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  • Prop of her game: Welcome to the world of a Berlin propmaker


Prop of her game: Welcome to the world of a Berlin propmaker

Meet Karoline Hinz, the Berlin-based propmaker creating wild and whopping work for the stage, the red carpet and the big screen.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Karoline Hinz likes to be larger than life. Over the last 15 years, the 35-year-old Berlin propmaker has been fashioning massive hyper-realistic sculptures: furry sloth and bear costumes, giant rabbit heads, a life-sized Barbie doll, a humongous hand-painted dragon, a desert beetle the size of a microwave and bulbous, faux-oozing brains. You’d think her Spandau studio would be something of a menagerie, or an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque labyrinth of oversized objects. But with the exception of her work in progress (a giant retro phone made of foam and fibreglass that the Berliner Ensemble plans to use as an onstage seesaw), a few bowling pins the size of 10-year-olds and several silicone body parts suspended in a transparent goo, her sculptures are with the clients she produced them for.

I think people underestimate the time that it takes to produce something by hand.

“I got to keep one. I have a dead dog in a suitcase,” Hinz admits, lugging out the luggage. The canine inside looks eerily real, but it’s mostly silicone and airbrushed fur, with an armature – a metal framework that serves as the sculpture’s skeleton – inside that lends the dog’s limbs joint-like movement. It’s missing a leg; its tail is matted with fake blood. Hinz does a lot of work for production companies, in this case for a 2022 television series called Funeral for a Dog, which requested a fake version of the onscreen pup. “Luckily that dog was nearby in Brandenburg, so I could drive to the real dog and take measurements and pictures myself. Usually I only get pictures sent by the client, and it’s very hard to get the likeness right,” Hinz says. “I had to do this with a cat that I did, a dead cat. That’s actually out right now: – Constellation, from Apple TV.” She declines to give spoilers on how the cat dies.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Aside from fur work, Hinz’s other speciality is what she calls “over-dimensional sculptures”, like the 1.5-metre-tall LEGO man she made in 2020, the massive slice of pepperoni pizza for the release of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie or the latex-and-foam tongue she fit into a four-metre basilisk for a Berlin theatre piece. “I really enjoy these out-of-their-usual-proportion kinds of things… maybe it comes from the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids kind of time we grew up with,” she says, noting that her “comfortable size” is around three metres. “People find so much joy in it.”

Learning the craft

Hinz, who grew up in eastern Germany, never planned on being the person you call to create convincingly dead animals or massive versions of everyday objects. “I didn’t really know that this was a job that you could take on,” she says. “During school everyone is trying to figure out what they want to do, right? For me, it was always clear what I didn’t want to do. I grew up in a small town where people were all doing office jobs and really corporate stuff. And I knew that I didn’t want to end up there.” She discovered the world of propmaking through a school-provided book listing apprenticeships. At the time, her only experience creating props or costume was tied to a devotion to Sailor Moon. “I was always super crafty. I was really into Japanese culture as a teenager, and the whole manga anime stuff, and cosplay and crafting. So I was already doing what I’m doing now back then, when I was 12 years old.”

As soon as you send me a request, my brain starts rattling

In 2009, she landed a three-year apprenticeship with Deutsche Oper, which later became part of BÜHNENSERVICE BERLIN, a conglomerate of Berlin theatres and operas all using one large workshop to make everything and anything that needs to go onstage. “They have the woodworkers, they have the welders, they have the painters, they have the Plastiker, which is my job, basically,” she explains. “They also have the costume department there, they have the hat makers there – everything’s going on.” The apprenticeship covered all the basics, teaching Hinz to paint fake marble or wood, to carve Styrofoam, to sculpt clay and make moulds. The apprentices worked for the stage productions but also honed their own craft, forming skulls and an animal of their choice; Hinz made an octopus, moulding and glueing hundreds of latex suction cups. “My teacher didn’t like that I chose an octopus because that has nothing to do with animal anatomy,” she recalls, laughing. “I think he was expecting us more to go for a mammal.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

After completing her training in 2012, Hinz became a freelancer. She’s now worked for dozens of clients, including Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures and Warner Music, plus regular work for Berlin theatres. She’s also done work for German movie premieres, creating red carpet props for Jurassic World and the Kung Fu Panda franchise. While she has plenty of ideas of her own crowding her sketchbook (“I would love to have a collection of high-end animal costumes that I can rent out”), most of her time is spent realising other people’s visions – something that makes every project a new challenge. “For me, it’s really, really fulfilling that other creative people, like musicians or artists, come to me with their ideas. They have something in mind, they maybe have a scribble or a model. And they want that to become reality. I’m like, ‘Yeah, of course we can do that’.”

I didn’t really know that this was a job that you could take on

Her biggest challenge, she says, is also the most satisfying part: problem-solving. “I love it. As soon as you send me a request, my brain starts rattling. I’m like, I have 10 solutions for how to do that. But I need to ask all these questions in order to figure out if it works or not. We have the time restriction, we have the budget restriction. We have the usage of the thing – all of this needs to work together in order to function,” she says. “There’s no straight road for how to do it. People come and ask me for something and there’s not one way to do it, there’s like 100 ways to do it, so I have to keep asking: What do you need it for? Does it need to be outside? How long does it need to hold?”

