Tag Archives: business

Friday’s Link List

Friday’s Link List

The DIY movement and small, creative businesses are becoming more and more important to the economy as a whole. Many props people either freelance as their own “business”, or run side businesses making things (such as selling things on Etsy). Save Us. Be Creative! takes a look at this growing trend.

On the other side of the coin, traditional theatre work is still worth fighting over. This past week saw the end of a particularly intense strike by IATSE stagehands at the Philadelphia Theatre Company. This article delves into the reasons behind it and why young theatre technicians spent two weeks outside in the cold and snow to protest their concerns. Coincidentally, the play the theatre was putting on was The Mountaintop, which imagines Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last day as he prepares to address a crowd of striking workers. The company could not find any workers to break the strike, so they tried to run it without any technical elements; this included having an actress sit in a folding chair and read the lighting and sound cues (“Thunder and lightning! Crack!”).

In sadder news, this week legendary makeup artist Stuart Freeborn passed away. Though he has worked on films since before World War II, he is most famously known as the man who created Yoda and Chewbacca. The BBC has a good roundup of his life and career, as well as a very in-depth radio interview they did a few months back. The NY Times has a nice slideshow of his Star Wars work, while The Week has a collection of five stories about Stuart that are not made up. If you have the time, here is a video of Stuart himself talking about his work:

Good Furniture and the Moving Pictures, 1915

The following article was originally published in Good Furniture Magazine, October, 1915.

Good Furniture and the Moving Pictures

by William Laurel Harris

Few people realize the prodigious growth of the motion picture business or how this sudden development of public entertainment has reached out into every walk of life. Not only in our big cities but in every town, village and hamlet the motion picture theatre holds its place and prospers. Ten million people, it is said, visit the “movies” every day. It has been said that through the “movies” a propagandum of art might be established to spread grace, beauty and culture throughout the land. It has even been suggested that architects might take a hand and find their vocation in directing the composition of scenes for the film makers.

With these ideas in mind, it was the intention of the writer to develop the theory of such a work in a solemn and learned editorial. But first he had the happy thought of visiting the people that have to do with busy “movies” and of learning first hand just how the situation stands from their point of view. His first impression, of course, was “confusion worse confounded.”

The point of view of one man interviewed is of special interest to readers of Good Furniture. He is a dealer and maker of furniture in every style to be used in making motion pictures. His main shop on a side street near Sixth Avenue is jammed from basement to attic with furniture piled tier on tier in every direction. Censers, sanctuary lamps, beer-hall signs, chandeliers and lanterns in every style are hanging from the ceiling. Pictures are along the walls, stand in corners and are piled against the stairway. Here one sees portraits of Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Frederick the Great and decorative panels, stained glass windows of religious subjects, with modern landscapes and figure work of a widely varied character, all jumbled up together. In fact, everything in the way of furniture and furnishing is here represented in some way.

Noticing the surprised look on the wrriter’s face when he beheld the miscellaneous character of furniture and curios heaped up in all directions, the owner of the place said apologetically, “I never know what they will want next.”

At the rate of seven van loads a day this furniture goes out to the “movie” studios. Originally this shop of motion picture furniture was an antique dealer’s store in the theatrical district, renting things now and then for dramatic productions. About six or seven years ago calls began to come from motion picture producers for furnishings to make their scenes. One. day a request will come for the stuff to make the studio of an old Italian artist, a man of culture who has fallen into misfortune at the end of his life. The furniture must be fine but dilapidated, with some of the scats out of the chairs, and there must be portraits of great men, including one of Guttenberg. “As for the furniture, we don’t want any theatrical props; we want the real stuff.”

And so the orders go. The next one may be for the furnishings of a monastic cell or it may be for Napoleon in all his glory or for the court of Louis XIV.

“Yes,” the manager of this curious furniture store told me, “these movie men when they thought out their business, thought it out all wrong. They thought they wanted fakes and the bigger the better; but now they find they want the real thing and that is what draws the crowd.” So it appears that instead of the motion picture men educating the public, as has been sometimes suggested, the public has educated them and taught them the value of good furniture.

This enterprising furniture man then proudly took the writer into his special order department and explained how it often occurs that a motion picture producer suddenly finds he must have a picture of the Petit Trianon or of a ball room at Versailles, and no one in town has the furniture to make the scene. “He then orders it made expressly, after drawings out of books on historic furniture and furnishings. Of course, he will not keep the furniture; we charge him for making it and then later on we can rent it again. Then, too,” continued the furniture man, “we frequent the auction rooms and people think we are crazy, the prices we pay. For if we really want a table, a chair or a whole bed room suite, we never let it go. Why, we have a bed room suite that old Commodore Perry gave to Mrs. Belmont for her own use, all carved over and over with the birds cut in the wood. How all these ‘movie’ men are getting wise on styles! If we should send a Jacobean suite for a French chateau, you ought to hear the howl. Our business has grown because we are willing to take lots of trouble, and we have fine things that can give character to any show. We have the biggest business of this sort, in New York and we like the fame and reputation. But the real reason why we have fine statuary, pictures, tapestry and good furniture is because our bread and butter is in it.”

