This person goes under three titles – prop master, props master, or, in full, property master. But with three different title variations, there is even more that this person has to do on a film, TV show, video shooting, or production stage.
According to Master Class, the prop master is “head of the props department (or is a senior position in the art department) on any film, TV show, or stage production. They are responsible for all props in the production—that includes acquiring them, keeping them organized, and making sure they’re used safely. To do this, the props master leads a team of prop makers or props-department runners, and reports to the production designer.”
Under this relatively brief description lie much more responsibilities that a prop master has to juggle during any given production her/his team work on. As Nashville Film Institute points out, “property masters have a variety of tasks throughout the production process.” Their general duties include:
- Obtaining or overseeing the manufacture of props reflecting a production’s style and setting;
- Caring for and maintaining an inventory of props;
- Ensuring props are available on time and budget;
- Overseeing property department staff to make sure they complete high-quality work.
Each of the points in the above list is broken down into a myriad of subset tasks that a prop master has to take care of or oversees while the production project is being prepared, ongoing or after it concludes.
NFI (above) also notes that working as a prop master can be physically demanding. Prop masters need excellent mobility for carrying large props, crawling into tight spaces, and climbing ladders and stairs. They should be able to lift 50 pounds on their own, and should also have good eyesight.
Prop master has many elements to master
Master Class above underlines the fact that prop master is in a way the “MacGyver” of any production he has to work on. This means that this person has to “be able to do almost anything, and often with very limited resources.”
To be good at their job, whether they work for a studio, theatre, or as a freelancer, there are certain skills they have to master:
- They have to do serious research for every project. Props masters need to answer the demands of any production. So, “they need to feel comfortable absorbing a wide range of information during research—from tying knots to handling firearms to knowing what’s considered contraband in prison” (above).
- An excellent sense of organization is also essential. Film or say, video productions can have hundreds of props, and the props master needs to be ready to keep all of them (and all of their backups) organized and ready for each day of filming.
- Be good leaders. “A props master is usually in charge of a crew of many other props positions, so it’s essential that they’re comfortable giving instructions and keeping morale high on long days.”
- Specific certification. “One of the unique qualifications necessary to be a props master is to have firearms training and certification. This is mandatory for any props person in the union. Many films involve a scene with some type of gun or other weapons, and someone on set needs to know how to keep everyone safe.”
Prop masters typically start working five weeks before a production’s principal photography starts. This position can be stressful but extremely rewarding, and they need to be able to handle a lot of different responsibilities if they want to be a great prop master (NFI).
Adding to the elements presented by Master Class (above), NFI adds the following:
- Ability to cope with pressure: “This skill helps prop masters manage their team, work in a fast-paced production environment, and meet deadlines.”
- Flexibility: Prop masters must be flexible to adapt to production changes and varied schedules.
- Creativity: This skill helps prop masters source props on a budget that will make a visual impact.
- Strong communication skills: Prop masters rely on their written and oral communication skills when liaising when production staff, suppliers, and manufacturers.
- Problem-solving: Prop masters use their problem-solving skills to create and source props that may be difficult to find on a budget.
- Financial skills: These professionals rely on their financial skills when creating and managing budgets.
- Negotiation skills: Strong negotiation skills help prop masters secure props from suppliers and manufacturers for the best price.
- Crafting skills: Prop masters may need crafting skills to create and repair props during production.
- Industry knowledge: Prop masters must understand health and safety guidelines and relevant work procedures.
As Backstage.com explains, the production process is roughly split into three distinct stages. These are pre-production, shooting or presentation itself (in the theater), and post-production.
“During pre-production, the prop masterworks with the production designer and art director to determine what props are necessary, set budgets, rent, and purchase props, and train actors on how to handle props” (above).
During shooting, they ensure all props are where they need to be, oversee the continuity of props between takes, and ensure there is always a backup prop if something happens to the original.
When shooting is over, prop masters oversee the return of all hired props and the sale/disposal of anything else used by their department.
More details about the job of the prop master
NFI (above) gives more details about the workload through all the stages of the production. As they note, work for a prop master begins long before a production’s rehearsals start.
During this period, their responsibilities are:
- Evaluating the script and its prop requirements with production designers and art directors;
- Attending production meetings to discuss prop needs;
- Researching props to ensure production’s props are realistic and appropriate;
- Creating props list with prop tables for use during production;
- Selecting which items from the props list to buy, hire, and create;
- Creating budgets for prop purchase, hire, and creation.
“A prop master’s vision starts taking shape when they begin building props” During this period, they are:
- Liaising with prop makers and artisans who are creating props for the production;
- Designing and adapting props;
- Monitoring prop budgets.
There is more work required before a production’s technical rehearsals begin. Here are some of a prop master’s responsibilities during pre-technical rehearsals:
- Assessing and deciding prop locations;
- Ensuring production buyers and props store men record their prop purchases and hire suppliers;
- Ensuring actors can access relevant props.
Once technical rehearsals begin, prop masters start working with people who will use props during production. Their responsibilities during this period include:
- Teaching actors how to safely handle and care for props;
- Attending rehearsals to monitor prop use and placement and any relevant production changes;
- Organizing and storing props until required;
- Discussing prop loading, transport, and storage with props store men.
Their work continues throughout the run of the production with the following responsibilities:
- Ensuring props and standby props are in place for actors;
- Monitoring prop continuity between takes;
- Caring for animal actors, if production doesn’t have an animal vendor;
- Styling food, if production doesn’t have a food stylist;
- Working with team members to meet production schedule deadlines.
When the production is over and other facts
But that is not where the job ends. “The striking process is the part of post-production where crews strike or dismantle, the set. A prop master is active during this process with the following responsibilities:
- Overseeing prop return to hiring companies;
- Organizing the sale, storage, or disposal of owned props” (above).
“Working as a prop master is an exciting challenge, as every project and production can differ dramatically. The skills prop masters use can transfer to other industry roles, as well, including makeup, special effects, and set decoration.” This is also due to the fact that they can work on any type of production – from a feature film to a marketing video and much more.
NFI explains that “they spend most of their time in offices with access to a desk with a computer, internet, and a phone. They also work in scene and costume shops, rehearsal spaces, and on set.” According to prop professional Joanna Tillman, you need to be a savvy shopper to be a prop master, so the job often involves long hours browsing the internet for the right props.
Working as a prop master is not an entry-level role. While they don’t need specific qualifications, earning a fine art, design, or film degree can help prop masters secure work. Also besides being certified and knowing how to handle firearms, they might require another skill.
As Master Class (above) notes, on many occasions productions also require animal actors. “On sets that can’t afford to hire a full animal vendor, the props master will often be tasked with taking care of small animals appearing in the production.” Also, bigger-budget productions can hire a food stylist. But, smaller-budget productions pass the task to them.
Prop master – concluding words
From the above descriptions, it seems that a prop master has to practically be a jack of all trades. It doesn’t matter whether she/he is working as a freelancer, for a studio, or a production agency. There are quite a few skills such a person has to possess besides the required education and experience.
As Backstage.com (above) points out, “many at this job begin their production careers as prop coordinators, tracking individual props through their lifecycle, use, and return. From there, they often move to a prop buying, building, or styling role, before becoming a prop master. Another route is to work in a props house or specialty shop, creating or recreating specific props.”
So it is a long road to becoming a fully-fledged pop master. According to the above source, when they do become one, they can earn anywhere from $30,000 to 60,000/year. As you are probably aware, you can seek a freelancer for this job also here at Bunny Studio.