Man of Steel: Tony Swatton

Forging the perfect blade is as much craftsmanship as it is research and work ethic. You might not see his name in the credits, but metalsmith Tony Swatton is the man behind 20 years of iconic movie weapons. 

 

Credit: Timothy BanksCredit: Timothy BanksTony Swatton puts me on hold for the best possible reason—a hoard of Vikings have entered his shop. Wizards, pirates, superheroes, evil aliens, general badasses, and anyone else brandishing a prop weapon are Tony’s bread and butter, so it’s not entirely out of place for a burly group of seafaring pillagers to come walking through the door. Swatton, a metalsmith by trade, has created iconic television and film weapons, ranging from Dustin Hoffman’s titular prosthetic hand in Hook to Wesley Snipes’ vampire hunting steel in Blade, for more than 200 feature productions. Now he’s showing the public how it’s done.

In his web series, Man at Arms, Swatton forges real versions of both prop and fantasy weapons and armor. Think everything from Wolverine’s claws to Batman’s batarangs to Oddjob’s deadly hat. The series immediately gained traction and has drawn in more than 55 million viewers since it launched in February, 2013, raising Swatton’s profile from prop maker to name brand.

Get In Media: For a project like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, or any historical production you’ve done, how much historical research goes into creating weapons?

Tony Swatton: For the first Pirates movie, we were not as worried about historical accuracy. It was based on a Disney ride, really. The prop master went to London and bought some historical cutlasses and small swords, court swords, and brought those back as reference. There’s an element where Johnny Depp is pinned to the wall of the forge with one of the swords. That sword is a repurposed 1862 Civil War saber that I’d shortened down to a cutlass and it ended up being a featured piece. Geoffrey Rush’s sword for the first two or three movies was actually an 1813, 1814 Valmy Napoleonic French kind of saber that, again, refitted with a different blade with a green patina.

The golden age of pirates is really about 1750. That’s 65 years late to have an anachronistic sword being shown. If you did a movie about the 1950s and everyone’s dressed that way like Grease or something and then all of a sudden you have people in a different fashion, it really clashes. People who know would be able to see that there were weapons in that movie that were inaccurate for the time, but they’ve now become iconic pieces and that’s what they expect to see. It’s kind of funny.

GIM: Do you get called out when something is anachronistic?

TS: Yeah, occasionally. … At one point on a Man at Arms episode, I was talking about the groove in a sword called a fuller and explaining that it was made with a fullering tool, but in the common vernacular it was called a blood groove and I explained why it was called a blood groove. Then I went to dispel that it doesn’t actually work that way. [Man at Arms editors] cut the explanation off the end, so it made me sound like I was saying it’s called a blood groove to let the suction of the blood in the body come out. A lot of the bladesmiths are like, “You’ve just posted this to almost two million viewers saying it’s a blood groove.” That’s where the fact checking is nice.

GIM: In your Reddit Ask Me Anything, you stated that you wished Captain America’s shield [created on the web series, not the actual one used in the movie] had come out differently. How so?

TS: One of the things with Man At Arms that people don’t really realize is during a five-day filming schedule, and that’s starting at about eight or nine in the morning until dark, six or seven at night, I create over those five days six weapons. That’s everything from—in season two I believe it was, we did [Cloud’s] Buster sword [from Final Fantasy VII], we did the Kingdom Hearts’ Keyblade, we did Gimli’s axe [from Lord of the Rings], we did Captain America’s shield, and probably the Klingon bat’leth and one other weapon. … Those are all produced in five days, those six weapons, so I’m trying to get everything done and make it look right and capture all the elements on camera.

Captain America’s shield, we initially planned on getting it spun, but that would have taken it to an outside processor and doing a spinning lathe and cutting everything and putting it together. They weren’t able to process it, so I had to do it with all the hand tools or the other machinery in-house. Then we were going to assemble it onto a stainless steel backing plate, which wasn’t able to form out in time, so we did it out of a low carbon steel which was not as strong. Altogether, it would have worked OK if I just had more time to put into it. With everything else that was going there, we were able to finish Captain America’s shield on the test day at about six o’clock before it got dark at about 6:45. It was really on crunch time. It just ran out of time.

GIM: When you are working on a weapon for film or television, how do you balance craftsmanship with speed?

TS: I generally will not release something until it’s done correctly and a lot of times that requires just working through the night to get everything finished up to meet my quality standards. I’ve been at this location in Burbank for almost 23 years, I think … and that’s a pretty good track record for doing handcrafted items, props, and things that I make. I’ve got a pretty good reputation because the quality standards are up there.

