Give him props: Beaufort native works magic on sets of 'Zombieland,' 'The Gangster Squad'

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Give him props: Beaufort native works magic on sets of 'Zombieland,' 'The Gangster Squad'

By PATRICK DONOHUE
pdonohue@beaufortgazette.com
Published Sunday, January 20, 2013   |  765 Words  |  

Actors Woody Harrelson and Jessie Eisenberg were to meet on an abandoned highway outside Atlanta, the road littered with debris, overturned tractor trailers and dozens of damaged cars.

The scene embodied the bleak, zombie-infested, post-apocalyptic world that assistant art director Timothy O'Brien and the other members of the art department on "Zombieland" had created for director Ruben Fleischer.

It was perfect. Well, almost.

"We were getting ready to shoot, and they just didn't think some of the cars were smashed-up enough," O'Brien said. "They would say, 'OK, that car's not smashed enough,' so we would get to smash it some more. It was really fun. It's not every day you get to trash an entire highway."

Such is life for O'Brien, 38, a Beaufort native now living in Atlanta, who has made a career out of creating backdrops and props for movies such as "Zombieland," and most recently, Fleischer's "The Gangster Squad."

The hit television show, "The Vampire Diaries" and Tyler Perry's "Meet the Browns" are also listed among his screen credits.

O'Brien said his love of show business began while working as a magician in the Beaufort area and a student at Battery Creek High School.

His performances, including some at the Beaufort Water Festival, would require the construction of elaborate props and other items for his act, a process he quickly found more gratifying than performing.

"I think I realized that I was more interested in being the guy behind the curtain," O'Brien said. "I had always been interested in special effects and building models and miniatures, and so I think it was a pretty natural progression into an another form of illusion and magic."

O'Brien graduated from the University of South Carolina in 1998 with a degree in technical theater and design and quickly relocated to Atlanta where he went to work designing sets and props for the city's Center for Puppetry Arts.

Atlanta was not then the film and television production capital of the Southeast it has become in recent years but had a steady stream of television, film, commercial and theater work that kept O'Brien busy when not at his day job, he said.

O'Brien found working in film challenging, calling for a different skill set and an attention to detail not typically required of those designing and building theater sets.

"When you're building sets and props for theater, they are going to be used night after night and are going to take a lot of abuse, but they are also only going to be seen from a distance," O'Brien said. "On film, what you are building may only be used once but it's going to be seen at 200 times its normal size on screen."

In 2008, O'Brien scored his first on-screen credit while working as a draftsman on "Meet the Browns" and the next year was hired to work on "Zombieland."

The film, about a shy student played by Eisenberg trying to traverse a nightmare-scape teeming with the undead, was a hit, and O'Brien was hired to work as the art director on Fleischer's film "The Gangster Squad," which was released in theaters this month.

The film, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, takes place in 1940s Los Angeles, which presented O'Brien and his team with a unique set of challenges.

"To achieve the look they wanted, you have to strip off the past 40 to 50 years of technology and progress, and only then can you still start to add back all of those period cars and dressings and signage," O'Brien said.

With "Gangster Squad" behind him, O'Brien said he hopes to continue working in film and television, a career path that will continue to make this Beaufort native co-workers with some of the world's most beautiful
people.

He says he sees little of his famous colleagues and is rarely starstruck.

"The art department has no real reason to interact with the actors," O'Brien said. "We kind of leapfrog the rest of the production because we have to be at locations days or weeks before to prepare sets, but it is fun to see different actors and these people that you see on TV and in the movies. It can get slightly surreal."

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