there are more questions, put them in here!
-Mark Nicholson

bailey
bailey

Thanks to Mark for the Q and A! You were part of a wonderful franchise that has given much pleasure and entertainment to many, many people. Your work is much appreciated!

Airelle
Airelle

Happy Birthday to mamasue9 and Ganymede! Hope you had great ones.
~ ~Thanks to Mark for doing the Q&A, nice job, always like reading about the shows. and that suit and coffee guy was cool, but would have spooked me too, ha,,thanks.
~

dasndanger
dasndanger

@ Deni – Well, it’s not like you didn’t have important things going on…grandma! wink Me? I’m just tinkering away at a lot of nothing and so there really is no excuse for me, other than being a compete slacker, and stuff.

Now, excuse me while I go to the brooding corner.

(I’m not really brooding, I’m fakin’ it so that…ummm….so that a ‘certain someone’ thinks I’m behaving myself for a change.)

wink

das

dasndanger
dasndanger

@ JeffW – Regarding yesterday’s late comment – you are a very wise man. wink

Ponytail wrote –

You know the most about the Wraith, so I think you are right. I wonder when they get them. As a daring youngster or as they age? Is it a demand for respect of a look of toughness? Why didn’t Joe and gang ever explain this? Maybe it is military? Do they do it themselves or is there a Wraith tatooer. I wonder what he is like?

I certainly wouldn’t say I KNOW the most about the Wraith, but I certainly do have the most to SAY about them! lol razz

I have always considered the Wraith to be very vain, and that the tattoos were first and foremost an expression of that vanity. Beautification, adornment. In my mind that’s what motivates them more than anything else. However, each individual Wraith may have a personal reason for his body art – for some it may just be simple adornment, while for others it may be to mark some achievement or to tell a story about some event – the same sort of reasons people get tattoos. Since we know from Vegas that some have tattoos under their clothing, it can’t be just for identification, or to distinguish military rank. So it must be more personal than that.

And Todd’s tattoo? Obviously, he’s a KISS fan. wink (Supposedly his tattoo is inspired by KISS, as it’s been said that one of them – Stanley, I think – was a fan of the show. I may have that wrong, however…it has been a few years.)

Never gave any thought to the Wraith tattoo artist. I imagine he’d be something like Edward Sleazyhands from The Hive:

comment image

das

Janet
Janet

G’day

Thanks to Mark for answering all those questions. Eve though I never asked any. By the time I think of one, someone already asked. It looked like so much fun working on the set.

JeffW
JeffW

Thanks for the Q&A Mark! I’ve used both Corel and Solidworks, but lately I’ve mostly used TurboCADCAM (2.5D) with Mach3 as a CNC setup. I would love to have access to a 3D printer though.

“What is your current favourite TV show?”

MN: Top Gear.

Which one? The British one or the American one?

Ponytail
Ponytail

What a treat! Thanks Mark Nicholson for the fabulous, entertaining, interesting, and informative Q&A! Very talented, and handsome to boot! razz Did your resume building props for a television show get you the job at Kodak? Are you known around the office as “that Stargate guy”? I can’t believe those SGU actors in “Water” would complain about something so insignificant as not being able to breath in those suits. wink How did you remedy that? A drill? Did you help transform Dr Keller and her room in “The Seed”?

Thanks again Mark for taking the time to answer all those questions! Very cool!

Ponytail
Ponytail

@ Das – But Das, if the Wraith are so vain, why don’t they do something about those teeth? unamused

shinyhula

Very cool props! Going to have to Google Reboot; I just watched Space Janitors and they’ve got shout outs to Reboot as well.

confracto

JeffW, the british top gear, tired the american one, didn’t like it as much
Ponytail, prop resume helped a little, moreso in that maintaining a laser engraver does help with now building them. and yes, the helmet breathing situation was rememdied with more vent holes wink I didn’t help with Keller in the seed, we did make all the wraithy bits, I remember when we did her shirt full of holes and tendrils through it.

sgfan
sgfan

“MGM expressed an interest in having a full, working staff weapon.”

