An individual in the props department is part artist and part technician; this job requires the creative talent of a painter and the mechanical know-how of a carpenter. The props tech is a treasure-hunter and master craftsman who applies considerable skills to the visual interest of a play, film, or television show.
Props technicians work under the direction of the prop master and are responsible for crafting the various objects (“properties”) the cast interacts with: anything from baskets and bowls to an authentic reproduction of a Ming vase. The first step in pre-production is to read the script to understand and identify the needs of each prop; will this object be carelessly heaved across the stage eight shows per week, or must it be designed to humorously fail on cue, much to the character’s dismay? The crew of technicians meets with the department head to discuss the director’s aesthetic vision and requirements, then brainstorm and coordinate research.
For period shows or uncommon items, technicians scour books and Internet sites for examples of real-world objects. The typical prop shop is adorned with clippings and photographs for inspiration that have accumulated over time. With color swatches and pictures in hand, the artists get to work sculpting, painting, and constructing each prop. These individuals employ numerous materials and techniques to construct lighter, cheaper analogues of weapons, pottery, and everything in between. When possible, some properties are purchased; crewmembers and dedicated prop buyers hit up antique shops, thrift stores, and prop rental houses for ordinary or bizarre odds and ends.
During the run of a stage play, these technicians may be asked to work backstage setting props, performing scene changes, and operating certain special effects or gags. The props technician is also responsible for repair, maintenance, and storage of all department inventories. During principal photography of a film, however, props become the charge of the on set dresser.
Skills & Education
A formal education in fine art is not required to work as a props technician, though training is recommended. Artistic talent and practical skill in painting, carpentry, and sculpting are expected of every professional in this career field. Experience working with materials like foam, latex, metal, and fiberglass is valuable, as is the safe use of shop and hand tools. A college degree in fine arts or theatrical production is applicable to this role. Many technicians learn the trade by studying with a mentor working in the industry. A good props person should be generally handy with tools, crafty and capable of translating an abstract idea to finished product. Education in world cultures, art history, and literature is also useful when researching for period productions.
What to Expect
Every good propmaker should have a toolbox stocked with wrenches, chisels, screwdrivers, and saws. For working members of IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) this is mandatory. A personal arsenal of creative techniques for mimicking wood grain on plaster or distressing fabric is picked up along the way, and makes you a more well-rounded and valued artist on the crew. Like a Foley artist, every props technician has a different means of creating a similar product; learn from those around you and always be on the lookout for something new. This job can be dirty, exhausting, and creatively fulfilling. Someone who is flexible, personable, and an excellent collaborator will do well in this role. An experienced props technician with proven talent can progress toward a career as a prop master and ultimately to the role of artistic director. This field is also able to transition into set construction and special effects.
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