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. Depending on where you live, you should check out either New York 411 and Los Angeles 411; there is also Variety 411 which represents itself as the national version. These aren’t just limited to the city proper; for example, a few companies in southern New Jersey which are listed in New York 411. For New York City, you can also look at the New York Production Guide, while in LA you can check the Creative Handbook, the Acme Design Directory, and many others. Los Angeles is practically swimming in prop fabrication shops, which makes many of them more highly specialized in terms of what kinds of props they build and what materials they work with.
The Motion Picture, TV and Theatre Directory has been publishing a yearly directory of products and services for around 50 years. You have to pay to be listed, but you can search their whole directory online for free. Though a bit New York-centric, it does have national listings. For international listings, you can peruse KFTV (formerly known as KEMPS).
I’ve gotten a few nibbles from ProductionHUB, though it’s a bit more of a passive listing. The site doesn’t give you direct contact information for any of the people in its listings, and they don’t want you to use the site to solicit yourself or try to sell something to the people on it. You basically have to put your listing up and wait to see if anyone contacts you.
Every state has its own film commission which will often list production resources and a crew directory. For example, having just moved to North Carolina, I can look at the North Carolina Film Commission website. Depending on the size of your region or city, you may even find a more local film commission. For me, I am between the Piedmont Triad Film Commission and the Triangle Regional Film Commission.
So what are you looking for on these sites? The first thing you can find are companies and shops which do what you want to do. Say you are interested in making large sculptural props; you can search for companies that do that. Maybe you are interested in fabricating props out of metal; those can be found in another category. Many of these companies and shops will have links to their websites where you can find more information about them. A lot of the major shops in the larger cities have a sort of “open call” out for builders, crafters and fabricators. They deal with so many simultaneous projects and employ so many freelancers that they prefer to have a large pool of potential people to call on depending on their needs.
Other shops may not specifically be looking for artisans, but they are always interested in meeting potential freelancers; in this industry, you often find yourself needing someone who can sew or weld at a moment’s notice, and the project’s deadline does not give you enough time to post a job listing and interview candidates. The smarter shops know this and regularly check out new talent whenever they have some down time. This is how we ran the props shop at the Public Theater. If someone contacted my boss or I, or if one of our freelancers told us about another prop maker they worked with, we tried to meet with them and look at their portfolio. It never led to immediate employment, but somewhere down the road, sometimes weeks or even months later, we would invariably find ourselves in a situation where all of our regular artisans were already working with us or busy with projects elsewhere. We could then look through the names and resumes of prop makers we had already met with and “try one out”; if that artisan was a good fit for our shop, we would him or her again in the future. Eventually, as our regulars either moved on from the city or became regularly employed at other places, we would use that artisan more frequently until eventually he or she became one of our “new regulars”.
You will find some shops just will not get back to you. Do not take this personally. For all you know, the shop may have gone out of business, or their contact information may have changed and they forgot to update it on one of these directory sites. Other times, they are just too busy to respond right away. They may also be too small of a shop to ever need freelancers; some “shops” are actually just a single person who has organized their freelancing into a business for legal or financial reasons. Some people would rather just ignore emails than have to disappoint someone by telling them they are not hiring at the moment.
Some of the shops will be union shops (usually IATSE). While the smaller ones may be closed off to anyone not in the union, the larger ones which employ a large number of freelancers will regularly hire non-union people. It simply means you will have a portion of your paycheck go toward the union. It may also mean that you are working toward the possibility of joining the union, so if this is a goal of yours, working in one of these shops might help you get there.
Not all props are built in a prop shop though. The second thing you want to look for on the websites I listed above is the name and contact information for people who would need prop makers. It is usually the prop master who needs to determine which props will be built and who will build them. Depending on the size of the film, it may be the art director or even the production designer who has a say in that as well. Also, people working in films may take on different roles for various films; an art department coordinator on a larger film may also take work as a unit production manager on a tiny film.
Write an email introducing yourself. Mention the site you got their contact information from so they do not feel like they are being stalked. It is helpful to have a website with photographs of your work you can point too; while you may wish to attach your resume or a picture or too, attaching your entire portfolio to an unsolicited email is bad form. This is basically a type of cover letter known as a letter of inquiry, and you can find thousands of guides and examples for the less industry-specific aspects of writing one.
You can try to get work on set, but those jobs are more likely to be set construction and dressing, maintenance and alteration of props, or organizational duties; for major films, it is also likely to be union work. For a prop maker, you are probably more interested in being an “outside contractor”. This means that the props master, or whomever is seeking a prop to be built, will seek a bid or estimate from you, and if they like your work and the price and time-frame you can do it in, then they will contract you to build the prop (or props) they need. Working as an outside contractor means you will need your own shop, as the film will not have any facilities or shop space. It also means you need to be prepared for the tax and legal repercussions of essentially running your own business. If you are unprepared for any of this, than looking for jobs in existing shops is probably the way to go.
As with contacting shops, you should be prepared for a lot of unanswered replies when contacting individuals. From the small percentage that do reply, very few will have jobs to give you right away. This is a slow process, and it can take years to break into a new field or a new part of the country. This type of networking has a snowball effect though; once you do one job, you will have made several new personal contacts who know what you can do and who know other people and shops whom you can contact. After three or four jobs, you will have developed several sources for potential new jobs.
When I moved to New York City, it took me about two years of working before I was regularly employed as a theatre props artisan. Those years included some forays into retail display and exhibition construction, as well as gigs as a general stagehand and even truck driving just to pay the bills as I developed my network. This was after a few years of regional theatre and opera experience as well; even with a good portfolio, breaking in to a new city or switching from theatre to film takes time and patience.