By Eric Althoff

Film has always been on the forefront of establishing what the public comes to accept as the look of the future. Without history as a guide, the future can be anything the creative forces behind a film envision. Interestingly, the future as envisioned by those creating it for the big screen has evolved over time, usually reflecting the time in which it was created.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis while groundbreaking for establishing an early futuristic vision, still clearly reflected it’s era in terms of shapes and style which echoed the “new” art deco style. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, while timeless in many ways, still reflects the styles of the late 1960’s. The more recent a film is to us, the more difficult it is to discern the elements that will betray it’s period, but as soon as the styles of an era can be distilled into some basic visual commonalities, the look of their “futures” tend to follow.

Modern Props has had a big hand in the crafting of the vision of the future for decades. In it’s beginning, says Mark Robinson, President, Modern Props built mostly consoles and control panels out of a garage in Inglewood, California. But even in it’s early days, Modern Props rented to major films that would set the tone for the “futuristic” look of their time; films such as Blade Runner, The Incredible Hulk, and Star Trek to name a few. For 27 years, Modern Props has supplied modern, contemporary, and futuristic set dressing and props for the entertainment industry, said Sales Manager, Ken Sharp.

"The character of futuristic props & set dressing changes as styles and new technology changes," Sharp said. "What may have been accepted as a futuristic control panel or chair 10 years ago may not be viewed the same way today."

Sharp stressed that even as futuristic trends change, so too do the sources for finding new props. "We keep up with the latest designs. Most of the demands of a set decorator stem from the design world." To keep up with the offerings of contemporary design, Modern Props attends furniture shows where the majority of new designs brought over from Europe are unveiled. Sharp says that through Modern Living, their subsidiary retail furniture store, his company sends out catalogues reflecting the latest trends and styles. Many contemporary designers are pushing the envelope far beyond tradition to create pieces that would look at home in the year 3002.

Sharp explained that one of the most challenging aspects of trying to keep up with what's ahead of you is working within the constraints and changes of the industry itself. As films and television shows try to create larger and more believeable sets for more discerning and demanding audiences, Sharp sighs at the fact that the prep time and budgets for decorating have shrunk. "The same look is desired [even though] the budgets for set dressing have been slashed. It seems as if 'We want more for less' is the new industry slogan."

Sharp also notes that as technology has evolved, it has become that much harder to depict the future. "What was once futuristic has become reality," he mused. "Electronics and technology have become so small that it becomes less interesting to watch. I was watching one of the Star Trek movies and there was a scene with a news crew. Keep in mind, this is supposed to be 300 years in the future, and one of the cameramen had a camera mounted to his head with a light and long lens. I'm thinking to myself, 'We have that technology now. Even more advanced. By then they would have an IC chip mounted in the guy's eye or something.' But how interesting would that be to look at?" As technology becomes more and more discreet, the challenge of portraying it becomes greater. In a visual medium, the brilliance of “invisible” technology, leaves much to be desired. “The future looks a lot more futuristic in the movies,” Sharp muses.

Recently, Modern Props has rented to variations on that theme as diverse as Terminator 3, Men In Black 2, and Solaris. And so, for now, the question of what tomorrow will look like is answered by the films of today. Tommorow a new group of decorators and designers will have their chance.