Tag Archives: money

First Links of August

First Links of August

Happy August, everyone. While the “regulars” still have some summer left, those of us in theatre are already gearing up to work on all the new shows for the fall season, not to mention those of us in the academic world getting ready for the new school year. But there’s still time to read about props stuff on the internet, so enjoy the following:

Priceonomics has a short history of fake money in the movies. It delves into some of the more high-profile cases of fake movie money making it into the real world, and the resultant crack-downs by the Secret Service. It goes into detail of some of the rules of using money on film and how the top prop houses modify their fake money to follow those rules.

Casey Neistat has a new video series on his studio, and his first video shows his red box system of organization.  He’s an independent film maker, but his system solves the same problems that prop shops have: how to save a little bit of everything, but be able to find it quickly.

Adam Savage has spent over four years painstakingly recreating the Mecha-Glove from the Hellboy film. Tested has a video where they talk with Adam about all the various processes and challenges of building this complex piece.

Finally, Credits has a great piece on building The Guardians of the Galaxy. Though it only briefly touches on the props for the film, it does delve into a lot of the physical and design work that went on in a number of the departments. Plus, it looks like a really exciting film.

Spend All the Monies

A few years back, I was working on a project in a facility that had a number of groups using the space. There was a group of students doing the props and furniture for a show, and they were so proud of how far under budget they had come. They were given $300 to do all the props and furniture, and they had only spent $30.  Here’s the thing though: it looked like they had only spent $30, and spending a bit more money could have made it look a whole lot better.

We talk about the importance of not going over budget, but we rarely talk about the flip side: not using enough of your budget. As props people, we are always looking for a great deal or a bargain that other mere mortals may think impossible. And it’s great to get an item for a fraction of the price you would normally pay… if it looks like the full-priced item. If you have $300 to spend, it should look like you spent $3000.

It’s a great skill to try and produce as much as possible for as little money as you can. If you have zero budget and you only spend $30 on all the props and furniture, that’s quite the achievement. But if you are given a budget of $300 and you still come in with the $30 solution, it makes me wonder what happens when you have a budget of $1000. Or $3000. Or $10000. Are you still going to show up with the $30 solution? Because managing larger budgets has its own set of skills: knowing when to buy nicer materials, or when to buy certain items to save time fabricating them; paying money for little details that make your prop look more like the real thing; hiring extra help or outside contractors to help you get more done in the same limited time frame.

It makes sense if you compare it to your other resource: time. If you only have two hours for a project, you will probably come up with a very creative and inventive solution, albeit not a very impeccable one. Now, if you have two weeks for the same project, imagine showing up with a prop that looks like you whipped it out in two hours. You wouldn’t let your time go to waste just to prove you can make a prop with minimal effort, so don’t let your budget go to waste just to prove you’re a spend-thrift.

With time, we are almost always working right up until the props are taken from us (or the audience is being seated). I usually have a few notes left on my to-do list by Opening Night because I can always find things to improve. The show is certainly fine if I never get around to them; I just find it difficult to declare, “Everything in this show is perfect, and I can stop working on it.”

The same is true with the budget. I allocate all the money I have to specific items; I don’t leave any large chunks sitting around (other than contingencies, which I build into the budget). Of course, as rehearsals progress, the budget shifts around; items are added or altered, I discover solutions that allow me to save money, etc. If a change requires me to spend more money than I was anticipating, I take that money from something less essential. However, if new conditions cause me to save more money than I was anticipating, I find somewhere else to spend it. Maybe I was using a cheap solution for a nonessential prop, and now I can buy a nicer version for stock that I know I will use in later shows. Maybe I buy some hardware that I was planning on fabricating, and save myself some time that I can use elsewhere. Or maybe I just buy some more dressing, because you can never have too much dressing. If everything works out, by the time I get to opening, my budget is pretty much on the nose.

Sometimes, things are cut or changed at the last second, and the opportunity to spend the money never comes up, and I come way under budget. I don’t just run out and start buying random things. The important point is that I had plans for that money. You should have a plan for how you are going to spend every dollar in the budget given to you, rather than trying to avoid spending any dollar. You can tell when things were done for cheap.

Always Check Your Props Preset, 1896

The following article comes from an 1896 article in The New York Times:

Edmund M. Holland Destroyed $5

In the first act of “A Social Highwayman,” at the Garrick Theatre, a game of poker is played. One of the players, William Norris, puts a fifty-dollar bill, stage money, on the table and makes an uncomplimentary remark about thieves just as Edmund M. Holland, who plays the part of a valet, is entering the room. Mr. Holland approaches the table when nobody is looking and steals the fifty-dollar bill.

The property man forgot to give the bill to Mr. Norris last Wednesday night and Mr. Norris did not discover that he had forgotton to ask for it until he was on the stage. Then there was great finessing to get a bill without letting the audience know anything was wrong.

