To Simon Mercs, a.k.a. Papa Smurf, the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred and then redefined via scaled-down versions of skyscraper-length starships belching out smoke and emitting death rays.
The former prop master and scenic artist for Disney, Warner Bros., MTV and other studios has carved out a niche as one of the greatest movie prop re-creators of all time, with a YouTube channel that has garnered 1 million-plus views by catering to those with a youthful enthusiasm for model-building.
Starting with the same plastic kits you can buy on Amazon or at neighborhood hobby shops, Mercs unboxes his purchases and then creates step-by-step video primers that mix inventive and highly stylized technologies, occasionally punctuated with shticky characters and routines best suited for Borscht Belt retrospectives. Think Captain Kangaroo on acid, going solo without the support of Mr. Green Jeans and Bunny Rabbit, and you’d be close to the attraction that Simon holds for those of us who seek to regain the youth once found in boxes of scattered plastic parts and decals.
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This is Simon’s art, and not too far into his videos, he switches out the all-too familiar tube of Testor’s glue for deftly delivered rivulets of cyanoacrylate adhesive, coaxed into action by whiffs of CA accelerator. Gaps in the plastic are puttied, imperfections are sanded, and color is seldom applied with a brush. In Papa Smurf’s world, reality is colored with airbrushes and feathering techniques. This is where our youth leaves while technology and craft are ushered in — and Simon makes it appear as if you can also create reality from chaos.
Hobbling about his garage-lab-workshop-soundstage, Mercs cocks his head and peers down to evaluate his work. He not only breaks the fourth wall, but also walls five through eight as he takes the viewer into his confidence. Feigning intimacy while summoning the ghost of Otto Preminger, he appears in an extreme close-up. Then, in a hilariously inappropriate mock-German voice that is more “Hogan’s Heroes” than “Judgement at Nuremberg,” Simon extols his abilities in no uncertain terms.
“A model is only a scaled-down version of sets that I used to build. I have this amazing skill set that enables me to master what I did in full scale down to miniature scale,” he effused in one clip. “Also being obsessive-compulsive and bipolar works.”
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Those who pay up to $60,000 for one of his models look at Mercs not as a basket case but more as a demigod. Dan Rosen, former Warner Bros. production head and executive at Digital Domain, was all to happy to sing Mercs’ praises. “Simon has produced a couple of models for me, a Martian War Machine and the Disneyland TWA Moonliner,” he said. “His attention to detail is simply unequaled. In my time in the movie industry, I have had occasion to deal with many model makers. They were all excellent, but I rarely saw a model produced on the first try that was exactly what was asked for.”
You don’t need a big wallet to appreciate Mercs’ completed models. Watching him build a model, and sitting through his incessant parade of characters doesn’t cost anything — and it sure beats the hell out of today’s network and cable reality television fare.
Mercs, who had one leg amputated after a freak accident, does reality TV one better. His YouTube channel continues to grow with new subscribers and fans who rabidly wait until the next installment. He doesn’t demonstrate how to make a flambé, he doesn’t pimp rides, he doesn’t flip houses. What he does is flip reality into a realm that seems attainable by us all, step by step.