Anytime you see an actor handle or interact with an object in a film, that object was carefully picked out and acquired by a single person — the prop master. Films can have an incredible amount of props and each one is important in its own way. Behind it all is a prop master. What is a prop master and why are they important to a production? In this article, we’ll cover how prop masters approach a script, how they acquire props, and the other responsibilities they have on and off set.
What is a Prop Master in Film?
What does a prop master do?
The details of what a prop master will be doing for a production can differ greatly on the type of film it is. A Spaghetti Western will demand different props than a science fiction film. However, the general role of every prop master is fundamentally the same.
PROP MASTER DEFINITION
What is a prop master in film?
The prop master on a production is the head of the props department. The prop master, short for property master, is responsible for acquiring appropriate props, organizing them, and overseeing the usage of props on set. They often direct a team of prop makers and prop runners. And they ultimately report directly to the production designer as they are a part of the art department.
What is a prop master responsible for?
- Researching props
- Acquiring props
- Organizing props
- Overseeing safe prop usage
The prop master falls under the art department but is the head of the prop team. Under them falls the roles of assistant prop master, prop makers, and prop runners.
The PM is responsible for anything and everything prop-wise on and off set. Let’s take a look at a few of their most important responsibilities.
Whats a Prop Master Responsible For?
During the pre-production process, the prop master is involved in the script breakdown as every prop that will be needed is marked and tagged. This helps them create a list of the props they will need to research and acquire. This list is called the “properties list.”
Tools like Studiobinder’s script breakdown software help them ensure that all props in the screenplay are marked and accounted for. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is missing a prop because they did not tag and list it.
To create a comprehensive properties list, the prop master meets with various roles such as the art director, production designer, set decorator, or set dressers. This will help them get an idea of how the props fit into things like set dressing, wardrobe, and other design elements.
After getting on the same page with other members of the art department, the prop master jumps into the research.
What Does a Prop Master Do in Film?
There is more to the responsibilities of the prop master than simply acquiring and organizing props. What does a prop master do before the physical gathering, building and purchasing of props?
They must ensure that the props they acquire are appropriate for the film and help contribute to the storytelling.
Research is incredibly important for PMs to acquire the best props possible. This is especially true for period-piece films that aim for authenticity and accuracy of the time period being portrayed.
Even fictional or fantasy stories require proper research for prop masters to acquire the best possible props. One of the most difficult props to acquire are historically accurate weapons. Check out this video of a prop master and historian evaluating weapons from historical films and TV shows.
As you can see from the video, props are a lot more than decoration. They must not only be visually accurate, they must be functional. Research not only entails PMs determining what will be used, but how they will be used in a safe, yet cinematic way.
What is a Prop Master in Filmmaking?
Prop masters are responsible for making sure that every prop that is needed makes it to set. This means they must purchase, rent, or make the props in time for production. They also must acquire all the props within the budget they are given. For lower budget films, this often requires creativity.
Prop masters must be especially creative when making custom props for a story. Prop master Ross MacDonald has made custom paper props for over 25 years. His work can be found in some of the most iconic films in cinema.
Some props can be fragile or are even meant to be broken like bottles, furniture, etc. This means that prop masters must have duplicates of the same prop for multiple takes of a scene. Higher budget productions hire PMs for more arduous prop building.
Whats a Prop Master Doing On Set?
Organizing props on and off set
Films and TV shows can often have tens or even hundreds of props. A huge responsibility of the PM is to keep the props organized and cataloged so that they are easy to find for a scene and do not get lost when stored.
For a show like Late Night with Conan O’Brien, props accumulate. Organizing them requires both space and a system. Here is a tour of the organized prop room with Bill Tull. Notice how props are organized and labeled.
While the Late Night show has a higher budget and larger number of props, even low budget productions must stay organized. If rented props are lost or a prop is not on set for a scene, the PM is responsible for that mistake.
What is a Prop Master Responsible For?
Monitor prop usage
Lastly and possible most importantly, prop masters must oversee proper and safe usage of props on set. They must educate actors on how to use props if they are handling them during a take. This is especially important when props like weapons are used.
In fact, any prop person in the union must have a firearms and safety training certification. Some PMs specialize in prop guns specifically. Xtreme Props specializes in prop guns and can be found in movies from John Wick to the TV show Narcos. Here is a tour of their prop house with Gary Tuers.
Prop masters must also ensure that set props are safely rigged and hold up during takes. When they do their job right, prop usage should go smoothly and safely and help produce a great film.
Prop masters are one of the unsung heroes on a set. They are incredibly important for both the telling of a film’s story as well as the safety of the cast and crew. Their job entails responsibilities that can make or break a film.
Guide to Mastering a Script Breakdown
Are you going to be a PM on a production? If so, you will definitely want to know everything there is about a script breakdown. What is a script breakdown? How do you do one? We’ll answer all of those questions and more in the next article.