Finally Mr. Norris slipped toward the wings and asked several employes of the theatre to let him have a bill. The stage carpenter was the only financier in the party, and he promptly handed to the actor a five-dollar bill, good money.

Mr. Holland has a habit of destroying the stage money after he makes his exit. The act is unconcious and due to nervousness.

After the performance Mr. Norris went to Mr. Holland’s dressing room and asked that the stage carpenter’s bill be returned to him.

“Oh, I tore that up,” remarked Mr. Holland, pointing to a lot of pieces on the floor.

Mr. Norris said a few terse words, looked ruefully at the small pieces of greenback, and went sadly away.

He gave the stage carpenter $5 and tried to keep the story quiet.

First published in The New York Times, February 9, 1896.

Valentine’s Day Links

Happy Friday, everyone! For those of you in my part of the country, I hope you survived the winter storm(s) alright. Whether you are back to work or still stuck in your house, here are some prop-related articles for your reading pleasure:

The ever-inspiring prop maker Ross MacDonald has a post on some of the period paper props he has made for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire over the past four years. His props are always well-researched and produced on vintage machines as close to how they were originally produced.

Collector’s Weekly has a great piece on the fifty year history of Easy-Bake Ovens. If you have never checked out their blog, this is a great piece to start on. Their stories are always a cut above the rest, filled with tons of great photographs, and delving into the history of various objects in great detail.

If you are interested in making props while spending barely any money on materials, check out the Cardboard Armory. As the name suggests, this blog details various armor and weapon projects built with little more than cardboard, hot glue and the occasional piece of PVC pipe.

Though directed at woodworkers, Popular Woodworking’s “Top 6 Ways to Become a Better Woodworker” is just as relevant to the prop maker. Ok, it’s actually five ways, since one of the ways is to read Popular Woodworking (though if you build prop furniture from wood, it’s a good magazine to check out).

Alpha Officium makes historically-accurate coins out of real metal. His website has some common coins like Florins and Groats, and he can also do custom orders if you need something more specific.

Labor is a cost, not a profit

What does it mean to do a project “at cost”? Simply put, when a client orders a project, you deliver it and charge only enough to compensate what you spent. It differs from a project where you add a markup to the costs or add a profit margin. So the price is the cost plus the markup plus the profit. Sometimes you might not mark up the costs, and other times you do not add in a profit, but in either case, you are charging more than what you spent.

The confusion comes from the “costs”. There’s the cash you spend – materials, shipping, gas money to drive to the store, overhead and maintenance of your shop – and then there is your labor cost. Some may argue that you should not charge for your labor when you are doing a project “at cost”. This is not only erroneous, but it is damaging to our industry, as I shall explain in a bit.

I’ve even heard the suggestion that the cost of your labor should be considered “profit.” This is absolutely absurd! If you get overwhelmed with other jobs and have to hire someone to do the project, you do not get to keep that money; it becomes a labor cost. When a company sends out it’s weekly payroll checks, it does not get that cash back, nor can it count it as profit. Why then should you count your own labor as profit?

The cost of labor is already factored into all the materials and tools you use. The cost of a gallon of silicone rubber includes the cost of the scientists who invented it, the people who manufactured it, the people who packaged it, the drivers who transported it, and the salespeople who sold it. You can’t count any of their labor as a profit; it’s all part of the cost. Why would your labor not also be a cost?

If you make something “at cost” you include the price of your labor. If you don’t know how much that is, you should charge the same amount for your labor as it would take to hire someone else to do that work. You can charge an hourly, daily, or weekly rate, or just set a flat fee for the project as a whole. If you are trying to control the costs of the project, you certainly have some leeway in how much you charge for your labor, but you should never charge too little for it; if your price is still too high for a client and you are trying to do them a favor, you can always add a “discount” to your final price, so you maintain the integrity of your own labor costs.

Prop masters and artisans with experience know that labor is often the most expensive part of a prop. A foam sculpture may only use about $15 in materials, but it can take fifty hours to complete. Even at a very modest $15 an hour, that is still $750 in labor.

Imagine than, a market where some prop makers are saying $15 is “at cost” while others are saying $765 is “at cost”. That kind of disparity drives down the price of props and devalues the labor which goes into it. It is very skilled labor as well, the kind that is frequently at a shortage, even in a large market like New York City. It takes a lot of training, skill and practice to be able to make props. Clients who want the “costs” of a project kept to a minimum will point to the $15 examples, thinking that the $765 estimate is somehow inflating the price or using more expensive materials. Even if you are just an amateur prop maker, your pricing can have ripple effects throughout the industry.

If you want to charge someone just for the materials you use and throw your labor in for free (because it is for a friend, or because you really love the work and would never get paid for it otherwise), that is certainly your right. Everyone does it at some point. But make sure you are saying you are only charging “for materials”, not that you are doing the project “at cost”. It’s a world of difference.