What sounds like a fairly simple question becomes a rather amorphous concept. Ask a hundred Property Masters and get a hundred and fifty slightly different answers. It can change from show to show or even scene to scene within one shooting day. It can change depending on who you are working with or the union jurisdiction you are working under. A prop’s meaning is ever-evolving and must be clearly defined on every show for the Property Department to succeed. And so we return to the important question: what exactly is a prop anyway?
The broadest definition has always been: whatever the actors touch. This is technically accurate but a limited way of thinking and is shortsighted to successfully delivering on the needs of the show. What happens if an actor picks up a piece of set dressing on a whim? Or a musical instrument is dressed into the look of the room? Or the key must fit into a lock that exists on location? Whose job is it then? Is it a hand prop or something else?
Instead, let’s think a bit differently. The most important role of the Property Master and their team is to represent all aspects of the art of the film while working with the shooting crew. The Property Master is the on-set representative who works directly with the Director, Actors, and Director of Photography to meet any art needs while filming. As such, their preparation beforehand is intense. Often one of the earliest hires, the Property Master reviews the script, storyboards, concept art, and look books to compile a breakdown of every potential prop, even those often not written on the page but their experience has helped them predict what the show will need. That breakdown will only grow and complicate as they discuss creative and logistical needs with the Director, Actors, and other key creative and logistical department heads. Perhaps all band instruments will be provided by props except the piano, which has been deemed a set piece though the Property Master will still have tuned in preparation. Perhaps the table candles are now props because the lighting department has requested them be custom made for a brighter light. The list goes on and looks different with every production.
The Property Master will then lead design, manufacturing, and sourcing on props, working with Illustrators, Propmakers, Prop Buyers, and Graphic Designers, frequently checking in with other creative department heads to be sure the show’s artistic look is preserved while its logistical needs are met. Beyond, the Property Master may bring in Food Stylists, Armorers, Animal Wranglers, and Picture Car Coordinators according to the needs of the show, making sure nothing is missed or left to chance. Often the Property Master will also book technical advisors in specialty fields to provide an expert opinion and train actors in specialty skills. Perhaps your main character is a card shark or surgeon or photographer. Perhaps an ER emergency will be featured and an expert is wanted for authenticity.
Beyond the obvious needs, Property Masters are one of the few departments that interact with almost every other department regularly. They bear important responsibility in legal clearances and network standards and practices, working with legal departments to be sure the project is clear of any legal hurdles on the prop creative. They coordinate at early stages with post departments to make sure the musical instruments used will match the score requirements and that the props have been built in a way to suit VFX needs. They regularly coordinate with studio publicity to assist with photo shoots and merchandising tours to help wrangle potential partners for producers. They build authenticity on screen by partnering with product placement agencies and marketing departments to populate the world with brands that help reflect the personalities of key characters through the objects in their world.
A successful Property Master activates both sides of the brain – the artistic and the logistical. The perfect-looking prop that does not function as needed or predictably isn’t the perfect prop at all. The perfect prop that can’t be duplicated for backups, isn’t the perfect prop. And of course, the perfect prop that won’t ship on time or isn’t capable of being imported due to legal restrictions certainly isn’t the perfect prop at all. The Property Master must be a living encyclopedia of the show creative, liaisoning with the Production Designer, Set Decorator, Costume Designer, and Director of Photography to be sure creative is aligned with their work while often linking creative needs to logistics.
Does the prop light up? The Gaffer will need to be involved. Does the prop need to burst into flames? They’ll need to work with the Special Effects Coordinator on that. Is the show growing and a new schedule has changed the logistics? You better believe the Property Master is round tabling with all relevant departments and submitting new needs to the Production Manager so the show doesn’t miss a beat. They know what every department is delivering and often work to link other departments together when coordination is required. To say nothing of the fact that Property Masters can find the answer to every possible problem be it a gag never performed before, an odd antique that must be sourced locally, a last-minute creative request at 3am, or a prop that burst into a million pieces when accidentally thrown. Property Masters adopt problems and find solutions. They live at the intersection of art and practical, and must balance it for the success of the show.
That leads us back to where we started. What is a prop? Anything the show needs it to be. And what is a Property Master? A magician performing perfectly timed magic.
Special thanks to Theresa Corvino of the Property Masters Guild (PMG).