How to Become a Prop Master

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Photo Source: Courtesy of AMC

The prop master plays a major role in any production’s art department. This role oversees the use of all props—they are responsible for the creation, maintenance, and inventory of these items. For those who are unfamiliar, a “prop” is anything used by the actors during a performance that is movable, like a coffee cup, lightsaber, or money. Scenery, costumes, and electrical equipment are not props and do not fall under the responsibilities of a property master. 

How does you become a prop master? Many begin their production careers as prop coordinators, tracking individual props through their use and return. From there, they often move to a prop buying, building, or styling role before becoming a property master. Another route is to work in a props house or specialty shop, creating or recreating specific props. If this role sounds like something you’re interested in pursuing, we’ve got you covered. From the average salary to skill and schooling requirements, here’s everything you need to know to become a prop master. 

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What is a prop master?

Table full of movie props

RichartPhotos/Shutterstock

The property master is the head of the props department, where they manage a team of prop makers, food stylists, animal wranglers, weapons masters, and craftspeople. This role also works closely with the art director and production designer throughout the duration of a project. 

What does a prop master do?

Children on 'Stranger Things'Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown in “Stranger Things” Courtesy Netflix

During pre-production, the prop master works 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. “My team and I are the eyes of the art department,” says prop master Ellen Freund (“Mad Men,” “Night at the Museum,” “The Alienist”). 

“Part of my job as a prop master is that I’ll read a script and I’ll pick out all the obvious props, which is really easy to do. Anyone can be a prop master in that sense. What you have to do is sort of think of what’s not in the script and what will support a story and what will support a character,” says Russell Bobbitt, Marvel’s prop master. “If I know the guy is gonna rob a bank, I’m giving him Ray-Bans with really dark lenses, and if I know that he’s having a romantic scene, I’m going to give him Ray-Bans with special lenses so that we see his eyes. So I need to provide all that support for the character, scene by scene. [Maybe] he needs 10 pairs of Ray-Bans because he’s robbing lots of banks and sleeping with lots of people.”

During shooting, the prop master ensures all props are where they need to be, oversees the continuity of props between takes, and ensures there is always a backup prop if something happens to the original. “If you have one, you have none,” says prop master Todd Daniels (“Arrested Development,” “Key and Peele”). “You have to have that backup.... You have to find a way to fabricate another one in case that one gets lost or broken so you’re not up a creek without a paddle.” 

When shooting is over, property masters also oversee the return of all hired props and the sale/disposal of anything else used by their department.

 

What is a prop master's average salary?

Prop master making a model handEveryonephoto Studio/Shutterstock

According to a 2022 survey, a prop master’s average salary is $63,988 ($30.76 an hour) in the United States. Data also shows annual salaries for this position as high as $140,500 and as low as $19,500. As for the top cities where the typical salary for a props master job is above the national average, the survey indicates that San Jose, California, Oakland, California, and Tanaina, Alaska are the best places.   

Like many crew jobs, the salary for a prop master varies on experience, how frequently you work, and the size/budget/union status of the projects you work on. Prop masters are represented by IATSE Local 44—Affiliated Property Craftspersons, meaning union members are guaranteed mandatory minimum payments on union productions. 

What are the requirements to be a prop master?

Rachel Brosnahan and Alex Borstein in 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel'  Rachel Brosnahan and Alex Borstein in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” Christopher Saunders/Prime Video

Having good research and organization skills is a must for this job. Not only does a prop master ensure every item used in a project is accurate, they must also keep track of every item (which sometimes number in the thousands). On top of this, they also manage a team of employees. 

“You have to know how a meth lab works, whether or not you’ve ever set foot in one,” says Daniels. “You also need to know how to crochet. If you have a grandmother having a knitting party, you need to know what those things are—you don’t just go in and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know how this works.’ You have to know the steps of those kinds of things to make them feel real.” 

In essence, prop masters are the encyclopedias of a production and must know what objects are appropriate for every character, setting, and time period. Attention to detail is a critical skill, as is the ability and drive to track down the perfect prop. 

“It’s easy to find the fancy stuff that people consider collectible,” Freund says. “It’s not easy to find the quotidian objects that people consider trash once they run out of ink or once the liquor is gone from the whiskey bottle. That’s when you have to delve deep and find people’s grandparents who have a liquor cabinet that’s been in their house from the ’60s and [ask], ‘Is your grandmother alive? Has she lived in the same house since the ’50s? Would it be OK if I went through her garage?’”

Additionally, it’s important for prop masters to have a wide network of craftspeople, artisans, and manufacturers to ensure they can get any prop they need when they need it. “A good prop master is one who has a lot of connections and a lot of people they can work with on many different levels, from fabricating to creating,” says Daniels. 

Union prop masters must also have firearms training and certification, so it's important to be familiar with state-by-state guides to licensing and certification

Are there education requirements to be a prop master?

While a specific degree is not required for working in props, many successful prop masters have a degree in fine arts or design with a background in arts and crafts. Film school is a great place to make connections and get your foot in the door.

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!