I caught a few episodes of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop a while back when my wife was in the hospital. It was very entertaining and informative, and probably the closest a reality show has come to portraying what prop builders actually do (though the show deals with creature building). I recently found that the SyFy website has some companion Creature Feature videos to go with the show.
In the videos, the expert mentors on the show, Peter Brooke, John Criswell and Julie Zobel, take you through the process of building a creature. They start with design and sculpting, go through the animatronics, show you different finishing techniques, and end with how puppeteers bring it to life. It’s not an explicit “how-to” guide, since they gloss through everything quickly and don’t go into details. But if you have some experience, it is great to see how the masters do it, since you can get a lot of inspiration of new things to try on your own.
I just (re)discovered his YouTube channel, where he has videos for many of the projects he posts on his site. The aforementioned video for copy carving a phone is there, as is a video showing how to build your own copy carver.
Welding is a great skill for a prop master or prop maker to have, though it can be a hard one to begin learning. The best way to learn is to have someone teach and guide you as you practice on your own. Whether that’s possible or not, it is also a good idea to watch some videos on welding to pick up background information and to get a different perspective on some of the techniques.
I discovered Kevin Caron’s videos on welding; he has dozens of videos covering all sorts of welding styles and techniques. His background is in metal art and fabrication, so the way he demonstrates welding is close to how a props artisan approaches welding. We rarely have to deal with all the technical information one might get with a traditional welding course, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed with all of that when you are just starting out and simply want to join a few pieces of steel together for a static prop.
Let’s face it; guns are frequently found on stage, whether in straight plays, musicals, operas and even dance. The use of certain guns can instantly convey a lot of information about period, geography and even character.
If you are a gun novice, it can be helpful to learn some basic terminology and categories. Even if you cannot find the absolute perfect gun, you can at least be in the right ballpark and not have something wildly anachronistic or unrealistic on stage.
For the first bit of terminology, I’ve put together an illustration showing the most commonÂ actions of both long guns (rifles, shotguns and muskets) and handguns (or pistols). When a firearm is capable of holding more than one round of ammunition, it needs an action to clear the spent cartridge and load a new one in place. The following is by no means an exhaustive list of all actions, but you may never need to know any others unless you start delving into the more esoteric and unique firearms used throughout history.
Bolt action – To eject the cartridge and load another round, a small handle is manually lifted, pushed forward, pulled back and dropped down. Bolt actions are most commonly found on the M1903 Springfield, which was the standard infantry rifle for the US from 1903 through World War I, and is still used by drill teams and color guards today.
Pump action – This action is typically associated with shotguns; the handigrip is pumped back and forth to eject a cartridge and load another one. On rifles, it is sometimes called a “slide action”.
Lever action -Â Most famously used in Winchester rifles, which were used by Western settlers in the US in the late 19th century (ie, “The Wild West”). Lever action rifles remain popular for modern-day sportsmen and hunters.
Break-action – The weapon “breaks”, or hinges to expose the breech. When this happens, the spent cartridges are ejected, and new ammunition can be manually inserted. This action is universal in double-barrel shotguns, and can be found in various rifles and pistols as well.
Revolver – Most commonly found in handguns, though the rare revolver rifle can be found scattered throughout history. A revolving chamber holds several cartridges; when one bullet is fired, the chamber rotates to line the next cartridge up with the barrel.
Semi-automatic – A semi-automatic refers to any pistol or rifle which automatically ejects the spent cartridge and loads the next round of ammunition when the gun is fired (not to be confused with an automatic firearm, which continues firing as long as the trigger is pressed). Most modern firearms for military and law-enforcement are semi-automatic.
When I began my blog back in 2009, it felt like only a handful of sites for the prop maker were out there. Since then, the field has practically exploded and you can find information everywhere. I post links to sites regularly, but I wanted to make a list of the sites you should be checking out regularly. So I’ve collected and categorized what I consider to be the 100 best sites for a prop maker. Now, this is far from comprehensive, particularly if you are working on specific objects or using less-popular materials, but hopefully it will keep you busy for awhile. If you know of a site I’ve missed, drop a note in the comments or send me an email!
Forums remain a great way to find information about prop making, since much of what we do is so specific and unique. You can ask a question, search for answers to other questions, or just browse through and pick up tips on how other people work.
Replica Prop ForumÂ – A very active and very informative forum filled with fans recreating their favorite props from films, television, video games and other media.
ControlBoothÂ – A US forum for technical theatre, with a small section on props.
Barnyard FXÂ – A behind-the-scenes look at the props, exhibits and displays by Greg Aronowitz, a prolificÂ special effects artist and design specialist on over two hundred films and television projects.
Spirits DancingÂ – Puppetry and prop-making from Hilary Talbot, a working Australian artisan.
A number of sites may not be devoted entirely to teaching prop-making, but they still have regular tutorials, news and information relevant to the prop maker, or deal with comparable and related industries.
Prop AgendaÂ – Now, I couldn’t omit my own blog. How-tos, news, videos and more from the props world.
Make MagazineÂ – Blog companion to the magazine, this site regularly has posts on prop making and associated materials.
TestedÂ – What began as site for testing consumer electronics has quickly grown to have regular features on props and prop making, particularly with Adam Savage as one of the regular hosts.
PropnomiconÂ – A regularly-updated look at props built around the mythos of HP Lovecraft.
Stan Winston SchoolÂ – The new school run by the peerless studio responsible for the most famous practical film effects of the last thirty years runs a blog of related information. The school also has online video classes you can take for a paid subscription.
SizesÂ – A vast index with information about the sizes of practically everything. From definitions of units of measurements, to standard sizes of common furniture, to sheet metal gauges, and everything in between.