Lights, camera, action.... diplomas?

When you think of a prop in a movie or show, you're probably picturing a wad of cash that an actor playing a banker might be holding? Or maybe a driver's license an excited teenager like McLovin in Superbad might show off to his friends? Props such as these are often used during the production to heighten a scene and help bring it to life! In fact, props are often so memorable that some are sold to fans for insane prices through auction sites.

One particular type of prop often spotted on movie sets are "diplomas" or "certificates". You may have spotted one of these during a movie that has a graduation scene. Maybe during the ceremony, a student walks across the state to get their diploma. The diploma handed to them, in the film, would be a "diploma props". In some cases the prop may seem more realistic, especially if the camera zooms in on the seal but at times than others, when the diploma is filmed from a further distance, the prop can be less realistic.

You may have also seen movies where certificates are hung on a wall to make the person playing a doctor, or even a massage therapist, look more official. Often the certificate you may spot will look a lot like this one. Since we, the movie audience, wants to believe we are watching a real massage parlor, showing a valid looking certificate - although bogus in real life - is important for setting the mood.

How a scene plays out with or without diploma movie props

For this test, let's consider the 2015 comedy film "Ted 2" from Universal Studios. In one scene Ted, whose a teddy bear that's come to life, needs to prove he's legally a person to gain citizenship and meets with a young attorney. The attorney named Samantha played by actress Amanda Seyfried, discusses the legal matter of gaining citizenship with Ted.

Around the thirty five second mark of the following clip, you can see what appears to be three law degrees hanging up on her office wall. Watch below and carefully look behind her back:

Now you may be asking yourself, "just how important are these diplomas to this scene". First off, she is playing an attorney and wouldn't you expect a real attorney to have a diploma? Sure you would! This is why the framed documents behind her are vital to making the scene work.

It's also important to spot how the film makers here didn't try to oversell the diplomas either. They carefully displayed the diplomas behind her but didn't let the camera focus on them til she stands up to introduce herself to Ted. The moment is important because she's trying to sell herself as a legit attorney and again, bringing the diploma here into focus the second she proudly introduces herself, help that happen.

The question then becomes, what would happen if we took the diplomas out of this scene. Would we still believe that Samantha is an attorney? Maybe we would. BUT you can't argue that it doesn't help sell us on this character.

Although watching a scene like this, we may overlook diploma movie props, their presence is there and important.

Hollywood has been using diploma props for years!

As long as movies, tv shows and commercial spots have used characters that would normally have their own diplomas, diplomas were used as set film props.

Consider old ads for cigarettes, where actors were hired to play doctors and proclaim that smoking was actually good for your health. The message which seems insane now, was effective at the time. These commercials used fake diplomas on set, to make the actors look more legitimate. The novelty degrees helped push the message the cigarette companies were trying to convey to their audience.

Watch this old tv spot from way back when and keep a careful eye on the wall props behind the actor playing the doctor. Can you spot diploma movie props yourself?

Just how realistic is a diploma movie prop, to the real thing, in a movie?

Each movie or tv show may have different uses for the prop and how it will be used. Take into consideration the 2005 comedy "Herbie Fully Loaded" from Walt Disney Pictures. In one scene Maggie played by Lindsay Lohan gradates from the fictitious Los Angeles University. For whatever reason, the producers decided to not use an actual school in the story.

Even though the school does not actually exist, they still created a realistic looking diploma movie prop for Maggie.

When looking at the image above, spot how close the camera gets to the diploma. We can clearly make out a seal, Maggie's name, four signatures and more details about the document. Since they knew it was going to be shot closeup, the prop department for this movie spent a great deal of time making a detailed prop where all the normal characteristics over a diploma were highlighted.

In other cases, props are less fancy. As an example, in the 2002 movie "Crossroads" from MTV Films. Lucy played by Brittney Spears, attends her high school graduation. We see her and all of her classmates holding their diploma scrolls. Since a scroll is nothing more than rolled up paper that is exactly what the prop department used for that scene... rolled up paper.

But in some cases, diploma movie props have to bring out their A game. This is when they need to showcase a real diploma from a real school and make it look well, real! This was the dilemma that the prop department for the 2006 movie "The Departed" faced, when Colin played by Matt Damon pulls a University of Mass diploma out of a box which almost identically matches a real one it's pretending to be.

Movies like The Departed shows us that diploma movie props when done right, can be very impressive. Although the document shot was framed and showcased behind glass, the attention to detail here is spot on and worth noting.

How are prop departments able to accurately replicate diplomas for scenes like these?

In most cases, prop departments will make up a school like "Los Angeles University" (as I discussed above) and recreate something that looks like a legit diploma with all of the common characteristics one might expect to see in one. In other cases, such as what The Departed movie did, they took a real diploma and carefully replicated it.

The process was achieved by studying the actual diploma's layout, where the seal is placed, the number of signatures it has and more. They then created the diploma movie prop with that knowledge.

That same method of replicating degrees is how websites that offer novelty diplomas such as operate. These businesses use original templates that were replicated from real school degrees and then customize names, dates and other details. These diplomas are often sold for many reasons including as temporary replacements for lost degrees or as novelty items for people looking to play jokes on friends.

And in some cases, such companies are hired by production companies to create props for movies and tv shows. In fact, a few low budget independent films looking create diplomas for graduation and office scenes have reached out to such businesses.