Prop Maker Job Description: What Does a Prop Maker Do?
A prop maker is the artist/technician who creates custom props for a production, including necessary modifications to props that are rented or purchased. A prop—which is short for “property”—is “a mobile item that can be positioned [or used] by members of the cast,” not to be confused with a costume accessory, and can include anything from stunt props (replicas of other props made of nonhazardous materials) to highly specialized objects across a wide array of materials.
Prop makers work closely with the production designer, art director, and prop master to bring designs to life. Sometimes, instructions are supplied; other times, prop makers can take liberties with how to finish a prop. They also typically build two of every prop in case one is damaged and are responsible for instructing actors how to operate the prop.
According to Gavin Jones, the prop maker behind the Iron Throne on “Game of Thrones,” every job begins with “a concept and technical drawing. From there, we decide what materials are needed, what the budget is for the job, and the deadline. Some jobs may need to be turned around within a day [or] we may have up to a couple of months building a prop, depending on scale and detail.”
Even once everything is approved, prop makers often go through several rounds of creation before a final prop is decided on. Pierre Bohanna, the head prop designer and maker on “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” recalls several design revisions for the titular rock: “We started off with this idea of a pebble-like shape. It’s red, but within it was a crystalline form. We couldn’t find that, so we started buying fabricated ones. The second design was essentially a refinement of that first idea. It became a filmic problem: although these [designs] worked and people were happy with them, it was very difficult for it to be anything other than a flat pebble unless you were really close to it. [The production designer] had a collection of different quartz stones.... He said, ‘maybe we’re being too clever and complicated about this. Can you make this for me in red?’ And that’s exactly what we did.”
Alternate Titles for Prop Maker
Prop makers report to the prop master and work closely with the production designer and art director. They may have prop assistants, trainees, PAs, and apprentices assisting.
Prop Maker Salary
According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, craft artists earn an average of $44,050 working in the performing arts and $56,600 in motion picture and video industries, while fine artists working in the motion picture and video industries earn an average of $80,320. A general artists’ annual average salary is $74,690. As an assistant, you can expect to make closer to $20,000.
(Prop makers are represented by IATSE Local 44—Affiliated Property Craftspersons—meaning union members are guaranteed mandatory minimum payments on union productions.)
How to Become a Prop Maker
Many prop makers start as props assistants, technicians, or trainees, before moving into prop maker roles. At the head of the department is the prop master, who oversees everything prop-related on a production. Prop makers can work as freelance employees on productions or within a prop workshop creating props for multiple customers and productions over a variety of industries.
In terms of career advancement and staying employed, Jones says, “It’s a small industry; you are likely to work with the same people time and again so delivering to your highest level and producing the best work is fundamental.”
Tim Oakley, prop maker on films like “Jurassic World” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” offers a word of caution to aspiring prop makers: “CGI is taking over. It is slowly replacing us. I’m at a cusp in my life where I don’t necessarily have to worry about it. What I feel bad for are the people who are just graduating college and realize there aren’t a lot of jobs making props anymore. Those like me are seriously somewhat of a dying breed.”
Prop Maker Required Experience + Skills
While a degree isn’t necessary for prop work, a background in art, design, crafting, and/or carpentry is usually preferred. Knowledge of various materials and tools is also important as prop makers need to get creative when it comes to ensuring actors can actually use the props. Anna Marchant, a prop maker on “The Matrix: Reloaded,” says that everything from basic materials like timber to chemicals used to make molds to welding tools can be found in a prop workshop and that while most prop makers have a broad skill set, everyone usually has a specialty: “We get quite specialized within the department.”
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!