Ever watched a movie’s closing credits and found yourself asking what the hell a gaffer or best boy is? Hundreds of people collaborate to make a film, and you’re not alone if you’ve been wondering what some of them do. Our Industry Spotlight feature aims to shed some light on the lesser-known professionals working behind the scenes.
Industry Spotlight: Props
If you’re a fan of mystery movies, you’re probably used to keeping an eye out for clues. In a film like Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, objects around a room have a part to play in the story and are even intimately connected to the ending. While it seems obvious that the objects in that film were carefully chosen by someone behind the scenes, would it surprise you to know that nearly every film and TV show you watch has a similar selection process?
On a set, picking these objects is the responsibility of the Props department. If a scene in a sitcom requires a character to do a spit take with a can of soda, you can bet that someone from Props is standing nearby with several cans ready at a moment’s notice, and that each can was carefully chosen for specific reasons.
Sarah Guido has worked with props in film, television and print for several years, and this is what she had to say about the job.
Movies.com: What exactly is your job title, and what do you do on a set?
SG: On a film set I’m referred to as a Prop Master or Shopper. Prop Masters work with props and components added to a set, usually adding or changing a pre-existing set created by the art department. If I’m working as a Shopper, I work off set and do prep work by locating, buying, or renting props ahead of time.
Work consists of physically positioning things on set. This could include anything from painting backgrounds to moving props, and everything in between.
Movies.com: How did you get started? Did you need any training?
SG: I went to Savannah College of Art and Design and studied photography, so I don’t really have exact formal training, but I’ve always been comfortable in a studio setting. Art school in general helped me to be good with my hands and have an eye for what looks good. The more you do it, the better you get. I definitely learn something new every day on the job.
I started off assisting for a set designer/art director, but most people kind of fall into this line of work and stick with it. A friend of mine went to school for Marine Biology. He moved to New York for a year just to be a PA for the art department while he was on a waiting list to become a CAT scan operator. He ended up falling in love with the art department and is still doing Props.
Movies.com: What does an average work day consist of?
SG: Every day is different, but for the most part I get to set and unpack and organize everything. If I’m shopping and doing prep work I’m usually alone unless a PA is driving me back and forth to drop stuff off at the production office, but on set it’s always a pretty big crew. I never make plans after work because I never know what time I’ll be done. I have worked fifteen-hour days and four-hour days.
Most days are either a lot of sitting around or a lot of running around, and something almost always goes wrong on set. I’ll never forget the time a soft box caught on fire over a pregnant Maggie Gyllenhaal’s head on a set decorated in nothing but newspaper. One of the biggest parts of the job is troubleshooting and making magic happen. A lot of the time it’s just a matter of fighting the clock and getting things ready.
Movies.com: How do you find each job? Is there a union?
SG: IATSE 52 is the Prop & Gaffer union, and most people who work in film strive to get in because that’s where the money is. It’s incredibly hard to get into. You have to put in a ton of hours before you take a written skills test, then you need to be voted in to join.
Finding jobs is a bit different for everyone. I mostly work with the same set designer/art director, but I’ve also called people for other work. I have always been freelance and for the most part jobs last under a week, but there is one company I work with for about two months every winter. Lots of Prop Masters work for whole movies, and those jobs can last months and months.
Movies.com: Any closing thoughts for someone looking to do this for a living?
SG: Start as an assistant, or work as a PA in the art department. Always work hard, be nice to everyone, and never be late to a job. The best training you can get for this kind of work is assisting. An assistant will sometimes prep things if there are a lot of shots in a day. They help unpack, keep things organized and get things ready to be shot.
I love my work and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Every day is a new and exciting challenge!
In addition to film work, Sarah works as a prop stylist for print and does prep work for TV, music videos, and commercials. She’s recently worked on The Ellen DeGeneres Show as well as commercials for TLC shows including What Not To Wear.