Originally published in Good Furniture, October 1915, by William Laurel Harris

Finding a Job in Film (for Prop Makers)

If you ask ten prop makers how they began building props for film, you will get ten different answers. It usually involves some combination of luck, timing, and knowing the right person. While theatre has seasonal employment, apprenticeships and internships which you can find advertised as well as job fairs which feature employers that regularly hire prop people, the world of film has no such thing. You can’t learn about it in a book (believe me—I’ve looked). So how do you get started?

I also want to add that I am writing this as I figure it out; I am pretty much a prop maker for theatre, and my film credits are, well… I haven’t done any film. But this is similar to how I began to get work in the display and exhibition world, and that kept me fairly well employed for a few years. So if any of may readers have advice to add, I’m sure all of us, myself included, will be grateful for it.

To start, find out where the props are being built. Continue reading

The Business of Theatrical Design by James L. Moody

Review: The Business of Theatrical Design

The Business of Theatrical Design by James L. Moody
The Business of Theatrical Design

This is the story of The Business of Theatrical Design, by James L. Moody.

Does this book have anything to do with props people? Sure. Though it is geared towards the theatrical designers, both prop masters and artisans working in the freelance world need the advice and information presented within. Further, the job title of “properties designer” is becoming more prevalent in today’s theatrical world.

The first six chapters are on the technical aspects of running a business: accounting, staffing, offices, etc. A lot of this seems out of the realm of the average freelance props person. On the other hand, you will probably need some of the information at least once in your career. Even if you never have a full-time staff (very few freelance prop masters do), you will on occasion have an assistant or need to hire some outside help for some jobs. You may think you do not need an office, but if you have a shop, it might serve the same purpose. The information presented in these chapters is dense, and not meant to be read all at once in one sitting. Rather, it is a great reference to keep close by and refer to as needed.

Perhaps the only main deviation between the business of a theatrical designer and a props artisan is that theatrical design is mostly a service industry (according to Moody) while a props artisan mixes elements of manufacturing and service.

The next few chapters feel more directly applicable to the props freelancer. It deals with marketing yourself, networking, job interviews and dressing for success. Sure, you can find this kind of information elsewhere, but most of it seems geared towards bankers and mid-level managers applying for cattle calls at large corporations. This book deals with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of getting jobs in the world of theatre and entertainment design. It also devotes some time to dealing with the aspects of the job not typically covered in other books about theatre work, such as conflict resolution and group dynamics.

This book does have a few flaws. It is fairly US-centric when dealing with specifics about legal topics, business culture, contracts and unions. Though only written in 2002, it is a touch outdated when it comes to technology and the internet; I don’t think I would suggest to anyone to carry around a CD of your work, especially when thumb drives and jump drives can hold so much more information in a much smaller space and work on nearly every computer (some newer laptops and tablets don’t even come with a CD drive). I also think an internet presence is more of a necessity these days. Employers are incredibly likely to run an internet search on you when you are applying for a job or a gig; even if you do not have a website, you should run an internet search on yourself to see what they would see.

This book fills the gaps in theatre education for the all important considerations of the business side of show business. Maybe your education did not give you the chance to take business classes while enrolled, or maybe you did not find yourself working as a professional freelancer until well after your formal education ended. In any case, The Business of Theatrical Design covers such a broad range of information not found elsewhere that makes this a must-have for anyone wanting to make a living in theatre.

McDonald and Hagen scenery

Theatrical Ads from a Hundred Years Ago

I’ve been finding a lot of great advertisements for theatrical property companies and other related businesses from The Julius Cahn-Gus Hill Theatrical Guide and Moving Picture Directory. These ads appeared between 1898 and 1913. It’s a fascinating snapshot of the theatrical business scene in New York City from a century ago. I also love the style of the ads themselves, with their odd mix of formality and flair.

Morse Company Theatrical Properties, 1903

Turner Prop Storage

Douthitt Set Dressing

Gebhardt, props

Perry, Ryer and Co Imports

Prof. Dare Inventor

I like the previous man’s name: Professor Dare. In addition to prop-related businesses, I’ve also found some interesting ones for scenery studios and scenic artists.

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