One such instance where the prop needed to be handled very specifically was a job for German singer-songwriter Peter Fox, who wanted an avatar of himself that he could carry around in a 2022 music video for the song ‘Zukunft Pink’. Hinz made him a life-sized Peter Fox puppet out of silicone and foam, built as light as possible. “People were super creeped out by it, because it was basically a copy of him. Kind of ‘Uncanny Valley’ looking,” she says of being on the video’s set. “He was creeped out by it.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

By now, Hinz is used to creepy. The goo-bound silicone body parts in her studio – a pair of moustachioed lips, a breast, a penis, a hand, an arched foot – were props for a gender-bending Frankenstein horror film that’s yet to be released. Hinz created them during the pandemic, when finding models for her moulds was a challenge. “They wanted a pretty-looking male foot, basically. And I was like, ‘I don’t actually know any of my male friends’ feet’. So I just randomly asked some friends and they were like, Oh, yeah, Tom has the nicest feet in the world!” she explains. “I hadn’t seen anyone in like weeks, and suddenly I’m in Tom’s home putting silicone on his feet. That was a really intimate moment.” The hand and breast were also friends, though the severed schlong was not. “With the penis, it was just going on gay porn sites and looking for what the director asked for.”

Propping up Berlin

Because she passes most of her props on, Hinz doesn’t always get to witness the reactions they inspire – but she has had her viral moment. A sloth costume she made blew up a few years ago, prompting hundreds of emails and messages. “I could have probably sold 200 sloth costumes. At some point, I didn’t even reply anymore because it was just getting out of hand, and people actually thought I was a store and I could just send them out to America. I was like, that’s not how it works,” she says. “I think people underestimate the time that it takes to produce something by hand. Everything I do is a prototype. It’s not mass production.” The term ‘prop shop’ also confuses people, Hinz says. “Prop shop is actually the name for the workshop that does the props. It’s not a store.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

The sloth moment did, however, generate more clients. “I got this message on Instagram from a guy from Mexico. He was like, ‘Yeah, I saw your work, really great. I work for this theatre, and we need a dead goat for a play. Would you be able to make that?’ I was like, I’m just gonna ignore that message. This is super weird – a random dude messaging me on Instagram asking for a dead goat. But then I looked him up, and it was actually a really famous actor who played on Narcos.” Hinz ended up making the goat, shipping it to Mexico folded up in a friend’s suitcase. “It must have looked really weird, like a giant plushie or something. And it also had blood dripping from the mouth. But it made it to Mexico!”

Photo: Makar Artemev

While lots of her work is international, Berlin is still Hinz’s headquarters. “Berlin’s art scene is so big, and there are a lot of movie productions, a lot of agencies that do commercials – it all adds up,” she says. Perhaps her most Berlin-centric job to date was her work on last year’s BVG musical, Tarifzone Liebe, which ran for two nights at Admiralspalast. Hinz worked on the costumes, making the headpieces for the U-Bahn, tram and bus characters as well as the talking BVG ticket machine. “It was a lot of stress, but also a lot of fun,” she says of the production. “I think it was good that I came from not only the commercial side but the theatre side. So I knew what had to be done in order to bring it onstage. But I also know the commercial side of it, and I know that branding has to be on point – you can’t just choose colours.” The BVG has a specific shade of yellow that had to be used, she explains.

Publicity photo for the BVG musical Tarifzone Liebe. Photo: BVG

Like other industries, propmaking has been altered by technology; Hinz now has a 3D printer for digital sculpting. But while there’s lots done digitally, especially in movie-making, she’s sceptical that doing things practically will ever die. “I think people come back to handmade stuff all the time,” she says. “It’s also to serve the actor – they don’t want to be playing in front of a green screen all the time. It’s nice if they have something to interact with.”

Art of the Matter

Hinz does most of her work solo – she occasionally hires people to help with larger projects – and will happily paint and sculpt through the night to meet a deadline. Her absorption is almost total. “Whenever I have a project that I do a really deep dive into mentally, I suddenly start seeing stuff everywhere that relates. When I was doing the body parts, or if I have to sculpt a portrait, I find myself sitting on the subway and just staring at people’s wrinkles and how the skin folds,” she admits. “You look at the details very intensely, especially when you paint. Like, okay, now I know exactly what your ear looks like.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

Ultimately, Hinz is hesitant to call herself an artist. “I’m more like a craftsman. If you commission me, you come to me with the idea you have and I try to solve the problem. I’m trying to make it so you are happy in the end. You shouldn’t see my touch mark on the piece that I’m creating for you. If I had too much of my own style, that wouldn’t be good for the job,” she says. “I have to take my ego back. I cannot say, that’s how I want it to look. I always have to keep the client in mind. They come first. And in the end, it doesn’t matter if I like it.”

Despite this, there’s an undeniable artistry to what she’s doing, and Hinz is grateful for the collaborative nature of her work. “By myself, I only have my own brain. I only have my own ideas,” Hinz says. “But when people come to me and give me their idea, I have all the brains in the world.” And, of course, a few floating around her studio.

  • Keep up with Karoline Hinz’s work on Instagram at @karolinehinz.