Question: What do the Golden Snitch in Harry Potter and the pile of cocaine in Scarface have in common? Answer: They were both created by expert property masters, or “Prop Masters” for short.
Prop masters are responsible for the sentimental attachment viewers have to their favorite movies. They are the masterminds behind the gadgets that make a scene or character work and are often so important to the plotline. A movie’s setting or plot can only be so believable without these devices.
But prop masters are more than managers. They don’t just decide what will be done or tell other people to do it. Rather, their masterwork is very grassroots. They work hard to put each important piece together of the articles in question. If you’ve never known much about prop masters or what they do, now’s your chance to learn about one of the most underrated jobs within the film industry.
What Does a Prop Master Do?
In the most simplistic explanation, prop masters are in charge of getting the best props onto set. This may involve researching, buying, or even creating the oddest things you see on the screen. They can look anywhere from Amazon to their local junkyard to find the materials, but it’s never done properly without careful attention to detail.
Odd props may be on par with the most abstract art imaginable. They may also be mundane, everyday things that we all take for granted. Throughout movies, you may see a combination of both abstract objects and everyday items brought by prop masters.
Michael Ulman, the prop master for Mad Max: Fury Road, used both pre-made items and abstract objects in the movie. The knife that Max (Tom Hardy) carries throughout has been speculated on by knife experts who just want to know what kind of knife is being used, because it was so well chosen. But on the more inventive side, take a look at the guitar played by Coma The Doof, which is a double-necked instrument/flame thrower combo. Turns out, Ulman and his team created that themselves, and it functions as a real guitar, yet also featured a chassis and a bolted-on bedpan cover.
Because of the specificity that great movie props require, their creators and designers often end up becoming knowledgeable and skilled in a variety of ways. In a piece by Mental Floss, they highlighted prop master Joanna Tilman for her wide array of random knowledge learned by working on various television shows.
While working on Mr. Robot [Tilman] became familiar with how computer servers function; Nurse Jackie taught her about automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) and emergency room procedures; and Orange Is the New Black was a chance to learn about what is and isn’t considered contraband in prison and what might be considered a potential weapon.
Due to this variety of knowledge, an extensive prop master may become a jack-of-all-trades. From historical accuracy to understanding color combinations and incorporating them into set design and props to achieve the most powerful effect, the necessary research combined with the experience of putting these items together is a kind of experiential schooling unmatched by other film roles.
Prop masters may also find that this extensive knowledge, in conjunction with professional networking opportunities, can take them to different heights. Sometimes this even works backward. For instance, Angela O’Neill, who acted in Sorority House Massacre and Enemy Unseen, is now a famous prop master who’s worked on Apollo 13, She’s All That, and Grey’s Anatomy.
Why Prop Masters Are Necessary to Bring a Movie to Life
Without the well-done research and quirky creations brought to a set by prop masters, films and shows simply wouldn’t be as believable. Contextual objects are just as important to a scene as the setting built around it. While set designers are crucial to a movie’s production, their visions are brought to life by the tools used by the characters. Prop masters have to do this flawlessly, and many of the weird props you see on the big screen actually do what they’re intended to do within the plot. For instance, in Mad Max: Fury Road, the designers reportedly played a song on Coma’s guitar to ensure that it was realistic enough for the scene. And the hamburger phone within Juno is a real phone.
Prop designers further this cause by working with actors to help them use props like they’re the real deals. Weaponry is an easy example of this, but another one is drugs. As exemplified by the previously mentioned Mental Floss article, fake cocaine is tested by prop masters before actors do it on camera. Not only are they actually snorting and smoking, but the substances have to be compiled of consumable material.
So whether it’s drugs, the hockey putter from Happy Gilmore, or the lightsaber Luke Skywalker uses, you can thank prop masters for them. The work they do can often make or break a scene. Characters would be less relatable, moments would be less memorable, and a setting’s believability would dwindle. Prop masters are an essential part of a movie’s success and deserve much more recognition than they get.
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