Welcome to the next installment of my Spotlight series, in which I chat with awesome Buffy fans and share their work and story with the BTVS community. So far we’ve met an author and an artist, so today we meet a master craftsman: Paul E. Smith of BuffyProps.
Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to get your mind blown.
I first stumbled across BuffyProps in early November. I was actually browsing the web for Faith’s jackal knife, which I so desperately want.
I found a few on Ebay, but before purchasing, I decided to look through my Google search results one more time and came across an article entitled Spotting a FAKE Jackal knife. After reading this informative and visually helpful article, I realized that most of the knives I was thinking of buying where fakes. I decided to browse a bit more on the website that had so graciously saved me lots of money, called BuffyProps, and realized that it had much more to offer than the one article. I discovered all kinds of props from all seasons of Buffy that Paul E. Smith painstakingly studied and created with unbelievable attention to detail and quality that only a true fan and master craftsman could offer. Better yet, I saw that the website and Paul were both still very active and involved in the re-creating of Buffy props which was quite a relief and surprise, considering most Buffy sites are long defunct. I just had to email Paul to see if he was interested in answering some questions for The Cynical Slayer, and was ecstatic to learn that he was game. I invite you to read on and learn about the process behind recreating a prop, the item most requested by fans, Paul’s opinion on the Buffy products churned out by Factory X and Diamond Select Toys and much more.
Tell us a bit about yourself! (Where are you from? How long have you been in the business?)
My name is Paul Edward Smith and I was born and raised in Olympia, Washington. I’d say that I’ve been involved in make-up and prosthetic creation/application for around 15 years and Prop Fabrication for at least 25.
My original interests as a kid all stem from Model Kit Building. If it flew, was fantasy/Sci-fi of any kind or was a tank (I have a minor fascination with German Tanks) then I would build it.
I also spent some time assembling and painting 1/35th scale military miniatures so, by the time I was fifteen, the ceiling of my room was covered with Star Wars, Battle-Star Galactica and Star-Blazers and my bureau had every tank on it that the Germans had produced in World War II and many different German Soldier Figures as well.
There was always a vague sense of dissatisfaction with model building though and I wouldn’t realize until much later what that was all about.
On your “About Me” page on your website you mentioned undergoing an apprenticeship with Shawn McEnroe. What was it like working with such a revered and talented artist?
Crazy in more ways than one!
I was working in a comic book shop in 1990 and had orchestrated a party for the shop’s relocation and re-opening.
The theme was “Comic Book Character” and I had decided to come as the new incarnation of a D.C. Vertigo Character named Jonah Hex. The one problem I had with the idea was the make-up and a friend recommended that I get in touch with her brother who had just relocated from Hollywood to Olympia.
That was Shawn. To make a long story short I basically hired Shawn to do the Jonah Hex make-up on me and then beat down his door until he agreed to take me on as a student and teach me everything he knew!
In the first few years he taught me: sculpting, mold making, casting, texturing, make-up tinting, application and some basic hair tying. He also regaled me with stories about his time working on different movies from Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Texas Chainsaw Massacre II and American Werewolf in London.
When did you first discover Buffy the Vampire Slayer? At what point did you decide you wanted to start replicating props from the show?
I had decided to go back to University in 1998 and before I left, a good friend of mine sat me down and insisted on showing me a couple of episodes of Buffy that he had recorded. I was HOOKED immediately! I even sat down and wrote a letter to Mark Metcalf (The Master) when I got back to school and he sent me an autographed photo of himself with a personalized note written on it.
It wasn’t until 2003 that I made my first prop recreation from the show and that was an Oz Bat Stake that I gave to the same friend who had introduced me to the show.
One of things I absolutely love about your replicas is that you pay such acute attention to detail. Because of this, does the preparation and planning phase of a prop take longer than actually making it?
I was really ticked off when I discovered that a number of prop recreations from Buffy were being offered up to purchase but that they weren’t accurate to what was seen on the show!
Companies like Diamond Select Toys and Factory X pumped out a few things that were just BAD (IMHO) as far as accuracy.
I still get into trouble with some loyal fans of Buffy when I talk about this stuff. I think it’s because these companies were really ALL anybody had to get their “Buffy Prop Fix” from at the time and so “How dare I!” come along and start talking badly about them? The thing was, nobody at the time would even consider making their own stuff because most people don’t consider something to be “official” unless it carries the Buffy Logo on it. What I have done over the years is to research everything made by these companies and filtered those observations with an eye to accuracy.
Here are some of those props and my observations of them:
Urn of Osiris:
Offered by BOTH Factory X and Diamond Select in limited quantities. The Diamond Select Urns were made from Poly-stone (a dense kind of plaster) while Factory X never really produced any because they concluded there wasn’t enough profit to be made. The actual screen-used Urn was made in Tara-Cotta and low fired (like the ancient Egyptians used to do) and to date, Buffyprops is the only name to have made it that way.
Factory X produced this little gem with a plastic “orb” that wouldn’t allow the lid to fit on if it was placed inside!
How much research do you think they did on that one?
Buffyprops recreated the prop using genuine crystal orbs and “Treens” (the actual name of the wooden receptacle) that were turned on a lathe and detailed by hand. They also illuminated the Orb that fit comfortably inside.
DuLac Cross: Here’s another prop that Factory X “Planned” but never produced. In all the images of the proposed prop, however, they had changed the screen accurate “INRI” at the center of the cross to a simple “+” symbol. I think they were concerned with up-setting any religious types or something. Again they decided there wasn’t enough profit to be made and ditched the project.
