Tag Archives: work

Prop Sites of Early Summer

Model makers from Industrial Light and Magic gathered at this year’s Maker Faire and discussed their favorite tips, tricks and techniques for building models. Tested has the complete story, filled with lots of great photographs. There’s a ton of useful information here, as well as lots of good stories from the filming of the various Star Wars films.

Speaking of Maker Faire, the Make Magazine blog had a writeup on the Alamance Makers Guild at this year’s Makers Faire NC. I’m a member of the AMG, and though I couldn’t be at the fair, this article shows off some of the work of my fellow members.

Jay Surma has been documenting the build of a new sculpture of a Dungeons and Dragons character in great detail. In the seventh part, he tackles the mold making process. It’s a great look at a two-part matrix mold. If you’ve never seen a matrix mold being made (I don’t think I’ve ever seen one being made in person), check it out, because it’s a handy technique to keep in mind.

Popular Woodworking has a whole article devoted to sweeping, with the wonderful title “To Sweep; to Sweep: Perchance to Clean“. It makes the good point that apprentices are often tasked with sweeping so they can get to know the shop and see what everyone is working on.

Over at the Lost Art Press Blog, Jeff Burks has reprinted this 1907 list of Don’ts for Makers of Models and Moulds. Most of them are apropos to any kind of props shop. I especially like these two:

DON’T fail to have confidence in yourself, but

DON’T think you cannot improve. Try to do better each day.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Adam Savage, Maker Faire 2013

Adam Savage, Maker Faire 2013

Every year at the San Mateo Maker Faire, Adam Savage, from MythBusters, delivers a speech to a massive crowd. This year, his speech was called “Work Hard and Work Smart”. It is almost like a commencement speech, so I thought it would be great for all the graduating students who will be entering the professional world in a few weeks or even days. He gives a lot of practical advice as well, and all of his examples are from the world of special effects and props, so his workplace stories will sound familiar to all of my readers.

The speech itself is about 12 and half minutes long. He takes questions at the end which lead to further interestingness, so if you want to see that, you can view the much longer video here.

How much does a prop maker earn (US Bureau of Labor edition)

Beginner prop makers often want to know how much money a prop maker earns. Even experienced prop makers want to know, just to compare their earnings to what is typical in the industry. These numbers are hard to come by because of the range of ways a prop maker can earn money, the vast variety of industries a prop maker can work in, and the wide spectrum in expertise of prop makers (a beginner prop maker who constructs apple crates is probably making a far different wage than a veteran who machines intricate aluminum mechanisms). Still, we have to start somewhere.

One of the best resources to learn about typical wages and contracts is from Sandra Strawn’s Properties Directors’ Handbook. She collected survey data from many of the regional and educational theatres around the United States. Another organization which collects a lot of data on employment and wages is the US government. This is what we are looking at in today’s post.

The United States Bureau of Labor keeps statistics on National Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates. Now, they do not list “prop maker” as an occupation, so we have to look at a few related and similar fields to hone in on what a US prop maker might be making. I’ve pulled some numbers from their most recent report, which was May 2012 1.

First, a couple of caveats. The major one is that this data does not include self-employed workers. According to the IRS, if you get paid with a 1099, even if it is in a situation where you are “employed” by a company, they consider you self-employed. Many prop makers earn some or even all of their income in this way, so it really skews the data. I’ve found that it is the smaller and lower-paying gigs that will often pay you with a 1099 (not always true, but true more often than not), so these numbers are probably higher than what most prop makers earn.

As another caveat, if you look at the data yourself, you will find “annual mean wages” listed that make it seem like these workers are raking it in. However, these annual wages are calculated by multiplying the hourly wage by a typical “full-time” schedule, and do not reflect what someone actually earns in a year. Most prop makers do not work full-time every year, and even so-called “full-time” jobs at regional theatres are actually seasonal contracts ranging from 28-42 weeks per year. I’ve always found that the hourly wages offered me were well above minimum wage, but it is very difficult to string together enough jobs and gigs to work full-time year-round.

For the table, I looked at two categories: “Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres”, and “Motion Picture and Video Exhibition”. Neither category has a “prop maker” listing, so I chose the occupation titles which I thought a prop maker would likely be categorized under. For Theatre Companies, those categories were “craft artists” and “fine artists”, while in Motion Pictures, I chose “fine artists” and “artists and related workers, all others”. Feel free to explore the data on your own and look at other industries or occupations; I am not presenting this information as the definitive guide to prop makers’ wages, but rather as my own personal best guess of what might be the wages of some prop makers.

