The significance of Oscar films’ carefully chosen props

The significance of Oscar films’ carefully chosen props

The significance of Oscar films' carefully chosen props

Published on February 25, 2016

In each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture, an object conveys meaning as much as the character who uses it. We asked costume designers, prop masters and experts to explain each symbol’s significance.


12 nominations: Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Production Design, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects.

Matt Lesniewski started making knives as a hobby, and eventually his interest grew into a full-time business in Amsterdam, N.Y. Using the same techniques as an 18th- or 19th-century bladesmith, he crafts each knife by hand. In August 2014, prop master Dean Eilertson contacted Lesniewski about using some of the knives for a film staring Leonardo DiCaprio called “The Revenant.” Eilertson, who also worked on “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” “Godzilla” and other movies, was looking for something authentic that could have been used in the 1820s. Lesniewski said all of his knives could be used. His own go-to knife: the Kephart. “The spear point blade lends itself to many uses outdoors, such as hunting, fishing and general woods use. This knife also makes a great survival piece in the wild,” he said.


10 nominations: Best Picture, Costume Design, Directing, Visual Effects, Makeup and Hairstyling, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design and Sound Editing.

Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan used a variety of goggles — along with masks, chains and leather — in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Beavan’s work in the film was different from historical dramas such as “The King’s Speech” and “Sense and Sensibility.” “I’m the corset queen,” Beavan said while accepting an award for the film from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Goggles were used in the film because of the blowing sand and dust in the Namibia desert. The conditions “had a huge impact on safety and especially eye protection. We had most stuntmen roaring through the desert completely unprotected by the vehicles they were driving, so we had to add in goggles and harnesses without it being too obvious,” Beavan said in an interview with Hello, Tailor, a costume design website.


6 nominations: Best Picture, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role, Directing, Film Editing and Writing.

History suggests the rigid white priest collar probably began as a scarf worn under a black tunic. Later, the clergy lined the collars with needlework or fancy lace. Around 1624, Pope Urban VIII banned the use of lace and “the narrow band of white linen used to protect the collar in the course of a few centuries became what is known today as the Roman collar,” writes the Rev. Henry McCloud in his book “Clerical Dress and Insignia of the Roman Catholic Church.” In the Roman Catholic church, bishops, priests and deacons wear the collar. “A white collar on a priest’s neck should remind him of a ring and collar — his marriage to Christ and to the Church and giving his freedom to Christ, thus letting him control his life,” said the Rev. Andrzej Przybylski in a paper approved by Pope John Paul II in 1994. During the Boston Globe investigation of the church abuse scandal, outlined in “Spotlight,” several clergymen were afraid to leave their parishes wearing the collar. Many clergy were later defrocked and forbidden to wear the symbolic collar.


7 nominations: Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Writing, Sound Mixing and Production Design.

Astronaut Mark Watney, portrayed by Oscar-nominee Matt Damon, is presumed dead after he is left behind by his crew during a mission to Mars. He starts growing potatoes in an attempt to survive. NASA is actually exploring the possibilities of food crops grown in controlled environments for long-duration missions to deep-space destinations such as Mars. “Potatoes, sweet potatoes, wheat and soybeans would all be good because they provide a lot of carbohydrates, and soybeans are a good source of protein. Also, potatoes are tubers, which means they store their edible biomass in underground structures and produce twice the amount of food as some seed crops when given equivalent light,” said Kathryn Hambleton, public affairs officer at NASA headquarters.


6 nominations: Best Picture, Actor in a Supporting Role, Music, Production Design, Sound Mixing and Writing

Inventor and engineer Francis Lebeda has become somewhat of a prop master for the Hollywood film industry. And his trick nickel plays a part in the Oscar-nominated “Bridge of Spies.” The movie tells the true story of  James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, who negotiates the exchange of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, played by supporting actor nominee Mark Rylance, for a captured U.S. pilot. Abel, convicted of espionage in 1957, used the hollowed-out coin to hold microfilm to communicate with other spies. He also sports a fedora, commonly worn by men in the ’50s. Lebeda, in an interview with the Des Moines Register, said he used a cutting machine to make the coin.


5 nominations: Best Picture, Actor in a Supporting Role, Directing, Writing and Film Editing.

Ryan Gosling portrays trader Jared Vennett in “The Big Short,” a film based on the 2010 nonfiction book about the 2008 financial crisis brought on by the hyped housing market. In a small segment, Gosling’s character shows a group of investors the disaster that’s about to happen with a little game of Jenga — tower of blocks with bond ratings printed on them. It also symbolizes the load of cash they’ll make with this scenario. Is this a proper portrayal? “This is a brilliant illustration about how Wall Street, lenders and the many minions in the housing market were playing with people’s financial lives. It was all a game. We didn’t know the rules. And we lost,” said Michelle Singletary, finance columnist at The Washington Post. In fact, she said, “The prop should have gotten a best supporting nomination.”


4 nominations : Best Picture, Actress in a Leading Role, Directing and Writing.

A woman and her 5-year-old son gain freedom after seven years in an enclosed space known as “Room.” On the outside, the door is open to Jack as he experiences the elements and people for the first time. Because the weather is brisk,  the costume team found a raccoon winter hat from Canadian brand Knitwits. After the purchase, the prop team reached out to founder Stephen Acheson about the Robbie the Raccoon hat. Acheson was surprised they asked for permission for such a small item, and that they gave credit to the company.


3 nominations: Best Picture, Actress in a Leading Role and Writing.

In the movie “Brooklyn,” the character Ellis, played by Saoirse Ronan, is a young woman torn between her home in Ireland and her new life in New York City. She travels abroad with one suitcase, perfectly propped by costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, known for her work in “The Constant Gardener” and “An Education.” “All of Ellis’s clothes would have fit in the suitcase. Life in post-war Ireland was frugal,” Dicks-Mireaux said.“The suitcase was a very real symbol of what she owned at that moment and contained only her Irish clothes,” she said. “Once she started working in the department store she would begin to buy a few items before she returned to Ireland. I used this logic to select both her Irish and U.S. clothing.”