In movies and TV shows, it’s so often the “little things” that really make a scene. After all, the more story a movie or show can tell without resorting to exposition, the more emotionally moving it will be. Picture this, for example: In a dimly-lit room, a mature man is seen silently and reverently hanging diploma props on the wall, taking the time to get each one perfectly even. He stands back for a moment, admiring each document without saying a word.
Immediately, the audience wants to know more about this man and his story. Is the diploma his own? Has he finally completed a degree that he couldn’t get earlier in life, perhaps due to illness, poverty, or personal problems? … Or does the diploma belong to his daughter, as depicted in the 2005 movie Herbie Fully Loaded? Maybe this man is quietly struggling with mixed feelings; he’s very proud of his daughter for graduating, on one hand. On the other hand, he’s finally having to face the idea that his little girl is well and truly grown up. He knows that she’ll soon be confronted with the perils of the adult world, and there will be little he can do to actually protect her.
As you can see, props like diplomas are more than just on-set decoration. They’re a vital, integral way of capturing the audience’s imagination and building a sense of place and time… But have you ever wondered where all the diplomas shown on TV and in movies come from?
If you’re like most casual viewers (and not a director or set designer yourself), you probably haven’t stopped to think about the above. Not due to a lack of curiosity or insight, but due to the fact that the prop was doing its job: You felt so immersed in the story that it felt “real” to you.
You weren’t thinking about how the scene was constructed, because you were looking into another world that felt completely believable to you—This is the magic of Hollywood. Now that you’re intrigued, however, we’ll save you some Googling and fill you in on the answer: No, actors and directors don’t bring their own diplomas on set with them. And no, Hollywood doesn’t have a seedy diploma black market. Instead, set designers purchase 100% authentic-looking replica diplomas (customized with school names of their choice) from sites like buyafakediploma.com. If you take a look around this site, you’ll notice that it’s impossible to distinguish these “fake” diplomas from real ones. (And yes, in case you’re wondering, this industry is completely legal.)
Next time you watch a movie or a TV show, why not watch it a second time over and see how many diploma props you can spot? Think about how they affect the scenes they’re featured in: How a man sitting in a psychiatrist’s office would just look like a man in an anonymous room talking to another man about his childhood without the diplomas (kind of weird, right?)… Or how a woman sitting in an empty white room tells us nothing, but if she’s sitting in a white room with medical diplomas, it’s clear that she’s in a doctor’s office. If you ever plan to tackle any creative projects yourself—whether it’s film making, writing, or even designing infographics for a business—understanding how these seemingly small details can be used to convey meaning is essential.