Portland’s Prop Master
Aged dinosaur bones in Jurassic World, crossbows used on Grimm, a time-machine for The Librarians, one-offs for Dark Knight Rises — these are just a few of the props created by Tim Oakley of Oakley Design Studios. As an avid movie, television and comic book fan myself, I was more than a little excited to meet the man behind these iconic props!
Tim creates visual props and aids for feature films, television shows and commercial shoots. He primarily works with prop masters and directors, as well as with special effects artists, model makers and make-up artists. The prop masters and directors come up with an idea of something they want fabricated. Tim brings it to life.
Although Tim was born and raised in Hawaii, he spent most of his summers during his younger years in California visiting his uncle, Emrich Nicholson, a popular art director and production designer in Hollywood in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Emrich took Tim to the film studios and introduced him to all kinds of people in the business, including Henry Bumstead, a two-time Oscar-winning production designer. Collecting movie props have always been one of Tim’s hobbies, but he realized this could turn into a career after interning for Henry.
Tim attended New York University to study film, and attended Santa Rosa Junior College to study art and design. After graduating, he worked at multiple design firms before freelancing at Lucasfilms for five years and eventually starting his own design studio.
His impressive resume includes feature films such as Star Trek 1 and 2, 300, Indiana Jones 4, Terminator Salvation and Dark Knight Rises, as well as television shows, including Grimm, The Librarians, American Horror Story, The Americans and Hawaii 5-0. In the graphic design world, he’s created logos and set designs for Nike, Starbucks, Alienware, Dark Horse Comics and Mattel Toys, to name a few.
When I met Tim, he jokingly said, “I tell everybody I hate my job, just so I don’t have to answer questions.” But as Tim gave me a tour around his downtown studio, he was more than willing to tell me stories and describe all his props. It was obvious how much he truly loves what he does, which may be part of why so many of us also love what he does.
When did your interest in the movie industry begin?
I spent a lot of my summer vacations in California in the ‘60s visiting my uncle, Emrich Nicholson. It was always so fun going to the film studios with him. At the time I had no clue what exactly he did; I just knew that he did something in film and television.
I realized later during my high school years that the people Emrich introduced me to were icons in today’s world. I met people like Alfred Hitchcock and Steve McQueen. By the time I realized how much I loved that industry, he had already retired. He then moved to the big island of Hawaii while I was still living on Oahu. I would fly and stay with him and he taught me how to paint the way I do now. Every so often I would recognize somebody at his house who was staying with him.
One of the people that Emrich was really close with was Henry “Bummy” Bumstead. He’s a two-time Oscar-winning production designer, most notably known for doing a lot of Clint Eastwood films. I got to know Henry in my teens, and when I started getting into the design side of the business, he was the first person I contacted. He said, “You can intern for me for two years, no pay. You can sleep on the couch for four months, but you’ll have to find your own place after that.” It was the coolest thing I ever did. I learned a lot from that guy.
Do you say yes to every project or do you only pick the ones that interest you?
I pretty much pick what interests me. It has to be something with substance or something that’ll be fun to see on television. However, I’ve turned down projects I wish I hadn’t turned down. I would say, for every five scripts that I read, I’ll turn down three, wishing I actually did one of those three I turned down. Sometimes I think, “Ugh, I should have done that. That looked so great. That would have been great on my resume!”
Do you prefer working on television or movies?
As far as television or films, I like the budget of feature films. They will add two zeroes onto everything I say. The downfall is you may not see it on screen for a year or two. The anticipation of seeing something is lost until you see the premiere coming up. Jurassic World is coming just came out, which I’m looking forward to because it was great see the I built some of the dinosaur bones I built. in that. I’m curious to know how they look. When it comes to television, I will see it within about five weeks. Then I can analyze it and make corrections if I need to for the next episode I’m currently working on.
Do you have a favorite art medium?
Airbrushing. It’s more about eye-hand coordination. There’s no room for mistakes. You have to get it right the first time, which leads into having a really smart art background. Believe me, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the past, but it’s one of those things where you always get instant satisfaction. I don’t do any airbrushing or design on the computer. Everything is drafted old school by hand before anything is touched. That’s my favorite medium only in the design world.
As for prop making, I love anything with clay. If I don’t like something I can just cut it off and redo it. I have the freedom to screw it up … well, unless I’m given three days to get something done.
What do you think of this Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) phenomenon?
CGI is taking over. It is slowly replacing us. But the thing is, I’m at a cusp in my life where I don’t necessarily have to worry about it. What I feel bad for are the people who are just graduating college and realize there aren’t a lot of jobs making props anymore. Those like me are seriously somewhat of a dying breed.
You know what would have been great? I would have loved to work on the first Aliens, Predator or Terminator films! I had to wait three pictures before I could work on Terminator Salvation and each one of those, as somewhat comical as they became, we’re still great because they were pushing the envelope on a lot of things. The stunts were fantastic!
Can you tell me about the props you made for your most recent projects, Jurassic World and The Green Room?
I created some of the dinosaur bones in Jurassic World. I made foam prototypes to show the producers and production designer. I just took a photograph holding bones and said, “Well, what do you think?” They said, “Nice. Make us ten of them and they better be heavy-weighted.” They are all made out of this heavy resin plastic and they’re all dipped in six-day-old coffee syrup for an aged look. Each bone was then hand-painted because it has to look like a bone that has just been lying around.
For The Green Room, one of the many items I created was a specialty knife that looked like it was stabbed into a woman’s head, but she had to be able to be dragged across the room by someone holding the knife in her head! I worked with a stunt coordinator named Kent Luttrell who is a really great stunt man here in Portland. Prop master Drew Pinniger and I created a harness that we built underneath the actress’s wig, and then a 6’4” guy could grab the knife and drag her dead body.
The harness had to be perfect because her wig had to stay on. I used a custom-made translucent-threaded webbing around her head, and I had to be sure that I wasn’t going to cut into her skull, because the pull-weight of this thing would have easily cut in. I fabricated the webbing here at the shop with a simple quick-release in the back in case of an emergency. It worked perfectly for the camera.
I imagine this industry keeps you very busy. Do you get a lot of spare time?
I do have spare time and the spare time only happens because of my girlfriend. Other than that, there’s a rule of thumb — if I’m here or at the shop, I don’t receive any phone calls, because my mind is in a different world. If I break my concentration, it’s sometimes hard to get back into it. My girlfriend Jen and I are five years strong. She thought the first premier that I ever took her to was so awesome, and then after about the ninth one, she was, like, “Really, we have to go again?” She’s learning fast it’s not all glitz and glamour, but it is definitely fun!
Is there anything else you would like people to know about your job?
I tell everybody I hate it, just so I don’t have to answer questions. Honestly, I absolutely love what I do. I love my story on how I got here. I often think that it’s not where I am today, but to coin a bad phrase, it was the journey of how I got here that has always impressed me. There have been a few stumbling blocks along the way to the point where I thought I would never be in this industry again. There are only a handful of people I don’t get along with in this industry. But all it takes is one person to change your mind so as to make it fun again. I would say right now is the coolest time for me because I have no idea what’s ahead of me, and that’s always exciting.
Just when I think I’m done forever, I receive three new scripts. It’s going to end one day, but I want it to end on my terms. One day the doors will officially close … I think by the time I’m 60, which is only a couple years away. But people tell me, “I see you doing this up until your 90’s and dying on set. Then they would have no choice but to say this film is dedicated to Tim Oakley.” Wouldn’t that be awesome? I want that!