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May 13, 2020

The Magic of Things

In Prop Culture, Dan Lanigan finds the magic in Disney movie props.

Melissa Byers
  • Dan Lanigan and Christopher Lloyd reunite with Lloyd's costume from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

  • Mary Poppins's carpet bag from the film Mary Poppins

  • A snow globe from Mary Poppins

  • The carousel from Mary Poppins

  • Christopher Lloyd and Dan Lanigan


A carpet bag. A sword. A puppet. A miniature banjo. Little things that bring back a flood of memory.

Those are the things that Dan Lanigan searches for in Disney+'s eight part series Prop Culture. Lanigan wanders the aisles of Hollywood prop warehouses and the Disney archives, searching for that one elusive piece that was used in films such as Mary Poppins, Tron, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or The Muppet Movie.

Lanigan has collected screen used props for decades, but it all started with Star Wars merchandise in his childhood. Lanigan explains, "I would say that it all kind of comes down to me collecting Star Wars figures when I was a kid.

"From that into collecting comic books and all the while being a fan of sci-fi movies and movies in general and being obsessed with The Making Of of Star Wars and the making of Raiders of the Lost Ark and any of those making-of shows that I could find.

Dan Lanigan: When I realized after going to Disney's MGM Studios and seeing pieces for the first time that were in collections, it just blew my mind.

"When I realized after going to Disney's MGM Studios and seeing pieces for the first time that were in collections, it just blew my mind.

"Then after searching, finding pieces that I could pick up, it was a combination of wanting to preserve these pieces, because in some cases some of this stuff is thrown away, or at least it used to be, and it's also about learning the craft, because these pieces have magic to them from a historical perspective, but they also have information that you can glean as a collector if you want to try and work in the industry.

"It's kind of a little bit of everything and that's why I'm so obsessed with this stuff."

Many props made for a film or television show are simply thrown away or sometimes repurposed after the production is finished, so, especially for older films, many of the props have been lost.

Lanigan explains, "Its purpose, you think about it, is the purpose for the story but then there's an artistic element to it and there's an engineering element to it. There's so many different trades that come into making these working art pieces that wind up on screen as something that is fictional.

"Then when the movie's over, the show's over, it kind of just, for all intents and purposes, it's not needed anymore. But that magic is still there.

"To make sure that stuff survives, to me at least, it's important. Someone doesn't want to take it home. If they can repurpose it, great, and a lot of older props got reused and redressed for different films.

Lanigan: It isn't until time passes that this stuff becomes important because these films are important.

"It isn't until time passes that this stuff becomes important because these films are important.

"You know, at the time you don't know if a film's going to be important, it's going to make a connection to the audience and to society but once it does, it kind of elevates the importance of the artifact. At that point if it's gone, it's gone."

The series follows Lanigan's search for props from eight Disney classics: Mary Poppins, Tron, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Pirates of the Caribbean, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and The Muppet Movie.

In the process, he meets with prop makers, performers from the films, and other collectors. Each has a deep connection to the artifacts Lanigan finds, from costumes to crazy machines, to hand props that the participants may not have seen since their last day on set.

More than one performer touches a piece of their wardrobe from a long ago role and greets it with "Hello, old friend."

Some props, of course, have become so iconic that their price in the collectors' marketplace has soared. But Lanigan isn't in it for the money.

He says, "I'd been working in production for a while and all the while wanting to delve into the world of these movie artifacts but not from a financial perspective of why these things are great because people want them and they cost a ton of money.

"More from the perspective of let's tell the story about these pieces and why they're important but really as a way to get into the artist, the specific artists that interacted with them and worked on these pieces and designed them and built them and came up with the concepts. That, to me, was important."

He was fortunate to find a partner in Disney+ that agreed with him. He says, "Luckily enough eventually years later, I had been pitching this show out on and off for quite a while, for five, six years, and, right time right place, Disney was around and they believed in what we wanted to do.

