Prop makers work in television, film and theatre, making the props (properties) which add realism to a production. They make a large variety of objects including jewellery, furniture, replica weapons or animated models.
Prop making skills include:
- Woodwork and carving
- Working with fibreglass
- Model making
- Mechanical and electrical engineering
- Computer-aided design (CAD)
They may also adapt existing objects, using techniques such as 'distressing' to make an object look old or worn. The work also involves repairing props which are damaged during the production. They work with a wide range of hand and power tools.
Prop makers spend time carrying out research so they can make props that look culturally authentic and fit the historical period, whether this is the Middle Ages, the present day or a period in the future.
Prop makers also need to consider how each prop will be used. For example, objects which in reality may be very heavy, must be made in such a way that actors can lift or move them. This involves experimenting with different materials and techniques to create something which appears to be made of oak and metal for example, but is actually very light. Some prop makers may also source any greenery and foliage needed on the set.
Prop makers often work to tight deadlines and those involved in buying props or materials must work within a budget.
Depending on the size of the production, prop makers may work with designers, following their briefs to create props. Although part of a larger production team, prop makers spend a lot of their time working alone on projects.
Working hours vary. Long hours, often including evenings and weekends, are common as deadlines approach.
Prop makers work in studios and prop rooms which are often back stage at theatres and on film sets. They may also visit shops and theatrical suppliers to buy materials or buy and hire props. Prop makers may visit libraries and museums for research.
Working conditions can be cramped. Prop makers are likely to have to deal with sawdust, metal filings, fibreglass and chemicals such as adhesives and paints.
The work may involve staying away from home for several weeks or months at a time. Some contracts may also involve foreign travel.
Salaries for prop makers may start at about £15,000 a year.
Many prop makers are self-employed and work on short-term contracts. They are usually paid a fee for each commission they undertake, and new entrants may earn less than the figures quoted until they have established a reputation.
Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) pay guidelines suggest a rate of between £190 and £375 a day.
Most prop makers are freelance and it is rare for film, television and theatre companies to employ them on a permanent basis.
Most film studios are based in London and south-east England, although there are theatres across the UK. Prop makers may work with a theatre company on tour, in workshops on film or television productions, or on location with a film set.
There may also be opportunities with:
Many prop makers rely on their contacts in the industry to find work, so it is important for individuals to network and build up connections. Vacancies may be advertised in specialist trade magazines such as The Stage and on the website of the Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT).
There is no standard route to becoming a prop maker. It may be possible to enter without formal qualifications, but applicants generally need relevant work experience, such as experience with school, youth or other amateur productions. Talent and enthusiasm are very important.
The Diploma in creative and media (available in England) may be relevant for this area of work.
Many prop makers have a qualification in subjects such as stage management or an art-based course, ranging from HND's to degrees and postgraduate diplomas. Entry requirements vary according to the level of qualification and the university or college, so candidates are advised to check with individual institutions.
As a guide:
For HNC/HND courses applicants need one A level, a BTEC National Certificate/Diploma in a relevant subject, or the equivalent qualifications.
For degree courses entrants need a minimum of two A levels and five GCSE's (A*-C), or the equivalent.
For postgraduate courses entry is usually with a relevant first degree.
Admissions tutors (and employers) also expect candidates to show a portfolio of design and craft work.
Drama schools also offer relevant courses and it is possible to enter with a design or art background. A considerable part of these courses is devoted to practical experience, with students providing props and other backstage services for college productions. For instance, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) runs a Specialist Graduate Certificate in Property Making. The Conference of Drama Schools has a list of drama courses on its website.
Some employers may offer on-the-job training and there may be opportunities to attend short courses. Freelance workers usually have to pay for their own training and development.
In large theatre companies or on film/television productions it may be possible to start as a props assistant and learn new skills and techniques on the job.
ABTT offer a range of training courses and a programme of continuing professional development (CPD) for those working in theatres.
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A prop maker should:
There is no set career structure, because of the freelance nature of prop making. Career progression depends on developing contacts, a good reputation and a strong portfolio of work.
Some prop makers may move into set design or general stage management. There may be opportunities to work abroad, particularly for those employed in the film industry.
The Association of British Theatre Technicians (ABTT),
55 Farringdon Road, London EC1M 3JB
Tel: 020 7242 9200
Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph
and Theatre Union (BECTU), 373-377 Clapham Road,
London SW9 9BT
Tel: 020 7346 0900
Creative & Cultural Skills, 4th Floor,
Lafone House, The Leathermarket,
Weston Street, London SE1 3HN
Tel: 020 7015 1800
National Council for Drama Training (NCDT),
1-7 Woburn Walk, London WC1H 0JJ
Tel: 020 7387 3650
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA),
62-64 Gower Street, London WC1E 6ED
Tel: 020 7636 7076
Skillset (The Sector Skills Council for Creative Media),
2nd Floor, Focus Point, 21 Caledonian Road,
London N1 9GB.
Free media careers helpline in
England and Northern Ireland: 08080 300 900;
in Scotland: 0808 100 8094;
in Wales: 0800 0121 815
The Stage Management Association (SMA),
55 Farringdon Road, London EC1M 3JB
Tel: 020 7242 9250
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.