The Greatest Shows on Earth

Lightweight aluminium is used in film and theater to create some of your all-time favorite scenes.
24 April, 2017
Remember that amazing space shuttle module from the 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the Ghostbusters proton pack from the 1984 film starring Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd?
Chances are that you do, but it never occurred to you just how much aluminium was used in making those futuristic scenes come to life on the silver screen.
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"Aluminum really is like a stunt actor in Hollywood," says prop fabricator Paul Pearson. "It fills in for stainless, chrome and a lot of other heavier materials."

The material is a favorite choice for the industry because it's both durable and lightweight, yet its applications are flexible enough to match the creativity of behind-the-scenes artists and designers.

In fact, some pieces – like the Star Trek Phaser weapon from the late 1960s – are so durable that they're still around, and collectors are paying top dollar for them. It's hard to believe that the Phaser prop was made with popsicle sticks (and it was) but it may be even harder to imagine that since only two of them were ever made, the Phaser is worth USD$200,000 and is owned by a collector who won't part with it.
The Phaser also was made with aluminium and brass, along with some fiberglass, acrylic tubing and cast resin. A similar story holds for the Ghostbuster proton pack, which most recently sold for $169,900.

The proton pack began its life as an ordinary backpack picked up at a surplus store in Hollywood. According to Wired magazine, the nuclear-powered proton pack used to hunt ghosts was built on the frame of the standard-issue backpack. It has a molded fiberglass shell that's attached to an aluminium plate, with the entire unit mounted on the frame. Add some aluminium warning labels, flashing lights and a few electronic bells and whistles, and there it is – at least sometimes. The entire unit ended up weighing almost 14 kilograms, so there were two other lighter versions made, including a foam-rubber stunt duplicate used in Ghostbuster action scenes.
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What about the Imperial Walkers from The Empire Strikes Back? The 1980 film from the Star Wars series features the stork-legged All Terrain Armored Transports (AT-ATs) which, despite the eloquence of Popular Mechanics magazine, were not actually made from "the crushed hopes and pathetic tears of the Rebel Alliance, dispirited by the Empire's resilience following the destruction of the Death Star."

Alas, they too were made from aluminium.

The models were custom fabricated with movable pieces in various heights, although the most-used ones were about 46 centimeters tall. In the era before today's technology, they needed to be filmed 24 times in 24 different positions to give the appearance of motion that gave Imperial Walkers their name.
It's not just the science fiction genre that relies on aluminium for its tools, nor is the material's role limited to lightweight guns seen in other movies. Sometimes it's the set pieces: The heavy bank vault doors in Heat, the 1995 heist film starring Robert DeNiro, are made from aluminium rather than steel.
As for the Aries 1B lunar module from Space Odyssey, it is now worth $344,000 among those who collect film props the way others do fine art. The original is made with aluminium and other materials. Through a series of happy coincidences, the uncommonly rare prop eventually found its way to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and will go on display at the Academy Museum when it opens in Los Angeles in 2018.
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