Tag Archives: business

How do I hire a Prop Maker?

I receive a number of inquiries every month from strangers who found my work and want me to build a prop. They range from churches who put on small performances, to magicians who want to make their show more exciting, to cosplayers who want a fake weapon. Sometimes, people just need some weird, custom item built that does not fit any other craft or discipline.

I can usually tell from their first email whether I want to do business with them. If you are looking to hire a prop maker, here are a few tips and tricks to make sure they respond back.

Tell me what you want.

I will occasionally find an email that simply says, “I may have a project for you. Give me a call.” In my world, a “project” can mean anything from making a fake thumb to carving a Mount Rushmore parade float. I need some sense of the scope and scale of the project at the beginning, as well the general topic. You do not need to have all the details worked out, just a brief description. If you need a chair shaped like a mushroom, great, let us talk more. If you need an 18th century ballroom gown, I have no idea how to make that, and it is a waste of both of our times to discuss anything else before you reveal what the project actually is.

You don’t need to have any knowledge about specific materials or construction methods. You just need to give me the circumstances: will it be used outside? Does it need to fit in your car? Will children handle it? How heavy can it be?

Know your budget.

If you have something very specific to build, then I can come up with a bid of what it will cost. But if you are open, then I can come up with a range of solutions to fit most any budget. I can do a $3000 severed head, I can do a $300 severed head, and I can do many other options in between. And on a side note…

It may cost more than you anticipate.

I find it much easier to deal with businesses and companies in the entertainment industry, because they are used to dealing with prop builders and fabrication shops, and know how much these things cost. When I quote them a price, it is in line with what they have spent on similar things in the past.  When I deal with individuals outside the industry who have never hired a prop builder before, the costs can be shocking. They see a cheap plastic sword on Amazon for $39 and think a custom-fabricated version will cost the same.

If I am contacted by a stranger who is not local, it is not even worth my time to consider projects less than a couple hundred dollars. Once you subtract materials and supplies, I can barely cover the cost of babysitting to spend time in my shop. Why would I want to spend my nights working on someone else’s project when I could be playing with my kids?

Give me a deadline.

Prop builders are busy folks, and they cannot just drop everything to start work on your project. If you have a specific timeline to complete the project, it becomes easier for the prop builder to carve time into their schedule. The shorter your timeline, the more expensive the project will be. I can do almost anything for the right price.

Also, be realistic about your deadlines. If you live in Seattle and you contact me, a North Carolina prop builder, for something you need in a week, it won’t happen. First, it may take a day or two just to hash out the details over email and commit to the project. Second, it will take a few days just to ship it there. That leaves almost zero time for the project itself, which may require materials to be ordered and paint to dry, not to mention I am already working on multiple projects at any given time.

Do your research.

If you really want a prop built, you should be contacting more than one prop builder. It is far easier to work with someone locally who you could visit in person, or at least pick the prop up personally. Chances are, there is one nearby. Look up local theaters and see if they list the prop department on their website. Not all prop builders have their information online, so it may take a few emails asking around before you get a name and contact information.

When you do find a prop builder, make sure your project is in line with other projects they have done. A prop builder who makes rubber ducks can probably make a rubber goose for you. However, a prop builder who fabricates medieval armor may not have the tools or skills to make that same rubber goose.

The best way to find prop builders is by asking other prop builders. If you contact one who cannot build your prop, ask them if they know anyone else who might be interested. We love referring jobs to other props people we know.

What are your thoughts?

Do any other prop builders out there have advice for people contacting them? Let me know!

Eric Hart and his props
Eric Hart and his props

Friday Prop Roundup

The Most Ingeniously Cheapskate Props And Sets From Classic Movies – Io9 takes a look at some well-known movies and how they occasionally used very low-budget means to get the shot, like cardboard cutouts of castles.

4 Business Tips From One Of The World’s Best Cosplayers – Forbes talks with Bill Doran of Punished Props about the business end of building costumes and props for cosplay. I didn’t count four distinctive tips, but the overall knowledge in this video is pretty helpful.

How to Choose, Cut, and Bend Sheet Metal – I always want to do more sheet metal work, but rarely find the opportunity. But it’s always amazing what you can achieve with just a few hand tools and basic power tools.

Three Friends Battle to the Death With Even More Iconic Movie Weapons in ‘Prop Wars: Prop Harder’ – This video is a bit nonsensical, but it’s mostly fun to watch three guys use a whole bunch of iconic props to fight each other.

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 Finding a Job in Film (for Prop Makers)