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Pretty Little Liars prop master Chris Vail explains season 7’s sinister hacker device

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With the finale coming up, it’s a last chance to look back on the season’s favorite all-purpose spooky technology

A still of the elaborate board game taken from Season 7, Episode 11.
(Freeform/Eric McCandless)
© 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

As Pretty Little Liars reaches its series finale, will we finally learn who has been tormenting the lead characters? The show, originally about a stalker sending threatening texts to five teenagers, has spent seven seasons transcending peers like Gossip Girl and becoming a suspenseful thriller, crammed with anonymous hackers and nasty gadgets.

In the penultimate episode, the five women at the show’s heart — the Liars, in fan parlance — finally defeated their stalker’s latest ploy, an elaborate device that was part map and part board game. It’s actually a military-grade super-gadget, indestructible by the show’s hackers, Caleb (Tyler Blackburn) and Mona (Janel Parrish). This device is central to the season-seven plot, and it’s full of tricks, spitting poisonous gas when Caleb gets too close, and brandishing a box-cutter at Mona when she tries to lovingly pet it. It even uses AR to show the Liars where a missing corpse has been buried. The game may not appear in the finale, but given that the stalker (once known as “A,” now as “A.D.”) ominously confiscated the board pieces, it’s always possible the game will resurface in some form in the finale. The show’s prop master, Chris Vail, who also worked on the Austin Powers film series, recently talked to me via email about the process of making the device.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What inspired the super-gadget?

We looked at all kinds of things to inform how the game wanted to look and feel. Old-school board games like Life and Risk, that cool model of the town in Beetlejuice, the game in Jumanji, cool YouTube videos about augmented reality games… There was a good deal of discussion where the writers and myself tried to take our favorite elements from all those things and incorporate them into a game that had the charm of a traditional board game, but also incorporated the digital technology that “A” commonly used.

How long did it take to make it, and what materials did you use?

Start to finish, it took a couple of months, and we used all kinds of materials. Lots of trial and error. I was originally going to try to make the top out of wood, but it just wasn't versatile enough. We found a material called Sintra that is basically a PVC material that was printable. The WB Design Studio guys were thus able to use a large-format printer to print on one side, and then I had them CNC route the back of it out, so it was thinner in the middle and then had thicker edges. This way, it could fit like a shoe-box lid over the raised base. The base was a nice hardwood, and we also CNC routed that pattern into the sides. The models on top were plastic, and were pieced together from various existing scale train models and craft-store materials. There were resin-molded skulls and a metal jail cell that pops up out of the floor. A steel trap door on the front where various things popped out. Some paint and tears and love, and there you go.

The Liars carry a coffin.
Freeform

What was the manufacturing process like?

I initially sketched out an incredibly crude version of the thing on a piece of posterboard. That first version had a lot of the basic layout of the finished board. That version, however, looked like a seven-year-old's school project. Our graphic artist, Cristina Colissimo, and another artist, Jon Neill, created the finished artwork for the board. Jon also built the models of the town. WB Design did the large-format printing and CNC machining of the board and the base. The cabinet shop built the base. I had the WB FX shop build the steel trap door where things shot out. Joe Luther, one of our set lighting technicians, did an amazing job of creating the LED lighting, which could actually be controlled remotely by the lighting board operator. And on and on… Dozens of talented people doing specific things. There was a ton of trial and error as we tried to get all of those elements to come together into a cohesive thing.

How did you achieve the effects of gas and weapons and clues emerging from it?

I don't want to ruin it for anybody, but the technology involved in that is named Grant Burdette. He was our lead special-effects person. For each one of those things, we built a specific device, so we were constantly modifying the underside of that board. But really, it was Grant, under a table with a hole cut in it, who was making that magic happen. The poisonous gas… After we experimented with all kinds of tiny smokers and high-tech solutions, we landed on turning a can of compressed air, like you use to clean your keyboard, upside down. It shoots stream of the liquid propellant out. We loved the way that looked, but that's not safe to shoot into someone's face, so… We ended up having Tyler react as if something shot out, but there was nothing there. Then we shot a plate of the gas shooting out, and our editors married those together. Box-cutter? Grant under a table. Envelope? Grant under a table. Game pieces moving? Grant under a table. Being "A" is hard work… That's the moral of that story.

Do you think someone could actually make a real version of this thing?

I'm going to have to go with, "Anything is possible." I do actually believe you could do a version of it in real life. When we had to conceive the blueprints we made for the machine, we had to give some thought as to how it might really work, and I think it could probably be done. It would have to be a little different than the one we built. It would be insanely difficult, and require far more engineering and IT savvy than I possess. And time. And money. As people who make television, we rely on our skills at manipulating the medium to create these magic moments.

Pretty Little Liars’ series finale airs on June 27th at 7PM CT / 8 M ET on Freeform.