A FULLY WORKING staff weapon.. Hmm

“It was finished, and out the door an hour later, never to be seen by any outside of MGM head office.”

That’s gotta be of some concern. Was probably stolen by The Trust or more likely a foreign government to reverse engineer.

…MGM, you gotta be more careful with alien military technology!!

dasndanger
dasndanger

@ Ponytail – Obviously, they’re British. wink

*ducks rotten tomatoes*

das

Tammy Dixon
Tammy Dixon

That was one of the best Q & A’s ever! Reading Mark Nicholson’s answers, it was almost like I was there. Prop builder would be a fun job. I’m sure it had drawbacks but I like variety in my day. It sounds like every day was different and allowed your imagination to work a little. Thank you Mark! I enjoyed “Reboot” too.

JeffW: “break a leg”? I don’t want to jinx you.

Ponytail & Das: I don’t know… I never felt the wraith culture allowed for adornment in the male population. Maybe the tattoos were a sign of rank?

Joan001
Joan001

I enjoyed reading this but I too wasn’t around much to ask a question. But if I was, I would have asked about:

3-D printers: what part did they play in the manufacture of all the bits and pieces. I can’t wrap my head around how these things work, but I imagine that they will make things easier/faster to replicate from drawings? Mark mentioned using a 3-D printer and I’d like to know what the biggest piece one of these printers was able to replicate.

It was great to hear about the background workings of a great show.

Joan001
Joan001

All this talk about the Wraith makes me wonder how much the actors like playing them? How long did it take for the make-up and did the actors like being in-character? As much as I enjoyed looking at them, I would not be a Wraith worshipper as I found them to be very frightening.

Ponytail
Ponytail

@ confracto – Ooooooo, you said “wraithy bits”. That’s going to get Das all excited now. wink

Mike from Canada
Mike from Canada

Thanks Mark (Confracto) for answering my questions and others, and thanks to Joe for making it happen.

Mark, if you don’t mind, I have a followup question. You said “I think my co-worker Jay spent a week turning the VFX model into something printable, and another two days to print the 5 parts (4 quarters and a shuttle), paint and assembly was a couple hours.”

Could you please explain what “print” means in this context? Did they use a 3D printer to make the parts? Some other sort of technology? Thank you.

Oh, the work room with the suit, the enclosed area with plastic, is that a painting room?

To follow another comment about wraith tatoos:

Wraith tattoos. I like to believe that the tattoos are done by the ship to the wraith while they are sleeping. It’s done biologically, from the inside out, as it were. The ship names them, then introduces a virus that changes the appropriate cells to generate pigment. So in fact they are not tattoos but darker areas of pigment. This is part of their coming of age process and happens after they stop eating food and take their first full feeding. Then they connect to the ship and the process begins, along with subtle changes in the physiology and some imprinting so they are loyal to the queen who controls the ship, even if the queen is not physically there.

It also marks their rank and this can be changed via the same virus that the ship produces, then introduces to the Wraith while sleeping or hibernating. The wraith are also given special markings should they be required if the wraith are in a special group. For example, Todd got his star tattoo because he is in the ship heavy metal band which is called “Slayer”

I’m feeling particularly geeky today. Or is it nerdish.

confracto

Joan001

the biggest and most visible 3d print we did was the the mouthpeice for the asgard suits. the print area isn’t very large, lesss than a foot cubed, as you can see with the destiny model being in 4 peices. it’s not necessarily faster to replicate from drawings, but it’s easier to plan everything in a 3d package, and then 3d print/cnc/lasercut all your parts out, and they all fit. The real advantage is that it’s really easy to make ANOTHER one after.

Mike from Canada

Yes, we had a 3d printer, and 48 hours straight is about what it took to print the destiny peices.
The enclosed area in the work room is for the laser engraver. Even with the internal systems to evacuate smoke and fumes out, the air quality around the machine is not good, so we added an extra layer, and it worked very well.
The paint booth we had was the size of a freight container.

michelle

Awesome Q&A, great explanations! And I’m a day late drooling over the incredible hot chocolates. Vancouver really has their priorities straight.