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Hollywood prop master covers every big-screen detail

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 | Posted by
Property master Chris Ubick, at left, and food stylist Lee Ann Flemming on the set of "The Help." Ubick used 65 chocolate pies for the filming of the acclaimed movie. (Photo courtesy of Chris Ubick)

Property master Chris Ubick, at left, and food stylist Lee Ann Flemming on the set of “The Help.” Ubick used 65 chocolate pies for the filming of the acclaimed movie. (Photo courtesy of Chris Ubick)

By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

Chris Ubick has a recurring role in Hollywood productions with big-time movie stars but few people recognize her name or face.

As a motion picture property master, her talents are in the details behind the scenes. She coordinates the props that are integral to countless stories.

Imagine “The Help” without the special chocolate pie that sends racist 1960’s socialite Hilly Holbrook retching after she discovers its hidden ingredient as outspoken black maid Minny Jackson declares, “Eat my shit.”

Ubick, 56, wrangled every one of the pies required for filming, all 65 of them.

She hired one woman to make them all precisely alike, then had to work around the dietary restrictions of Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress in the pivotal pie-eating scene.

Howard requested a gluten-free, sugar-free pie but one prepared that way doesn’t have the rich coloring of a standard chocolate pie.

No problem for the problem-solving Ubick.

She positioned her assistant under the scene’s dining table to deftly slip in the gluten- and sugar-free pie in time for Howard’s close-up.

Chris Ubick has a collection of chair backs from movies she's worked on during her career. Actor Brad Pitt gave Ubick his chair back from "A River Runs Through It." (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

Chris Ubick has a collection of chair backs from movies she’s worked on during her career. Actor Brad Pitt gave Ubick his chair back from “A River Runs Through It.” (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

“By the time you get it up on the spoon nobody notices,” said Ubick, whose exacting work assures that every detail is planned to perfection.

The Boyes Hot Springs resident has worked in film and television production for more than 25 years, traveling to sets across the country to work with stars like Tom Cruise, Sandra Bullock, Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn.

Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet paid Ubick the highest of compliments when the two were on set together for “Labor Day,” a recent film set in 1986 Massachusetts.

“Your job is very similar to mine,” the actress told Ubick, who was packaging butter in specially-made wrappers true to the era. “If you’re doing it right, nobody notices.”

“It’s so true,” said Ubick, who pores over old advertisements and historical details for each assignment.

Ubick painstakingly breaks down scripts scene by scene, outlines a plan and then collaborates with producers, directors, actors, set designers, wardrobe staff and other departments to assure a unified vision, continuity and authenticity.

“It is absolutely collaborative in every way. It takes everyone who is there to make a picture,” she said.

Typically working with two full-time assistants – more on “big days” – Ubick and her staff locate or manufacture every item used in each scene.

“Anything the actors do, move or carry with them or touch, basically,” she said.

What she can’t find in studio prop houses she locates in antiques stores or consignment shops, on eBay and other websites, in shopping centers, whatever it takes.

Chris Ubick of Boyes Hot Springs says working as a prop master is an ideal blend of all her talents. She's worked with some of the top names in Hollywood. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

Chris Ubick of Boyes Hot Springs says working as a prop master is an ideal blend of all her talents. She’s worked with some of the top names in Hollywood. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

She’s been a prop master long enough to appreciate the advent of the Internet, where many period pieces are secured with the click of a mouse.

“We used to do it all by foot,” she said.

What can’t be purchased is created by industry talents or every-day craftsmen.

She employs local specialists as often as possible; a Mississippi jeweler and an optometrist were hired on location to craft wedding rings and reflection-resistant eyeglasses for “The Help.”

She found a 1960’s infant car seat on eBay for a flashback scene in “Labor Day” and commissioned an artist to sculpt a baby to ride in the obsolete car seat.

For the movie “Milk” about slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, Ubick personally handcrafted “hundreds and hundreds” of political buttons for extras in crowd scenes.

For “Chasing Mavericks” she had 150 surfboards specially made; for “George of the Jungle” Ubick had a gigantic dog biscuit crafted for a scene.

“You do what you do to keep the job down. You get her done,” Ubick said.

The job requires creativity, resourcefulness and the ability to balance a budget (around $250,000 for a feature film).

“You need to be strong and work hard and you need to be personable,” she said. “If you aren’t all those things, eventually you won’t get work.”

This bobble-head of actor Dean Cain is among the souvenirs from Chris Ubick's career. She had it made for the television series "Clubhouse." (Photo by Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

This bobble-head of actor Dean Cain is among the souvenirs from Chris Ubick’s career. She had it made for the television series “Clubhouse.” (Photo by Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)

Days often are long and physically demanding.

Ubick worked 70 days straight before taking a break for “Labor Day” and once clocked 28,000 steps on her pedometer, well over her average 5,000.

Ubick worked in fashion merchandising and advertising before changing professions in her mid-20s.

She landed an internship and built her career from the bottom up, learning with each job and amassing a resume of 40 movies including “Captain Ron,” “Practical Magic,” “The Internship,” “The Back-up Plan,” “Sideways,” “The Firm” and “Bottle Shock,” filmed around Sonoma Valley.

She doesn’t name drop and isn’t star-struck despite her proximity to Hollywood heartthrobs.

A barely known Brad Pitt gave Ubick the chair back from his director’s seat when they worked together on “A River Runs Through It” in the early 1990s, a favorite memento.

With prodding, she shares that “Sandra Bullock is a doll. Nicole Kidman is a doll. Josh Brolin is a hoot and Kate Winslet is as sweet as can be.”

Brendan Fraser and Martin Short were especially charming and the actors from her recent work on the HBO TV series “Looking” are “the nicest guys to be around.”

The prop master admits there’s one star she found rather difficult.

“There’s one in particular I won’t be working with again but I’m not saying who,” Ubick said with conviction.

Ubick spends from two weeks for a TV pilot to eight weeks on a feature film.

She recently returned from six weeks in Atlanta where she worked on “Red Band Society,” a TV pilot for Fox starring Octavia Spencer (the Academy Award-winning Minny in “The Help”).

Away from work, Ubick helps out with her 10-year-old daughter Natalie’s Girl Scout troop and her activities at Sonoma Charter School.

Ubick and her filmmaker husband, Tim Wetzel, also run a local production company, 9 Mile Productions.

Ubick says she landed in the ideal profession.

“It’s a really cool, really neat job,” she said. “I love this job. It’s fun and it’s nurturing for me. It uses every talent I have.”

View a complete list of Ubick’s work or visit 9 Mile Productions at 9mileproductions.com.

To watch the pie-eating scene in “The Help,” visit Youtube.

Writer Spotlight

Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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