Alabama man crafts swords, shields and other Hollywood props
Sometimes there’s a bit of Marvel magic inside a cardboard box, riding shotgun in the passenger seat of Kenneth Spivey’s Chevy pickup truck.
Spivey helps craft props for superhero movies such as mega-hit “Avengers: Infinity War,” for which he worked on supervillain Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet and Captain America’s new, Wakandan shield.
Most of Spivey’s prop work for Marvel films takes place in a undisclosed warehouse. It’s near Pinewood Studios south of Atlanta, where principal photography for “Infinity War” took place.
Of course, even a guy carrying a super-sized Infinity Gauntlet can’t just waltz onto a Marvel movie set.
“There’s security everywhere,” said Spivey, a native of Vestavia Hills, Alabama. “Two security gates, cameras everywhere, people constantly looking for people aren’t supposed to be there.” A non-union contract prop maker, Spivey is given a badge to wear while delivering a Marvel prop and another to place in his truck.
During deliveries, he’s occasionally afforded surreal sights.
For example, Benedict Cumberbatch clad in Dr. Strange regalia, texting on his smartphone during downtime.
Or the day after Spivey watched “Spider-Man: Homecoming” for the first time, during a prop delivery for another Marvel film “Homecoming” star Tom Holland walks right past him in full Spidey costume.
In addition to recently wrapping work on the fourth “Avengers” installment, Spivey is also involved with other upcoming Marvel films he’s not currently at liberty to discuss.
“Basically, I’m given a picture and told to make it look exactly like what is shown,” Spivey says. “Maybe an instruction or two as to how it’s going to be used, but that’s it. It’s extremely hush-hush as they don’t want many people to know plots or story elements for fear of spoilers. In fact, many of the actors don’t know the complete story of their own roles until the day of.”
Typically, Spivey is emailed illustrations or 3D imaging of props Marvel wants him to work on. For props described without a visual reference, those instructions often arrive via text message and instructions can be as general as “make it spacey.”
In “Infinity Wars,” hunky actor Josh Brolin plays galactic baddie Thanos, with the help of motion-capture special effects. By wearing the Infinity Gauntlet on his left hand, Thanos is able harnesses powers of six Soul Gems (Reality Gem, Power Gem, Space Gem, Time Gem, Mind Gem, Power Gem), amplifying his own super-powers. Directed by brothers Anthony and Josephy Russo, “Infinity Wars” boasts a Crayola Big Box worth of superheroes, also including Iron Man, Black Panther, Thor, Black Widow and many more.
The Infinity Gauntlet prop Spivey worked on was fashioned from brass and copper. It’s comparable in weight to an empty propane tank.
His work on the Infinity Gauntlet, which was later digitally scanned in and added post-production (after Brolin wore a smaller gauntlet while delivering his lines), involved cutting-out pieces, repairing damage, and fabricating parts.
He was assigned Captain America’s Wakandan shield — a dark, claw-augmented, wing-like design radically different from Cap’s signature circular red, white and blue shield — about three months before it was needed. But a decision hadn’t been made yet on design or colors. Weeks passed. A design was passed on, but no colors. Finally, a couple weeks later the shield’s colors were approved and Spivey was given images and the OK to begin production to those exacting specifications. All the bolts, scrapes, everything had to be on there. He started working on the shield, but then was told a decision had been made to change the look. He started working on another set of shields ... until the design was changed again, to a smaller shield.
He had about a day to help make that final vision a reality. Spivey made the Wakandan shields “pretty much from scratch,” molding metal sheets, with a final product of about 99 percent aluminum. The shields were also hollow, keeping them a manageable weight for Captain America actor Chris Evans to lug around all day, while filming take after take. While Spivey says his shields were used onset, a decision was made “to go in a completely different route, so most of the (shields) shown onscreen are CGI.”
Many of the tools Spivey uses to make Marvel props you might have in your own tool box, garage or basement. Screwdrivers. Chisels. Bolts and screws. But sometimes everyday items won’t cut it.
“When you’re making a space prop, and it’s from some alien race or something like that, you can’t use hardware you bought at Lowe’s, a Phillips head screw or something like that,” Spivey says. “So, in a lot of cases I’ll have to make my own hardware from scratch.”
To work on props, he also frequently uses an anvil and a forge.
Materials can range from authentic metals to foam and paper facsimiles.
Spivey, 31, became interested with props at an early age, upon seeing the 1991 Robin Williams-starring Peter Pan flick “Hook,” the very first movie he ever saw at a theater with his parents. He marveled at the film’s “beautifully crafted, hand-engraved” weaponry.
Spivey’s first showbiz opportunity arrived via CW network TV series “The Vampire Diaries,” which was filmed in the Atlanta area and rented out some sculptures he created, for use on the show.
CGI, or computer-generated imagery, is sometimes necessary to translate comic book pages to live-action movies. Still, Spivey is a true-believer in props’ powers to make superhero flicks (somewhat) more believable and connect deeper with audiences.
“When you have a physical object, it’s something for the actors to look at and to interact with,” he says. “If you’re able to hold it, feel it, it helps the actor be able to act more like he’s not acting at that point.”