Some of us props people have been talking recently about what advice to give to new props people entering the field. You need to know more than just what machines and materials to use, or what stores to shop at. This snippet of a commencement address given by Neil Gaiman was very relevant:
People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today’s world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They’ll forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good, and if they like you. And you don’t have to be as good as the others if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.
Gaiman’s quote reminds me of another saying I’ve heard; I don’t remember the exact words, so I’ll paraphrase: “If you’re nice, you don’t always have to be right. If you’re a jerk, you have to be right all the time.” In other words, if people hate you, as soon as you make one mistake, they’ll use that to stop working with you.
Hard skills like welding, molding and casting, and upholstery can be difficult to learn when you don’t have a teacher or the resources needed. But you can always work on the soft skills that will help you get jobs: getting along with a variety of people and hitting your deadlines.
The folks over at Center Theatre Group had to make a whole lot of fake salad for their production of Women Laughing Alone With Salad. Find out how Jon Ward and his props team honed in on the perfect recipe for a pretend salad.
Here we have 9 Real Job Skills You Lean From Being a Cosplayer, which is remarkably similar to the job skills you learn from being a prop maker. Of course, that assumes that they ever let you out of the props shop to look for another job. Back to work!
Whatever happened to Tony Montana’s “Little Friend”? Not that I was wondering, but this Hollywood Reporter article is a fascinating look at an iconic movie prop. Watch as it meanders its way around LA over the next few decades, popping up in other films here and there.
If you’ve never seen Adam Savage’s One Day Builds, you’re missing out! In his latest, he builds a sword from Hellboy. What makes these great is that they do not really skip over anything; it’s just a cameraman in the shop, showing every step he takes, and every mistake he makes. I also like how he doesn’t really use anything that’s out of the realm of the average props shop. His materials come from typical hardware stores and auto body shops, and his tools are pretty standard issue (well, that disc sander is kind of a beast).
You wouldn’t be a props person if you didn’t use hot glue. Make Magazine has 7 cool tips for working with hot glue.
CinemaBlend checks out what’s actually in the fake cocaine actors snort in movies. Apparently it’s too tough on the budget to use real cocaine.
Jeremy Armstrong, the props master for Girl Meets World, has a Periscope where you can watch his daily prop adventures. If you don’t know what Periscope is, it’s like an Instagram with video.
Ever wonder how they make and pump Dalek goo on Doctor Who? I didn’t either, but this video from the BBC shows you how.
“She’s a hunter, a gatherer, a fixer, an artist, a craftsman and a wizard.” Find out what a prop master’s job entails. Hint: it involves a combination of skills.
I recently came upon the 1903-1904 academic catalog for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. At that time, it was a two-year program for young men aged sixteen to seventeen. The school still exists, granting two-year associates degrees to aspiring actors.
All students at the time were given introductory lectures in the various technical departments on stage. The lecture on props has a bullet-point list of all the topic covered, which I have reprinted below. It is fascinating to see the list of what a props person was responsible for and what skills they were required to have from over 110 years ago, and compare it to today.
The lectures were given by a Mr. Wilfred Buckland, with assistance by Mr. Edgar J. M. Hart (no relation) and Miss Louise Musson. The topics of the lectures are as follows:
The Property Man’s Work in Preparing a Production:
- The property plot
- cabinet work
- paper work
- upholstery, furniture, bric-à-brac, carpets, rugs, hangings
- stage props
- side props
- hand props
- written letters
- inserts in newspapers
The Property Man’s Work at Performance:
- Helpers and clearers
- the property room
- laying the floor cloth
- setting the stage
- dressing a scene
- hanging curtains
- hanging side props
- flash pans
- rain box
- thunder box
- thunder crash
- glass crash
- carriage roll
- snow box
- fuller’s earth
- leaves, stumps, and grass mats
- the rosin box
- handling furniture
- care of props
You can read the whole 1903 Annual Catalog of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts here.
If there is a specific type of prop you want to build, or a specific style or medium you want to work in, find the companies that specialize in that. Fill your portfolio with that kind of work. If you want to build sci-fi weapons for instance, but all your previous work is in constructing furniture, employers won’t necessarily make the leap that your furniture construction skills will translate into sci-fi weapon-making. Even if you have to build your own props on your own time, do it.
This is also true for skills you lack; a lot of theatres with a one-person prop shop are looking for well-rounded prop makers, which includes being able to upholster. I never learned how to upholster, so I started practicing it every chance I could get, and taking on any little upholstery project I could.
Once you are out of school, no one will be around to guide you with what you need to learn next, so you should always be experimenting with new skills, new materials and new techniques.