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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

IATSE Job Classifications

I’ve come across the following lists of duties and responsibilities for various members of the props department in a number of places. These are the IATSE job classifications for union members working in film. I have noticed some theatres will use these as starting points to develop their own job descriptions for people in the props department as well. Property Master The duties of the Property Master shall include preparation of a hand prop breakdown, with scene allocations as per the shooting script; to research the historical period of said administered hand props; to prepare, build and procure props to be seen on camera; the repair and return of props to original condition and source; arranging for all necessary permits to convey restricted weapons; co-ordinate with the Wardrobe Department the required accessories; while on set, the Prop Master will administer props to artists, strike and reset hot sets established by the Set Decorators, with the aid of Polaroid’s, photographs or sketches; consult with the Script Supervisor on the continuity of hand props; responsible for the disbursement of the assigned budget; and delegate the work required for the efficient operation of the Department. Assistant Property Master Duties are acts as the Prop Master’s representative on the set; during pre-production helps with script and prop breakdown; in the Prop Master’s absence this person can be left in charge of the props on shooting set; makes sure that the set and props are as the Props Master wishes them to be; oversees the supplying and loading of the truck; has the ability to oversee the set and props in a camera ready condition; has the ability to oversee the set and prop continuity; and can perform these duties in an unsupervised role. Additionally, this person must hold a valid Firearms Acquisition Certificate; carry the Motion Picture Firearms Safety Course card; be knowledgeable in the building and repair of props; be knowledgeable in the handling of firearms; the safe use of firearms and the blank firing of firearms; and carries the same responsibilities for the safety of artists and shooting crew when it comes to the firing of blanks as the Props Master. Props Buyer Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Armour Must have Fire Arms Acquisition Certificate and no criminal record. Responsible for maintaining safety on set in relation to weapons and ammunition, including but not limited to determining the distance for all loads; ¼, ½ and full loads and as such providing plexi-glass shields, etc. when required. Order all weapons, permits, ammunition etc. and inspect them as a safety precaution. Responsible for the distribution and collection of the weapons to talent and background performers. Warn to the cast and crew prior to firing weapons, secure area effected. Along with performing those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Builder Work with wood, leather, and metal must have carpentry skills, and perform duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Assistant Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master. Props Men/Women or Props Crew Performs those duties as delegated by the Property Master

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.

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.