GIM: When you’re working for a fantasy or sci-fi production and creating weapons that do not exist in real life, what is your process?

TS: I want to make it a tool. I want it to be something that you can actually carry and use as an extension of your arm, which is what all weapons really are. If it’s too unwieldy and sharp edges coming back at your body, I would generally decline that kind of commission. It would set me up for failure. It wouldn’t allow me to create something to the best effect of what I’m known for doing. I try to incorporate historical elements of things that work and make certain that they work correctly and they look good.

GIM: Many of the historical pieces that you’ve created, the actual pieces would be insanely heavy for the people wielding them. How do you modify weapons for actors?

TS: A lot of times I will make things out of aluminum. I use an alloy of aluminum that’s extremely tough and I’ll make the blades out of those. … I just grind them into shape and remove everything that doesn’t look like a sword blade. That will lighten the weight out a lot. That will give the actor much better control of the weapon that they’re holding. I also sometimes will make the hilt and pommel and everything out of aluminum and totally skeletonize the thing so it just weighs nothing. We did a sword for Pirates of the Caribbean completely out of aluminum for one of the actors who had hurt his elbow or something. He really couldn’t sword fight with a heavy sword, and it probably weighed from a three-pound sword down to three ounces. … Sometimes I’ll make things hollow. I made an axe for Paul Bunyan for a movie in the early ‘90s called Tall Tale. The axe would have weighed 56 pounds just for the axe head as we made it originally, and we were able to get it down to something that you could swing around with just one hand.

GIM: Has technology like 3-D printing affected your job?

TS: I think it might have a little bit. I know in some of the movies I’ve worked on, the prop masters and costume designers used to come in and need a lot of stuff and now what’s happening is they are buying a 3-D printer for $50,000 to $60,000 and hiring a technician who can generate the computer program and printing up their 3-D product in the art department.

GIM: Do you have any fear of that kind of thing?

TS: Not really. What I can do, as you see in Man At Arms, is create something that can’t be done with a 3-D printer in a very short lead time and give you a very detailed, high-quality reference artwork. We were worried about the same thing with the high definition cameras coming out but, in my case, the closer you get to the work the more details you see. It doesn’t make it look bad. Actually, you can see more of the details that make it look better.

GIM: How has the prop industry changed since you got into it?

TS: … It comes down to a shorter lead time. They want it bigger, faster, better, and cheaper, and it really doesn’t work that way. There really is that triangle where you get what you pay for. If you want it good and fast then you’ve got to pay more. You can’t get good, fast, and cheap. I like to have six weeks to produce something. That’s kind of my basis for price structure, but I’ve had people call me up at seven o’clock in the morning and say, “We need this thing by one o’clock in the afternoon. What do you have? What can you create that we can capture that image?” That’s a little stressful and that’s where the experience that I’ve had over the years really pays off, that I’m able to do stuff or look at it and go, “No, that’s not a possibility” and decline the commission.

GIM: Are there any specific directors or franchises that you’d like to make a weapon for that you haven’t?

TS: Not really. I’ve worked with a lot of big names out there, but they may not know that I’ve worked for them. The odd thing is that I’ve only been credited in one feature film and that was Don Juan DeMarco, where I created the swords that Johnny Depp used when he was kind of menacing Marlon Brando up on top of the billboard. For Hook or Pirates of the Caribbean or Zorro or Blade or any of these other things you see, you won’t see my name in the credits. I’m basically unlisted.

GIM: Why? You created the hook of Hook. It seems like a given to be credited.

TS: In Hook back in 1991, they actually brought me a blueprint that I matched exactly to what they needed and we sent it out to engravers to get done and it all came through my shop. That was my first big project. I’m also not a union shop so I don’t belong to the Local 44 union. There’s no one fighting for me to make sure my name is credited, but with the recognition of Man At Arms, there are close to 30 million viewers on that. It’s kind of working out to the point that by adding my name to the credits, it actually makes their movie, kind of like top billing an actor or director. I don’t want to put myself in that caliber, but if they say I made weapons or costumes for a thing, now people know who I am. I expect to get more credits in the future.

GIM: What do you recommend for somebody who wants to move into making weaponry?

TS: I highly recommend joining ABANA [the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America]. In California, there’s the California Blacksmith Association. … If you’re into knife-making there’s the ABS, which is the American Bladesmith Society. … Between ABANA, CBA, and ABS, you’ll be able to learn a lot of things. My recommendation to anyone who wants to do this is to do it. Get a hammer. Hit a piece of metal. Get a file and file away on stuff. Get as many tools and practice and practice and practice, and just do what you can.

New Man at Arms episodes air every other Monday. The full series is available on YouTube.

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