New Orleanians are well-schooled in the concept of lagniappe — a little something extra or unexpected. And thanks to artist and prop maker Luis Colmenares, that notion now extends into the local film industry.
On one of the first films he worked on, Colmenares noticed how hard everyone was working, particularly the crew. “The actors are great and everything else, but you see the Best Boy and the makeup girl and the lighting guy and all these different people, and you get to meet them and they’re real,” he said.
So Colmenares decided he was going to make a little something for the crew, from cast-iron skull and bones for one film to metal boxing gloves holding a rose for a recent Sylvester Stallone production.
“And then I set up a table for lunch a few weeks before the movie goes away, and then when the guys come back from lunch, we present them to them like little Oscars, and everybody goes away with something very cool from our studio,” Colmenares said.
“It’s called lagniappe,” he added. “If you give back a little bit, these guys will hopefully remember you and say, ‘you know I got such a cool piece from that movie and it sits on my desk and it’s sort of like my little Oscar or my little Emmy.’ So it’s a really cool thing to do, to give back.”
An all-around artist who also furnishes restaurants and mentors others from his Arabi studio, Colmenares broke into the film industry twenty years ago when he was tasked with solving a few problems for the production designers of Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire. One of his creations for that film, a custom made set of rivets (along with an ingenious magnet-based drill to use with them), made it into industry trade papers.
“So you have to invent things, too,” Colmenares said.
It was that kind of resourcefulness and talent that led to Luis becoming a go-to prop man for some of Hollywood’s biggest names, producing work for the likes of Stephen Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, Kate Hudson. He recently taught friend and fellow art expert Sylvester Stallone how to weld for one of his upcoming roles, and he had high comedic praise for Seth Rogen and the rest of the actors involved in the upcoming apocalyptic comedy This is The End, coming out in June and already garnering a lot of positive attention.
“That whole crew was hilarious,” said Colmenares. “These guys are just I think the new Jerry Lewises, comedic geniuses of the world, and they’re going to go places.”
Colmenares often isn’t given much to go on by production designers. Sometimes he’ll be given a line from the movie or a sense of what’s happening. “And then I’ll build ten, twelve little props, they will look at them, they’ll pick the one they love, and then that’s the one that ends up being in the movie.
“These designers have a mind what they want, but sometimes they can’t produce it because they can’t translate it,” he added, “and I’m very good at taking a drawing and translating it and making it reality.”
Often, several copies of a prop must be produced — after multiple takes certain props can get a little beaten up, which is a problem if you have to reshoot. And it’s this lack of control over the finished product that is, for Colmenares, at the heart of what makes building a prop different from say, creating a sculpture for an exhibition or a piece of furniture for a restaurant.
“To make a movie prop, you have to make it quick and efficient and inexpensive to where they can use it in a movie, and who knows what happens to it,” he said. "I don’t sign those pieces, because I feel like they’re my art but who knows what they’re going to do with them, they’re going to get destroyed or I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Colmenares doesn’t see that as a detriment to his life as an artist, however — quite the opposite, in fact.
“It has increased my artistic value in a sense,” he said. “I think by doing those things that are very rare, and you just can’t get at a prop shop or at Macy’s or at Lowe’s, that’s what makes me unique in a sense.”
And it’s that combination of creative and commercial possibilities to which Colmenares wants more young people in New Orleans to have access.
“Sometimes you look at some of these crews and you ask them where they’re from, and a lot of these guys are from out of state,” Colmenares said. “We need to have some kind of training center or some kind of school that we can teach these guys not just one of the careers, just like, I’d rather them have five or six careers. You don’t just teach the guy how to hold a microphone, you want him to be able to lay track and you want this guy to be able to run cable and this guy to do a little lighting.”
Luis compares his vision to something akin to Café Reconcile’s model, on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. “You go into a restaurant and you learn all the different things in the restaurant, and hopefully you come out and one of the Brennans hires you or Commander’s hires you because you went through that program.”
But with studios souring on less than realistic computer generated effects and returning to traditional artwork, Colmenares sees it as simple supply and demand.
“We have so many people that are so talented here in New Orleans that are losing this potential, some of them are sitting around the French Quarter selling their paintings but they could be painting giant props on the wall or painting on glass and things that these special effects people need.”
For those with a similar vision to Luis', go visit him. He’ll be in his studio.
*Click here to read more from Brian Friedman.