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.
I try to photograph all the props I make. It’s a good habit to have. Look at the box above. It’s a champagne box I built a few years ago. There’s nothing terribly special about it, and I will probably never put it in my portfolio. I took a picture of it anyway. What is the cost of storing a digital image on your harddrive? Realistically, it is close to zero. You can store images and files online with a variety of free sources. You have no reason not to take a picture.
When I was first building props, I did not have a camera. I bought disposable cameras from the drug store and used them to take pictures of my props. I then had to get the film developed and scanned in to a computer. These days, my phone has a camera. Most phones have cameras. Even if your phone does not have a camera, chances are there is a camera nearby that can take a picture. In other words, you can’t use “I don’t have a camera” as an excuse to not have pictures of your props.
Why would I photograph props if I have no intention of putting them in my portfolio? First, my portfolio layout may change. I may not have much use for a picture of a box. Maybe after a few years, I’ve constructed quite a few interesting boxes. Suddenly, I have a potential page in my portfolio of boxes I’ve constructed. I wouldn’t have that opportunity if I did not take the pictures in the first place. Basically, the cost of taking and keeping a photograph is so minimal that taking one and never using it is so minimal compared to not taking one and wishing you had. Just take the picture.
I don’t know of any serious prop masters who will ever object to one of their artisans spending a few seconds to take a photograph. The fact is that no one else is going to photograph your props for you. No one is going to be checking to make sure you are keeping your portfolio up to date. No one is going to be asking whether you are documenting your work for future reference. It is entirely up to you.
Speaking of taking photographs for portfolios, I will be at USITT next week, and I will be reviewing some portfolios. It looks like portfolio reviews are divided up randomly, so if you are in my slot, congratulations. If you are not but you still want to stop and say hi, I will most likely be at the S*P*A*M table for some time frame (to be determined later). You can also contact me directly if you really want to meet up in Charlotte.
If you excel at something, it can be hard to describe in words how you differ from someone who is merely competant at it.
A photograph of a finely-made table in your portfolio has a much larger, and much more immediate impact in a job interview than listing the word “carpentry” on your resume.
It can be difficult and sometimes impossible to get photographs from a show you’ve done. Even when you specifically ask someone to take pictures for you, it may take weeks or even months to track them down and get copies of the pictures. The only way to guarantee photographs of your work is to take the pictures yourself; consider the photographs you get from other people to be a bonus surprise.
What goes for production shots goes even more so for process shots. Taking pictures of your prop through it’s various stages of construction are a great way to show an interviewer how you work and how you think. It also gives tangible proof that you know what you’re doing (and eases the mind of those suspicious that you did not do the work yourself). Interviewers love to ask how you achieved something, and having a visual road map of the process in your portfolio can be easier than attempting to describe vague concepts through words alone. Sometimes, you may even teach a new trick or technique to an interviewer, and props people love learning new tricks.
The important thing to remember is that no one will be taking these production photographs for you. You need to make it a habit to take pictures whenever you get to a new stage of your prop’s construction. It will certainly behoove you to learn how to take photographs of your work. It is especially true at the beginning of your career, when you have less of a network and bank of experience to point to your abilities, and the pictures in your portfolio are the sum total of what you have to show for your skills. Sometimes, it can come down to a single interesting and well-documented prop in your portfolio to convince the job interviewer to take a chance on you. That’s certainly happened to me; even when the season has come to a close, the prop master will remember that one prop I had in my portfolio that impressed him.
Sugru shows some promise as a useful material for props. It looks like it’s similar to epoxy putty, in that it can be used as both a filler and an adhesive. The difference is that Sugru air-cures, rather than having a separate hardener, and it remains flexible, so it can be used on items like textiles. If only I could get my hands on a sample for testing…
Amateur woodworker has a quick rundown on distressing wood. They add some neat tricks to the repertoire of techniques, such as adding cup rings.
Finally, the costume design blog has a post about putting together a design portfolio. Though aimed toward costume designers (obviously), it is still very applicable to the props artisan.