When you think of some of the most iconic films in cinema history, quite a few also have an iconic prop. The Godfather and the horse head, The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy’s shoes, and of course Star Wars and the lightsaber. All of these props differ greatly from each other in how they look and how they are used. But all, nonetheless, are props. So, what is a movie prop and what purpose does it serve? We’ll answer these questions and more. 

What is a movie prop

Movie props explained

The film props we see differ greatly from genre to genre. A Sheriff's badge is an iconic prop most associated with the Western genre. But it would look a bit out of place in a science fiction epic. However all movie props are defined by one key distinction that you will find in this prop definition. 

PROPS FILM DEFINITION

What is a movie prop?

A prop is any inanimate object that an actor interacts with in a film. There is a wide range of props that vary on how they are used and what they are used for. Props are bought, designed, and created by the property department (also called props department) which is led by the prop master. Unlike set dressing, props are touched and handled by actors so they must fit the film’s aesthetic and design while also being functional.

Examples of props in film:

  • Golden Ticket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
  • The sled in Citizen Kane
  • Wilson in Cast Away

A prop, when used effectively, can become one of the most memorable components of a film. It can move a story forward, define a character, or become a symbol in and of itself. Let’s take a look at a few ways props can become essential to a film's story as well as some examples of props in film.

What is a movie prop used for?

Set the time and place

Props can be a key indicator as to when and where a story is taking place — aka the setting. For period piece films, they can indicate the time period through the props’ technology, aesthetic, or function. 

When you want to create the authenticity of early 20th century oil drilling, you'd be wise to find a period-accurate theodolite. As seen here in There Will Be Blood, one of PT Anderson's best movies.

Examples of props in film • There Will Be Blood

Examples of props in film  •  There Will Be Blood

Props can also inform the audience as to where a story is taking place. They can reflect a specific geographical location’s culture to indicate the country of the story. Sometimes, they can even indicate that the location is otherworldly. There are few better examples of this than the iconic Lightsaber from the Star Wars franchise. 

Examples of props in film • Iconic Lightsaber in Star Wars

Examples of props in film  •  Iconic Lightsaber in Star Wars

Understanding the time and place of a story is essential for earning an audience’s attention and immersing them into a film. They are a great visual way to provide this type of exposition in a natural and direct way. 

Rather than using clunky dialogue to tell the audience a film is taking place in 1809 in England, show them through the props that you choose in your film. 

What is a movie prop used for?

Determine the genre

Certain film genres are immediately associated with specific props. Besides setting the time and location, a prop has the ability to represent a genre and thus create specific expectations within the audience.

Spaghetti Westerns are synonymous with the cowboy’s revolver. Action films boast countless types of weapons from various martial arts. For some reason puppets are in a staggering amount of horror films. And fantasy films usually entail props functioning in mystical ways.

Examples of props in film • The Lord of the Rings

Examples of props in film  •  The Lord of the Rings

Simply put, determining the genre of the story for an audience can create expectations in an audience that filmmakers both subvert and fulfill resulting in a memorable movie. And props are great for communicating a film’s genre to an audience. 

What is a movie prop used for?

Further the plot

Beyond providing exposition on a story’s time, location and genre, props can move a plot along. How a character interacts with a prop can lead to various outcomes that affect the overall course of the film’s narrative. 

In The Usual Suspects the final scene with the Kobayashi Porcelain mug reveals the truth of whodunit. In Superbad, Fogell’s McLovin fake ID becomes an obstacle to overcome.

Perhaps one of the best examples of a prop determining the course of a plot can be found in The Matrix. Neo must decide whether to take the blue pill and remain in the Matrix or take the red pill and escape it to live in the truth. 

Examples of props in film • The red pill and the blue pill

Examples of props in film  •  The red pill and the blue pill

This fork in the road is literally represented with the iconic props of the blue pill and red pill. Neo’s choice between them determines the rest of the story. 

What is a movie prop used for?

Define a character

Along with wardrobe, props can also become synonymous with a character’s identity. Props that a character consistently utilizes inevitably becomes an extension of themself. Audiences will even associate specific props with a certain character. 

Can you picture Gandalf without his staff ? Captain America just looks nude without his shield. And of course what would Indiana Jones be without his whip and hat? It has in fact become a part of his silhouette. 

Iconic film props • Indiana Jones

Iconic film props  •  Indiana Jones

Props can help flesh out who a character is. Indiana Jones is obviously an adventurer. Darth Vader’s red lightsaber emulates evil. And Anton Chighur’s cattle gun in No Country for Old Men proves he’s a full-blown psychopath. Great filmmakers see them as an opportunity to communicate to the audience the personality of the person using the prop. 

What is a movie prop used for?

Symbolize themes or concepts

One of the more difficult, yet important ways to use a prop in cinema is as a symbol. Props have the ability to retain meaning that can reflect a film’s theme or central concept. As it is used throughout the film, it reiterates and solidifies a film’s theme

In Inception, director Christopher Nolan uses Cobb’s totem to represent the film’s central concept of dream states and reality. With American Psycho, business cards are used to express the satirical themes of the film. In this video, we break down how the infamous business card scene was directed — and how it mythologized a simple piece of card stock. 

Iconic film props  •  American Psycho business cards

More recently, Bong Joon-ho brilliantly uses the viewing stone as a direct symbol for Ki-Woo’s aspiration of wealth. In an interview, Bong Joon-ho even says, “That rock is assigned this very unique position. It’s a kind of obsession for the young son.” 

In this video, Lessons from the Screenplay analyzes the use of this prop as a symbol throughout Parasite and how it effectively expresses the film’s theme. 

Parasite  •  The Power of Symbol

Bong Joon-ho showcases his masterful filmmaking by effectively using the viewing stone prop to clearly and repeatedly communicate to the audience the theme of his film. 

Great props can both move the story along while also expressing the film’s theme. A great example of this is the ring from The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The ring moves the plot along while also symbolizing a greed for power. 

Iconic film props • The Lord of the Rings

Iconic film props  •  The Lord of the Rings

Good filmmakers utilize props for one of the functions we’ve covered above. Great filmmakers try to find ways to use a prop for multiple functions. 

Now that you understand the importance of them and how they can function within a film, let’s take a look at the various types of props you can use. 

film props definition

Types of film props

Props are defined by their interaction with a character. However, characters can interact with countless objects. For this reason, props are broken down into types. 

Hand props

Hand props are any prop that is carried by or handled by a character. This ranges widely from weapons to flashlights to keys. Many other types of props can also be categorized as a hand prop once an actor picks it up. 

Many hand props typically require a rundown from a prop master on how to safely operate the prop. This is especially the case when it comes to weapons. 

Taxi Driver gun prop

Taxi Driver gun prop

Personal props

Personal props are typically worn by an actor or at least carried by them consistently. These props become a key part of a character’s identity. For example, in The Avengers, Hawkeye is always wearing his bow and arrow. While it becomes a hand prop when he uses it, he also wears it constantly as a personal prop. 

Hawkeye in The Avengers

Hawkeye in The Avengers

Set props

Set props are props that are placed on set. These props, like set dressing, add to the aesthetic of the set. Unlike set dressing, however, actors interact with set props. Most commonly, these are things like furniture that characters sit on. 

Shaun of the Dead

Movie Set Props  •  Shaun of the Dead

Trim props

Sometimes actors move toward windows or pictures hanging on the wall and interact with the frames, curtains, or blinds. These are called trim props and they are essentially any prop that hangs on the wall that an actor interacts with.

The Tree of Life

Trim Props  •  The Tree of Life

Breakaways

Lastly, there are breakaway props. Breakaways are designed to break on cue or on an action. These are typically bottles or objects that are made to be extremely brittle so they shatter easily. Check out the video below to see how breakaways are made for movies and television.

How Breakable Props Are Made For Movies And TV Shows

They can become one of the most memorable visuals of a film. Besides just looking cool and interesting, great props also make a film better. They can make characters more iconic, express a film’s theme, and literally propel a film’s plot forward.

If you are an aspiring filmmaker, don’t underestimate the power of props. Look for opportunities to use them in a way that serves your story. 

UP NEXT

Turn Movie Props Into Iconic Symbols

We’ve covered quite a few iconic movie props in this article. But what exactly goes into creating an iconic prop? Filmmakers put extreme thought and intention into creating movie props to be memorable and iconic. Learn how they do so in our next article. 

Up Next: Props Into Symbols →
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