"They've given us great latitude to tell some really great stories and I'm very proud of it and happy that they believed in us.

"When we came in and pitched the show, we had a list of movies that we wanted to work with, and Disney surprisingly didn't dictate what we were going to be doing. We gave them a list of films that we thought, first of all, they were important to me.

"From a prop collector and from the perspective of the people that worked on the films, and then secondarily films that we felt we could tell good stories with and that were likely to be on Disney+. At the time we didn't know what films were going to be on Disney+.

"This was early, well relatively early in the days of them putting together content for the channel.

"We didn't know until half way through what shows were going to be on, but by then committing to our list of episodes, the idea was that they would have the movies on the service so that you could watch our episode and watch the movie.

"Or if you've never seen the movie and watched the movie you could then maybe want to learn more and watch the episode. So it could go both ways."

Each of the films Lanigan explores in the series is special in some way to him, personally, aside from the iconic nature of the films to the world at large. Lanigan explains, "I've always loved all these films. These films, every one on this list has been a film that I have enjoyed and I've wanted to learn more about.

"A few of the films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Nightmare Before Christmas had been really especially, "special" to me. Poppins is something I watched with my dad and it was always important.

Tron, I was a computer geek when I was a kid so Tron was important to me and the Muppets, I've always been a fan of The Muppet Show and the first Muppet movie gets me crying every time I hear the initial song.

Lanigan: These are important films and that Disney allowed us to do these variety of different types of films

"These are important films and that Disney allowed us to do these variety of different types of films, especially Narnia, I mean Narnia, they did the first two films but it's not really considered a Disney film even though it is.

"It's one of our best episodes. It's got a lot of emotion and a lot of cool stuff to be seen. It's a strong book series and a great movie series."

Lanigan encountered a few surprises along the way, as well. He says, "When I met with Rick Heinrichs and he brought out his original maquette of Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas, I had known that he designed the character, I had known he'd done the first sculpt or he had done the sculpt of Jack and I had heard rumors that it was going to be for a TV show version of Nightmare.

"But to find out that the original sculpt, the original maquette, the design did not change from the moment he sculpted the one sculpture for Tim Burton. it stayed exactly the same all the way up until years later when the movie was made.

"How uncommon is that? In the world of movie making an original design, heads for a main character, especially in a fantasy world like this that doesn't evolve, that it's so nailed from the very beginning? That just blew me away."

Emotional moments came along, too. Lanigan notes, "Another thing that was, I wouldn't say floored me but really kind of hit me strongly was when I interview the Narnia kids, William Moseley, Georgie Henley and Anna Popplewell, to see them interact like they were brothers and sisters and they hadn't seen each other for, I don't know, six months. I guess they get together regularly because of that movie.

"You know, they team in the movie and they're family in the movie, because they're acting, but you talk to them now together and they are like cousins that just love hanging out with each other. It was amazing. It was just like, 'This is cool. This is Hollywood. I can't believe this is actually happening.'"

And, perhaps the most unique find in the series wasn't actually in a movie at all. Lanigan explains, "Charles Fleischer's rabbit hood from the making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He would go on set, dressed as a rabbit in a rabbit costume, and 'trans projectional act,' which is what he called it.

"He would basically be Roger on set and they would record him so that Bob Hoskins, whoever he was acting with, would hear him and could envision the emotion of the scene. He had this whole costume and I think most of the costume's gone but he still has the rabbit ears that went around his head.

"And it's filthy and it's dirty but it's like there's ... It's this weird little costume store knockoff rabbit head ears that is the hood he'd wear, the rabbit ears on set for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I think it's such a cool piece and it's probably my favorite find.

"It's cool, I mean, we find a lot of cool stuff, but for me it's like, it's an emotional connection to me for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and for whatever reason I connected to that character of Roger and to a man, Charles. Charles was a goofball but he's got a lot of heart"


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