Using Flickr for Visual Research

Flickr, if you don’t already know, allows people to share photographs. It’s a massive website, and you can easily get lost. I’ve broken it down to help you navigate around.

  • The Commons. The Commons is a place where organizations can post their massive image libraries. Some organizations include The Library of Congress, The Smithsonian, and the New York Public Library. Most of the images are documentary, so it is a good source for primary research into historical time periods. The organizations do a fair job of organizing their images, making specific pictures easy to find. Another great thing about the Commons is that many of the photographs are in the Public Domain (check each one to make sure), allowing you to use the image itself in a show without a license.
  • Places and Map. If you need photographs of a certain place, you can use these to find (usually contemporary) pictures taken there.
  • Groups. Users on Flickr can create their own groups, where they post pictures related to whatever the theme of the group is. Some groups are devoted to specific subjects; for example, you can find a group for vintage kitchen items, medieval combat, or battlefields. It’s not just for photographs; you can find vintage illustration, vintage cigarette ads, or maps and charts.
  • Tags. Flickr users can add keywords, or “tags” to their pictures to make searching for them easier. For instance, you can see all photographs tagged with “furniture“. This gives a lot of results, but you can further revise your search by looking at “clusters“, which are common groupings of related tags. For instance, furniture is clustered with “vintage, antique, old“.
  • Search. When all else fails, there’s good old-fashioned search. You can search through tags or descriptions. This is also where you can search for multiple tags, or search for a photos where one word appears and another doesn’t.

The Properties Directors Handbook

Anna Warren just pointed me to this incredible resource:

The Properties Directors Handbook: Props for the Theater, written by Sandra J. Strawn.

There’s a lot of information here. It’s more like a book than a website. Everything you wanted to know to get started as a properties director is here. It’s also one of the most up-to-date resources on props, and it’s extensively illustrated as well. She includes photographs from a number of professional theatres across the country, such as Actors Theatre of Louisville, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, The Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, and the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

It’s so good, I’ve added it as a permanent link on the sidebar.

Santa Fe Opera

The roof of the Santa Fe Opera
The roof of the Santa Fe Opera

I’ve spent three summers at the Santa Fe Opera as a props carpenter. It’s a great place to build props and expand your skills, and the shows they produce are top-notch. I would definitely encourage any beginning props people to apply to their apprentice program.

Below are some links to news articles that tell some more about the props shop at the Santa Fe Opera.

Slideshow: The Santa Fe Opera Prop Shop

A slideshow produced by the Santa Fe New Mexican. It looks behind the scenes of the prop shop during the 2007 season, when I worked there as a props carpenter. I’m not in any of the photos, but you can see a cart I built for La Boheme.

Santa Fe Opera Tales: Too Wet, Too Dry

This article focuses on Randy Lutz, the head of props there, and the problems he faces with doing outdoor theatre.

Prop Resources Online

One of the reasons I’ve begun this blog is as a reaction to the general lack of online resources for props people. What is out there is either scattered around or inactive. I’ll be collecting whatever I can find for this blog. The following list is a good starting point for anyone seeking props information online. You can also find all these links on the side of every page here.

PropPeople Discussion Forum – This is a bulletin board for all things props. A few years ago, it was fairly active, with discussions about props education, jobs, techniques and more, written by a veritable who’s who of artisans and managers in the prop world. These days it’s fairly quiet, though still active; thankfully, you can browse through the entire archive without having to sign up, and find a wealth of information about props.

Proptology Magazine – Another apparently defunct endeavor. Still, there’s a fair amount of articles available for reading online.

Instructables – A highly active and diverse community. Users post their how-tos on any manner of DIY projects. If you’re interested in finding tutorials for new techniques, or seeing how other people build things, this is a great place to start.

Make Magazine – Another resource for the DIY community. The blog is a companion to their printed magazine; it showcases DIY projects from around the internet. Though much more technologically-oriented (robots, computer hacking, etc), it occasionally features projects of interest to props artisans.

If you know of any others, let me know. If you are a props manager or artisan, and you have a blog, website, portfolio, or you participate in any of the social networking sites, such as Instructables or Flickr, send me the link and I’ll showcase it here.

Books

One reason I began this blog is because I am working on my own book on props. It is going to be a guide for approaching the build of a prop. Rather than listing materials and techniques, or presenting a series of how-to’s, my book will look at the intuitive process an artisan uses when deciding how to build something, and see if there is a framework to be used for building other props.

There are a number of books already written about props. These are incredibly useful, whether for a beginning props person, or an experienced one. The following is a list of the ones I’ve read/owned that I’ve found most helpful.

The Theatre Props Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to Theater Properties, Materials and Construction by Thurston James. One of the granddaddies of props book, found on almost every props person’s bookshelf. No matter how experienced you are, you’ll probably learn something new when you flip through it.

The Prop Builder’s Molding & Casting Handbook also by Thurston James. A great introduction and reference for all things molding and casting.

The Theater Props What, Where, When: An Illustrated Chronology from Arrowheads to Video Games by, yes, Thurston James. A handy visual reference guide to the look of common objects throughout history.

The Prop Builder’s Mask-Making Handbook by Thurston James. Though it’s about masks, which may or may not be part of the props department depending on where you work, I just wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t list the entire Thurston James quadrilogy.

Continue reading Books

Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies