3D Printed Props

Aug 12, 2022 2:47:00 PM | 3d printing What makes a good prop?

Discover which features good props all have in common , which top 10 film props are rated as iconic and what the future of prop making looks like.

The UK’s film and TV industry is growing from strength to strength and their production crews are tasked with bringing artistic visions to life faster than ever before. Props are key to this, as they're  used as subconscious cues to play on the audience's emotions: creating suspense, surprise, tension, laughter or even sadness.

While speed is vital, audiences have become savvier at spotting a rushed prop that lacks a realistic look. Some prop masters  are moving away from traditional prop making methods, as audiences are spotting rough edges or notice  foams used in the prop. This, of course, destroys, the illusion.

As we have expert model makers in the team, we often experiment with what new production methods can achieve. We recently created some prop samples in-house to explore how 3D printed objects can be finished giving wood, stone, metal or other textures. You can find out more about this project in an interview with our model maker, Lee Heath, here.

Nate golem in half

This in-house project got me thinking.

What is it that makes a good prop?

Speed and realistic effects come to mind, but is there a formula for good prop making?

  • Is there a reason some movie fans class a prop as iconic?
  • Is it the original design?
  • The material choice?
  • The colour palette?
  • The attention to detail?
  • The realness of the finish?
  • The functionality?
  • The fact it’s easy to recreate?

To help me get to the bottom of good prop characteristics, I've explored the most iconic film props  to see what they have in common.


The top 10 most iconic film props

The films listed below all have universally recognised props. To highlight how props are evolving, I’ve collated a selection across different film eras.


10. Rosebud – Citizen Kane (1941)

The Rosebud sled from Orson Welles’s masterpiece, Citizen Kane, is known as the holy grail of film props. A trio of sleds were made for the film to be burnt during the film’s finale, however, Welles was pleased with the way the second sled burnt, so the final sled was saved from the fire.

And years later this sled was bought by Steven Spielberg, who in a BBC Radio interview for the show “Movies That Made Me” said the sled was his greatest memento. Even outranking props from his own films.

rosebud sled


9. The jetpack – Thunderball (1965)

The jetpack used by Sean Connery in the 1965 James Bond film, Thunderball, was a Bell Rocket Belt manufactured by Bell Aerosystems. The belt rocket was commissioned by the US Army to be an innovative form of transportation that used hydrogen peroxide as fuel. However, the maximum flight duration was 21 seconds with a range of 120 m. While it didn’t fulfil its military function, it did find a home within the Bond franchise.

The jetpack proved so popular that it made a cameo appearance in 2002’s film, Die Another Day, and was digitally featured as a usable item in the 2005 video game, From Russia With Love.





8. The Lightsaber – Star Wars (1977)

The first lightsabers were rotating poles with reflective tape to create a glow effect and later the signature saber colours were overlaid using rotoscoping technology. The downside here was that a wrong angle of the blade could result in poor reflection and a less dramatic look during fight scenes.

The sabers of the prequel trilogy were made from carbon fibre with a plastic wrap finish. Illumination effects were added digitally in post production. This meant multiple green screen sets were needed for the fight sequences.

The sequel trilogy combined learnings of their predecessors and combined illuminated prop blades on set like the ‘70s props with the final light effects added in post. This tricked the audience into seeing a more realistic option.


lightsaber scene_jonathan-arreola-CF00jINzwfA-unsplash


7. The golden idol – Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The golden idol is the first relic we see the now famous archaeologist slash adventurer, Indiana Jones, interact with and it has become a staple of the franchise. The idol is a fictional artefact used in a homage to Carl Bark’s 1954 Scrooge McDuck adventure featuring an idol and an rapid escape from a boulder.

The prop itself is hollow and cast in a thin fibreglass with a gold plating that was vacuum-metalized on. Multiple props were used for the scene with one mechanical version built with eyes that moved from left to right. The scene of the idol watching the protagonist was later cut but remained a key feature of this mechanical version.


Golden-Idol-copyright wiki.NathanielPoe - shared under creative commons sharealike license 3.0


6. The ghost trap – Ghostbusters (1984)

The ghost trap also known as simply Trap or Muon Trap was one of this film’s iconic props. The other was the Proton Pack, a backpack made for blasting ghosts with proton lasers.

Production had multiple versions and styles of this prop. The hero traps included a removable cartridge and rolling wheels. Their core purpose was to be aesthetically pleasing and used for the close-up shots. The stunt traps were made for the action scenes, while the smoking traps were for the post action scenes and had strips of fabric on the side to which SFX smoking liquid was applied.


1024px_Ghostbusters_ghost_trap_(6301709414)_ The Conmunity -  Pop Culture Geek from Los Angeles, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0 via Wikipedia Commons


5. The Batarang – Batman (1989)

The Batarang is a bat-shaped throwing weapon named after the boomerang and in different iterations of the story also used as a shuriken.  

The 1989 version was a foldable metal bat design that was attached to a line to trip up an enemy before manually dragging them back. The Batman Returns version included a computerised feature which was used to scout out an area. This prop was made of resin and the wings were layered to mimic a collapsible construction. Its facing had four decorative directional buttons with a red circular button raised from the resin. These buttons are for aesthetics only as the buttons cannot be depressed.