Occupation Title   Employment   Median hourly wage   Mean hourly wage
                Theatre Companies and Dinner Theatres
Craft Artists        230             18.89                18.86
Fine Artists         100             19.03                20.67
                 Motion Picture and Video Exhibition
Fine Artists        2400             27.10                30.45
All Others           390             33.89                33.86

Despite all of my caveats and excuses, these numbers do tell us a few things. First, that the movies employ far more people than theatre. Second, that similar occupations are making around one-and-a-half times as much in movies than in theatre, at least on an hourly basis.

Another possible surprise is the small number of full-time occupations in theatre. The 330 combined craft artists and fine artists would likely include not just the people in the props shop, but also the costume shop and paints departments. That’s a tiny amount of people. Remember, though that these numbers do not include self-employed workers, of which there are many. Also, in larger markets and commercial theatre, many prop makers would be working for independent shops and studios, rather than theatre companies.

 

Notes:

  1. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm, May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, United States, accessed April 1, 2013.

Read my book online now!

Okay, you can’t read my whole book online. But I do have two whole chapters you can check out on The Prop Building Guidebook’s companion website.

What are these chapters, you may ask? Well, as you can imagine, prop making covers a vast amount of information, and choosing what to put in and what to leave out was one of my biggest challenges. We could have made the book longer, but that would have pushed the price up, which we didn’t want to do. We could have made the pictures smaller, but that would not be good either. In the end, we decided to take the last two chapters and put them up on the website for free. This way, the book can remain affordable, the pictures can remain a decent size, and you get a sneak peek at some of the book. These chapters have been edited and proofed just like everything else in the book, they just appear online rather than in print.

The two chapters are called “Formal Training” and “Maintaining a Portfolio”. The first digs through the tricky question of what kind of training or schooling you may wish to pursue to become a better prop maker. Vocational classes, colleges and universities, graduate schools and more are talked about here. I also look at the various types of jobs and work one can get. I present information useful whether you wish to be a prop maker for film, television, theatre or any of the related industries, and whether you wish to pursue a full-time job or work as a freelancer on different gigs. It can be a tricky field to navigate, so I try to present as much information as I’ve gleaned along the way.

The second chapter gives an introduction on creating and maintaining a portfolio of all the work you do. I discuss both online sites and paper portfolios; though paper portfolios have become far less prevalent these days, I’ve still used them in the last couple of years, both in applying for work and in hiring people. This chapter also discusses photography and how to take better pictures of your work. A bad picture of a good prop can make it look like a bad prop.

So check out the bonus chapters of The Prop Building Guidebook when you can. And don’t forget to pre-order your copy if you haven’t already!

Summer Jobs Already?

For those of you in school for theatre, it is not too early to start thinking about summer employment. Even though snow is still on the ground and it gets dark at 4 pm, this is the time of year that many summer festivals, theatres and operas begin recruiting for their production positions and internships. To my international readers, I am sorry this post only deals with US jobs and internships.

Whether looking for summer work or for immediate work, Backstage Jobs should be one of the sites you check daily. By now, most of the major and legitimate theatres have learned to post any and all technical and production-related jobs to this site. It is completely free to view every job posting. The site admin also does a bang-up job of keeping spam and unrelated postings from appearing.

Speaking of spam, the Society of Properties Artisan Managers maintains a list of which of their member theatres offer props internships. This is a comprehensive list of all internships, not just summer ones, so be sure to check the commitment dates for the theatres you are interested in.

Artsearch is another big mainstay of technical theatre job postings. Though you should avoid job posting sites which require you to pay to view listings, this is the one exception. If you are currently in school, your school will probably have login information you can use (this is often true if you are an alumni as well).

In addition to job listings online, you may wish to think about applying and interviewing for jobs during one of the two big conferences. Though these are held in March, now is the time that you should be registering for the conferences, booking your hotel and making your travel arrangements. The two major conferences for theatre technicians are USITT and SETC.

This year, USITT is held March 20-23 in Milwaukee. The conference is meant for technicians and designers for all aspects of live performance. Part of the conference includes a massive stage expo, where companies and employers have booths to show off what they do. This is where you can meet and greet with the people in charge of these companies; many of them use USITT to do some of their recruiting for summer internships and apprenticeships.

The SETC conference will be held March 6-10 in Louisville, KY. SETC is meant for all aspects of theatre, including acting and directing, so it is not focused on just the production side. While the exposition hall is much smaller than USITT’s, it does have a job fair you can sign up for. Companies have small tables where they list the job openings they have, and you sign up for times to interview. You then spend the rest of your time meeting with employers all over the convention center to interview for these jobs. You can interview for as many or as few jobs as you have time for. I actually got hired at the Santa Fe Opera for the first time at the SETC job fair.

These websites and conferences have jobs at all skill and pay levels; even the internships can vary widely in how much you are paid. While it may seem your acting friends are constantly taking low-to-no paid internships, as a technical theatre person, you should always be paid for your work. Plenty of paid opportunities exist at all skill levels if you look for them.