Mark Nicholson is a 3D modeling expert who has applied his expertise to the entertainment world. He spent five years working on props for the “Stargate” TV franchise.
Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your association with “Stargate”?
Hello, I’m Mark Nicholson, and despite knowing exactly what I wanted as a career since I was 12, I ended up building props for five years on “Stargate,” from “SG-1” Season 10 onward.
As you look back, do you see any signs from your childhood that you would turn props into a full-time gig (e.g., working with LEGOs, model airplanes, etc.)?
Yes. Very yes. I would draw constantly, I still build things with Lego, and was avidly interested in 3D modeling, science fiction, miniatures painting and model kids from a young age.
What kind of entertainment industry jobs have you had outside of “Stargate”?
I made props for some other film and TV projects during those “Stargate” years, and for some years after would still occasional do some 3D modeling/print work as it came up for friends who are still doing it. I now work as a 3D artist for video games, notably Mechwarrior Online.
How did you initially find out about and receive the job with “Stargate”?
About seven or eight months after completing a 3D modeling and animation program, I got an email from the teacher there with a cold call for 3D artists. The people running the Model Shop (where “Stargate” props were built) were trying to develop a 3D scanning solution for film and wanted a 3D artist to help. It ended up that at the time they were also incredibly busy, and I had other skills they were interested in so I ended up there full time.
What were your responsibilities on “Stargate” and with whom did you most often interact?
The Model Shop purchased a laser engraver/cutter shortly after I arrived there, and while they were unsure what it could do when it arrived, it proved to be an invaluable tool, enough so that it ended up my main responsibility. Between churning out parts on that, and 3D modeling/printing, the rest was often adding smaller details to larger objects.
Interaction was pretty limited. The Model Shop, Set Decoration, and a large construction shop for building sets were in a warehouse about a 15 minute drive from the studio. I almost never visited the studio, and there were always more experienced people who would nanny props on set. So it was mostly the Model Shop crew, Prop Masters, some construction or on set prop people occasionally, the production designer once or twice a year, and very rarely when it called for it, the occasional actor.
When someone asks you about your time working on “Stargate,” what are some of the first memories that come to you?
How much fun it was, What a great group of people I worked with, and seeing a golf bag full of swords instead.
Could you give us two examples of the process involved in creating props—one in which you received specific instructions on what to build and another in which you had a relative amount of freedom to create something from scratch?
A specific example would be the Destiny/Universe gate. It was probably one of the more specific builds I worked on, mostly because it had a very fixed set of requirements and a clear and elaborate drawing.
As for freedom, the Destiny interior. There were designs and drawings sure, but unlike “SG-1” or “SG:A,” we were now using so many new tools and techniques and materials, especially 3D printing. Getting the freedom to establish new looks, new systems and not have to continually replicate an old an outdated look was so much fun. I spent a lot of time designing consoles for the shuttle, wall panels, and especially the details of the Destiny bridge consoles, or the little details on the back of the destiny/shuttle bridge chairs.
In what ways did the “Stargate: Universe” gate differ from other gates? What kinds of motivations were behind the decision-making process?
Portable setup! Like SG-1, there were two gates. The standing gate on the set, and the travelling gate that would go to all the locations. The SG-1 gate separated in half, and those two large pieces required a lot of work to transport and set up. The Universe traveling gate was designed with a lot more ease of use and set up. It separated into nine segments plus the base easily, and had custom wheeled frames for safe transport, and could fit in a small cube truck easily instead of a large flatbed.
What do you think about the fan movement to revive “Stargate”—and would you be willing to return if asked?
It’s exciting. I was a fan before I started working on it, and would love more. Would I be willing to return? No. And that’s not to say I wouldn’t want to. I would be very interested in it, but I also literally have my dream job right now.
Altered Instinct asks, “Which prop took the most work… yet was used for the least time?”
Which prop took the most work… yet was used for the least time?
— Altered Instinct (@AlteredInstinct) August 25, 2018
This can happen a lot. I thought of a few, and looked through some old pictures before I remembered the Furlings from ‘200’. A pair of custom fitted animatroic helmets that show up for all of 20 seconds.
If you could go back in time and revamp any prop prior to filming, what prop would you most like to revisit and why?
The Genii communicator from SG:A. Why? It’s a baby monitor that got some pant slapped on, that’s why. Also, it was made before I got there, so I learned about this only from when it came back to get some refurbishment/repainting, often.
GAPSTARGATE asks, “What influenced the design of the ‘Destiny’ in ‘Stargate: Universe’?”
I would like to know what influenced the design of the destiny in Stargate universe
— GAPSTARGATE “Get Into The Gate Again" (@GapStargate) August 24, 2018
You’d have to ask Production Designer James Robbins.
Hadel S. Ma’ayeh asks, Where do you get your inspiration for your “Stargate” props and what is your favorite prop on “Stargate”?
Where do you get your inspiration for your #Stargate props and what is your favorite prop on Stargate?
— Hadel S. Ma'ayeh (@Hadel) August 24, 2018
Again, mostly you’d have to ask Production Designer James Robbins; but sometimes we’d be asked to build things with little or no drawings. Unfortunately, there’s wasn’t a lot of time for inspiration between ‘can you build this’ and ‘we need it on set in a week’. As well, often a lot of things fell into pre-existing look categories, like ‘Goa’uld’ or ‘Atlantean’.
My favorite prop? The Asgard chip Marek uses in ‘Ark of Truth’; he holds it right up to the screen, and I learned a few years later that the PCB inside it was recognized by some avid fans of the Nintendo Virtual boy who hunted me down to ask about it.
Victoria Rose asks, “How long up front did you get requests for new things,” and “Did they ever break any props during use?”
What materials were used to build props? Like wood or fiberglass or resin or paper?
How long up front did they get the request for new things?
And how did they figure out the mechanism to open and close zats and staff weapon?
Did they break any props during use?#stargate
— Victoria Rose (@Falcon_Horus) August 25, 2018
We didn’t have long. Again, I wasn’t involved in planning, so our Lead Model Maker coming to me with a drawing and a deadline as the first I’d hear of what I was about to make. Most builds were a week or two. The Universe Gate was a rare long project and it was about 2 months.
Did they ever break props? Yes. Constantly. Props are often fragile, and at the same time, there was a lot of action, and stunts (and stunt versions of props, but they can still wear and break) and sometimes actors are hard on them or careless, or decide to pocket a memento and not tell anyone, which means it would have to be replaced if there was more shooting.
Evy asks, “How many drafts did the SGU airlock go through?”
How many drafts did the SGU airlock design go through?
— Evy (@shewalksaway) August 25, 2018
You’d have to ask Production Designer James Robbins, but I did have fun reading the Gateworld forums for people’s attempts at translating the Ancient text I wrote on them. (Now I want to know more about this ancient text! Please don’t leave us hanging.)