Keir writes – Most of the things we made started out life as manufactured items, whether by hand or machine. Some were much more difficult to make than others, but all had the hand of man in their making. Flowers on the other hand, are not products of a workshop or factory, or even a cave, if you count the many stone age items we had to produce over the years. Flowers are made by the hand of God, or at least nature if you prefer. They are built up from the molecular rather than the other way round. Formed from sunlight and water rather than being re-formed from wood, metal, fabric or other materials that had already been manufactured; plants and flowers have their own particular set of problems.
Louise writes – I haven’t written my blog for more than three months because we have been so busy in our garden which we open for charity, for the National Garden Scheme. Spending hours deadheading, staking, potting up and watering endless pots, I become increasing aware of the delicacy of flower petals and it reminded me of how many flowers and plants we had to make over many years of prop making.
On one occasion, a Production Buyer came to your workshop at Shepperton Studios with a plastic bag containing a shrivelled bunch of flowers and grasses.
The Production naively thought, that after filming the actor picking wild flowers in a meadow, the bunch would survive until the studio recording almost two months later! Fortunately someone took a Polaroid photograph of the bunch of flowers and this is what we used for our reference. Field poppy petals are most delicate and we used Habutai silk from Pongees, dyed the fabric to the correct shade of vermillion red and spent hours making six poppies, three scabious, two honeysuckle, mixed with real wild oats and grasses. The finished bunch looked pretty close to the original.
We also made a flowering campion plant for a shampoo commercial, a large orchid for an Avengers film and Christabel made a very rare yellow orchid for ‘Midsommer Murders’, its destruction causing the death of its owner.
In 1991 I received a phone call asking whether we could make some orchid plants for a film, ‘The Orchid House’, set on the island of Dominica where orchids naturally grow. The plants are protected, so the film company could not use the real plants. I was to be supplied with photographs as references. When they finally arrived, a bundle about three centimetres in height, I was puzzled. I am no expert on the subject of orchids, especially of those of the 1930’s, which is when the film is set, but I knew that some of the photographs did not even show orchids but other tropical plants. I telephoned the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Wisley and spoke to the keeper of the Orchid House, arranged a date and time to meet and showed him the photographs. He was very helpful and went through the pile reducing it to about one centimetre in height. Most of the photographs supplied were not orchids, or hybrids or not even around in the 1930’s. I was then asked how we were going to make the plants, especially the fleshy leaves that were so distinctive of each variety. To my amazement the leaves were cut off ‘behind the scene’ plants in the glass house and handed to me in a polythene bag. ‘These should help you’, and they did.
Alistair made moulds in silicone and cast them in resin, we then vacuumed formed the leaves. All that remained was to make the flowers using various petals from mass produced roses etc from Novelty Imports. We gave the flowers several coats of exterior PVA wood glue to give them the correct thickness and texture. The background colour was sprayed on in diluted Indian ink which is waterproof when dry and all the fine detail was painted in ink by hand. When the plants were put into aged terracotta pots and fitted with period labels they looked convincing.
For the film ‘The Holiday, in 2006, we were asked to make Christmas garlands and wreaths for the locations in Shere and Godalming. Great fun, as I love Christmas and all that goes with it. Anna Pinnock, the set decorator, asked me to wrap some real Poinsettias in cellophane. These would have wilted so quickly in the cold temperatures of the various shops. So I bought about three different styles of artificial flowers and ‘planted’ them in pots filled with plaster and topped up with compost, when wrapped up they looked very convincing and lasted the six weeks of filming with no problem. The main location was in Shere, up a footpath beside the church, where we had decorated the lych-gate. The path led to one of the most convincing of sets. A pretty cottage surrounded by a garden that was so well dressed it looked as though it had been there for many years. On the front door was a spray, made up of artichokes, hypericum, blue pine, proteus flowers and several other typical florist items around at that time of year. Needless to say, I received a phone call; the Director did not like the decoration that had been made by a florist in London and could we make another one? Slightly different with the ‘same ingredients’? We duly did so but the spray went brown within two days. Another was made, then a third, fourth, finally I decided to make a completely
artificial one. Alistair took a mould of the artichockes and cast them in resin, June made the hypericum berries and flowers, sixty four separate items in the two stems alone. I managed to source some wonderful plastic blue pine sprays and Georgina assembled them all as she had done the real ones. By the time we had made the other items for the door decoration, it looked so convincing that Anna did not realise it was a fake until she touched it. It lasted for the rest of the filming and even went to The States for the remaining interior shots where it could be seen when the cottage door was opened.
A memory of my Father was when he sat up all night to see the ‘Queen of the Night’ (Epiphyllum Oxypetalum) blooming on the windowsill in his study. I had given him the reference plant we had been supplied with from a botanic garden when we had to make an artificial flower in full bloom for a television programme. When my Father died on Midsummer’s day I rescued the forlorn plant that had been neglected for many a month, took it home, fed and watered it and the following year, after much nurtureing, the resulting flower bloomed during the night and was beginning to close when we woke at five in the morning. We nearly missed it. If you don’t want to miss it try this link –