Features and Columns · Movies

Show Me the (Fake) Money: The Art and Artifice of Prop Currency

(Fake) money makes the cinema world go round.
To Live And Die In La Money
MGM/UA Entertainment Co.
By  · Published on April 30th, 2021

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about how prop money works.

Movie magic, by and large, is about faking things. Faking explosions, faking identical twins, faking dinosaurs, you name it. And usually, when it comes to on-screen fakery, the more believable something is the better. But there’s one notable exception: money.

The fake money you see in films has to walk a fine line. It has to look real enough to seem authentic to the audience. But it can’t be so real that the filmmakers get slammed with counterfeit charges.

The video essay below offers a quick primer on how realistic prop money can look without breaking the law. Filmmakers are required to follow a long laundry list of rules to avoid jail time for forgery, including everything from the size of the bills to tweaking federal emblems. As the essay keenly points out, sometimes prop masters are penalized for doing too good of a job when it comes to replicating money.

A great example of this (not mentioned in the video) comes from William Friedkin‘s To Live and Die in L.A., which begins with a scene of the film’s villain printing forged bills. The sequence feels very real, in part because Friedkin (as he’s wont to do) consulted with real counterfeiters.

As relayed in Nat Segaloff’s Friedkin biography Hurricane Billy, despite the production’s burning of the near one million dollars of prop money, some of the counterfeit cash found its way into circulation. The FBI got involved when a crewmember’s son tried to buy some candy with the bills, which included three intentional “errors” to distinguish it from real currency.

All to say: money shots are a serious business. And prop masters deserve credit where credit is due.

Watch “How Real Can Movie Money Look?“:

Who made this?

This video essay on movie prop money is by Toronto-based filmmaker Johnny Vong, who is behind the channel This Beautiful Fraud. You can subscribe to This Beautiful Fraud on YouTube here. Christine Holloway is this essay’s narrator.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.