Buffyprops has hand sculpted the cross and produced several wax models that need to be detailed before they can be recast in Bronze. The handle and dagger have been finished for a while now.
Factory X did basically the same thing with this prop as the DuLac Cross and it was never produced.
Buffyprops has built a number of incarnations of this prop until it was right. I was able to get it right with input from the owner of the screen-used prop. To date I’m the only person to make it using the same kind of wood as was used on the original. And I now own one that I not only built but that I got signed by the two lead Gentlemen: Doug Jones and Camden Toy!
Willow’s WitchCraft and Darkest Magic Books: With these two props, Diamond Select Toy’s commissioned the books made through an Australian Book Binder named Jase. What basically happened after Jase’s Books created the proto-types was that Diamond Select sent them off to China to be replicated as cheaply as possible. What they discovered was that they couldn’t be made cheaply enough to keep their profits in the green and so…they dropped any plans to offer them!
Jase’s Books occasionally get requests to replicate these books but have taken to responding that you must have written permission from Fox in order for them to do so, Which is of course utter nonsense. (I know this because I talked Jase’s Books into making me the WitchCraft Book a few years ago and it only cost me $500).
The VAMPYR Book: Here’s a prop in which I actually knew the maker of the after-market prototype.
Factory X hired him to replicate the on-screen prop but in the form of a keep-sake box. The prop maker didn’t research the screen-used prop but instead created a hinged box from scratch that kind of looked like the one seen in Welcome to the Hell Mouth”. Factory X then followed their standard formula and shipped the prototype off to China to have replicated (in plastic) as cheaply as possible. I have known MANY people who purchased this item and who later sold it as quickly as they possibly could. Factory X didn’t even “Gift” the prop maker with one of these, as is customary, but the prop maker later remarked that they were so poorly reproduced, he didn’t care to own one!
These are just a few examples of the props and practices that have helped me to develop a “hyper eye” to accuracy and convinced me that in order to recreate a prop from Buffy correctly, it must be done with love, accuracy and an utter appreciation for the show!
What replica are you most proud of to date?
I’d have to say it comes down to two or three props, the first of which is The Vampyr Book.
On that one I purchased an old Family Bible that was in really poor shape and had taken it to a book binder for advice on making it over. His advice? Throw the book I’d purchased into the garbage and go out and find the same book that was used to make the on-screen prop! “IMPOSSIBLE!” I thought, but I went out and did that very thing later the same day!
The other two are the swords used by Buffy and Angelus in the “Becoming” episodes.
The maker of the screen-used swords sold the rights to them to Factory X and apparently part of the agreement was that he make the original swords disappear because factory X wanted to produce their own versions. The fans weren’t fooled though!
I was really proud to be able to recreate those swords in their original screen-used form and then later I made a full sized Acathla Head to use as the display mount for them.
What is your most requested item from fans?
To date it would be The Slayer Scythe. (Yet another prop that Factory X totally screwed up by making it from the cheapest materials possible)
What has been the most challenging piece to work on thus far?
Probably the Glove of Myhnegon from Buffy Season Three’s “Revelations”.
On that one I had actually sought out one of the apprentices of the guy who made a number of the weapons seen on Buffy. The only two things that came out of our meeting were that I acquired one of the screen used Vocah Scythes from season one of Angel and I was inspired to make the glove all by myself. To date: No one has requested the Glove to be made for them even though I have molds which I could use to make it in Bronze as it should be. (The screen-used Glove was plastic)
But I also got to speak to one of the prop makers that made the screen-used Glove Prop and he was really helpful in offering color pictures of the screen-used glove and suggestions on how to make it.
I saw that you have replicated props from other films and shows in the past. Are you currently working on anything non-Buffy related?
I am actually! But I can’t say what they are right now.
The thing with props and prop making that most people don’t understand is just how competitive it is. Most prop makers try to recreate the newest and coolest props from the most recent films while I am finding it very interesting just how many cool props were never produced from some of the classic sci-fi movies.
I hope to be able to offer a few things soon that have never been offered before!
———BTVS Grab Bag Questions
What is your take on Season 6? Did you appreciate the dark direction the show took or do you feel as if it fell off track?
Buffy for me really did feel as though it had gone off track starting with season six. I remember thinking at the time the season was airing that every cast member seemed burdened with the knowledge that the show was coming to an end.
It was only later that I learned that Buffy was supposed to have ended with season five and heard the stories as to how SMG had been coerced in to signing on for two more seasons. As the lead actor on the show I truly believe it was SMG’s up-set energy that was felt by everyone who watched.
What are your top 5 favorite characters?
Giles, Xander, Willow, Oz and The Master.
Do you think that BTVS should ever be re-booted on screen in any form? If so, would you prefer to see a movie, live action or animated television series, or something else?
I’d love to see a Buffy Movie directed by Joss with the character of Buffy replaced and as many of the other original actors brought back. I know that’s not going to happen though as Joss Whedon has announced he won’t be doing anything with vampires in it for a very long time.
Barring that I’d say a show with Tony Head as Giles would be amazing!
And that concludes the interview, folks!
Let’s give a virtual round of applause to Paul for taking the time to answer my questions in great detail.
I HIGHLY recommend that you put aside some time to browse the BuffyProps website. Paul took the time to meticulously document the recreation process of these props with pictures and interesting facts throughout. I’m still not over how amazing his work is. I don’t think I ever will get over it.
Thanks again to Paul E. Smith, and I hope you guys enjoyed this one-of-a-kind insight into the replication of Buffy props!!