Props is short for properties: items that a character or characters may own or use. They are split into 'smalls' (personal items such as bags, a pen, lighter or other personal possessions) and other props such as bikes, cars, and bigger items that are owned and used by a character in a film. The choice of props helps build a character for an actor to play. The props department is responsible for the sourcing, creating, care, use and continuity of all props from furniture to plants to weapons. The department is led by a props master who supervisors dressing props, storemen, standby props, drapes, armourers and greensmen.
Skills needed to work in props
- the ability to help imagine a character based on what they own
- leadership, management and motivational skills
- ability to cope with pressure
- solid financial skills
- knowledge of health and safety legislation and procedure
- physical strength and stamina
- skills in crafting and DIY, including sewing, ironing, plumbing, carpet fitting, upholstery, and taking accurate measurements
- good IT skills
- and eye for interiors and spatial awareness
Ways into the props department
Props masters have usually worked in the props department for many years. No specific qualifications are required to get into props, but a degree in art or design may be an advantage. Some also enter from a construction background.
Drapesmen must be experts in fabrics and upholstery and have usually served an apprenticeship outside the film industry. Similarly, greensmen must be horticulture experts and will probably have served an apprenticeship in an area such as landscape architecture, tree surgery, forestry or gardening.
Armourers will either have worked in props for a number of years and then undergone an apprenticeship with an experienced armourer or could be ex-military or police officers who have changed career. They must have undergone specialist training in the use of firearms and have specific permits and certificates according to the type of weapons used. In the UK these permits are issued by the Police and Home Office under strict conditions and after a detailed screening.
Jobs in props
In pre-production, props master liaise with production designers and art directors to determine what props are required and draw up a list of what needs to be brought and from where. Props masters allocate budgets to buy, hire or create props and instruct actors on care, maintenance and operation of those props. During shooting, props masters ensure that all hand and hero props are in place and oversee the continuity of props between takes.
Dressing props and the props storeman deliver the props required to dress sets and locations, transforming the site into whatever the film or TV show needs. The dressing props team will leap-frog between locations and work to very tight timescales to create scenes.
Standby props carry out on-the-spot tasks and solve last-minute problems as shooting is taking place. They are responsible for hero props and actors' personal or hand props and for the continuity of props between takes. Standby props must have excellent observational skills.
Props storemen (a generic terms referring to all genders) organise the collection, transport and delivery of all hired or purchased props. After determining which props are needed they organise them into groups (usually on tables or shelves) so that they are available for the standby props team. Props storemen are also responsible for collecting and looking after any product placement goods.
Drapes oversee the production and installation of soft furnishing and interiors. One drapsmaster may oversee a team of six or seven drapesmen (a generic terms referring to all genders). They always work on a freelance basis as and when they are needed.
Because it's illegal to use firearms without a licenced armourer present, productions hire armourers when weapons must be used during filming. They can recommend types of firearms that are appropriate for the film and may work with a fight director and stunt team. They also advise on the legal requirements of the relevant Firearm Acts and produce a full risk assessment report. If any scenes involving weapons are to be shot outside the studio environment armourers must contact the police and obtain the appropriate permissions.
Greensmen (a generic terms referring to all genders) are responsible for all foliage and greenery on set, as well as organic surface treatments such as sand and forest litter. Greensmen must be present during the shoot, to ensure the continuity of foliage and greenery between takes, and to care for any plants that need regular water or feeding. After the shoot, they dismantle the environment, and return the plants and materials to their sources.
Trainees or juniors assist the props department, observe and learn the handling and movement of props. Many have experience in theatre before moving into film and TV.
Some other job roles in craft
A costume designer is responsible for finding or creating the character's costumes, with the help of runners, dressers and costume supervisors
Casting directors are responsible for finding the right actor for a role and are helped by casting assistants who themselves often start out as runners
Make-up and hair
Expert make-up, hair and prosthetics are vital to creating realistic characters and most hair and make-up artists start as assistants and learn on the job