The strong branding of this prop (bat shaped for Batman) and consistent use of it throughout the film, comic and TV shows, makes this small prop a must-have in any Batman films.


cropped Batarang by harpal-singh-unsplash


4. The Neuralyzer – Men in Black (1997)

The Neuralyzer is a simple tool that has a big impact. With it the Men in Black protagonists erase memories of extra-terrestrials to keep the public ignorant of their existence. Purpose of the design is to look inconspicuous, which is why the base is made of two small rods with a switch and a single LED light, which is the focus of the device.

Its function and relevancy to the film’s plot makes it an iconic prop, however, there is also a large amount of ‘How to’ videos showing fans how to recreate this device. Its simple yet unique look, combined with it being easy to replicate is surely what makes this prop so appealing.




3. The Golden Snitch – Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

Many of you will know The Golden Snitch, also referred to as a Snitch, as the smallest and fastest ball in a wizard’s favourite pastime, Quidditch. The prop in the first and second Harry Potter films was electroformed and then plated with gold. In addition, it had a filled in hole to which a pole was attached for the shots when it interacted with the characters.

Prop maker of the Harry Potter franchise, Pierre Bohanna, even made a miniature of the Snitch for Dumbledore’s office, which was quite a challenge due to its small size. He acid-etched the well-known carvings of the Snitch using a magnifying glass into the pea-sized bronze ball.


1024px-The_Making_of_Harry_Potter_29-05-2012_(Golden_Snitch)_Karen Roe from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, UK, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


2. Cobb's totem – Inception (2010)

In 2010’s psychological thriller, Inception, the protagonist Dominik Cobb has an individual Totem. Totems are objects used by the characters to test if they were in the real world or in a dream, and each Totem had specially modified qualities which made them very personal to the film characters.

Cobb’s 2.4 x 2.6 cm spinning tractricoid top is the most iconic Totem of the film and has fans buying it as memorabilia. This gyroscope is specifically designed to spin for 2 minutes and 20 seconds. The significance of the shape and mystery surrounding the Totem keeps the fans engaged with the story, which is why it’s classed as an iconic prop.


Cobbs totem Image Credit Warner Bros large size


1. The Orb – Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a surprise hit as only hardcore comic fans had previously heard of the characters. The plot revolved around an ancient artifact, the Orb, which housed one of six highly powerful Infinity Stones.

The stunt version of this prop was made from soft rubber and painted silver. This 11.4 cm wide sphere opened in the film to reveal the power lurking within. To achieve this effect, the film crew added visual effects in post, similar to how the light saber effects were added for Star Wars.

Like the Men In Black Neuralyzer, the Orb is a fan favourite to replicate. This copying ease and its big significance in the film is likely why it’s a memorable prop.


Guardian of the Galaxy source Marvel


The future of prop making

These iconic props all played important roles in their respective films and some were even existential plot devices. Most of the more modern props are quite small with very intricate details, something our Viper 3D printers are pros at. 

While there doesn’t seem to be a golden formula to prop making, there are some interesting lessons to be had from these top 10 iconic props:

  • Keep it simple
  • Make the shape easy for fans to replicate
  • Add attention to detail
  • Keep it relevant to the source material
  • Improve as you grow by embracing new technologies

But as props are meant to manifest the illusion of the story, are the best props the ones that fans don’t even notice?

As the need for realism and speed rises, more and more UK TV and film prop makers are turning to 3D printing technologies. In an interview with Empire Magazine Guardians Of The Galaxy, props master, Barry Gibbs, said the team was embracing 3D printing for a lot of the weapon and costume props.

These and similar production teams have gone from taking weeks and multiple expert man hours of making a prop to being able to do the same within days thanks to a local 3D partner.

For example, many film fans don’t know that the headdress of villainess, Hela, in Thor Ragnarok was made using SLS 3D printing methods. Most moviegoers thought the headdress was pure CGI.

In the video below, prop specialist Jose Fernandez is interviewed by the Adam Savage’s Tested team and explains the process behind this 3D prop:




Raise your prop ability

While many prop makers are adopting 3D printing processes, there are still many more opportunities to explore. The boundaries of 3D technologies are being pushed on a daily basis and you could be in a position to achieve so much more with it, especially if you use heavy-duty, industrial-level processes rather than the smaller desktop machines.

The key benefits you gain from using professional 3D printing in prop making include but are not limited to:

  • Less waste
  • Less weight
  • Intricate detail
  • More complex designs
  • Large scale single builds
  • Endless texture possibilities
  • Scalability and reproduction
  • Enhanced customisation
  • Quick design changes
  • Create what you need on demand

As expert 3D model makers, we can support you with your film, TV and animation props either by providing the craftsmanship you need to create the textures and finishes you  require or by giving you access to industrial-level 3D printing technologies.

Contact us via our online form or call us on 01909 550 999 today.

Rich Proctor

Written By: Rich Proctor

Rich has a background in engineering & design, with 8+ years of strategic planning experience. As the Managing Director, he is keen to push boundaries.