•Find out how a background in construction can pave the way to prop making…and a good salary
•Hollywood jobs “under the radar”: How TV & film credits could provide hidden opportunities for unknown jobs
•The road from non-union to union and how one Propmaker made the coveted leap
•California’s tax incentive: a boon for production and especially Propmakers, who are in high-demand
More Than Just Handheld Objects, Propmakers Literally “Set” the Stage
“When you’re watching a show or movie, read the credits and look up the job descriptions. You might find a job that you didn’t know about but would love to do. There are a lot of jobs out there that pay really well, and you just have to match a job with your skills and lifestyle.” -Ben Page
This is a quote from Ben Page whose work in the Art Department, as a Hollywood Propmaker, has given him a successful 10-year track record in television. Ben’s talents have been put on display on such shows as Mad Men, Good Luck Charlie, and Girl Meets World, to name a few.
Typically, when we think of props, they are associated with the term “movie props” or memorabilia (clothing, miniatures, models, prop pistols and even iconic prop cars). The materials used include foam, silicone, resin, fiberglass; as well as 3D printing, sculpting methods and also techniques for making an action flick favorite: break-away glass.
But in this article, prop making focuses on a much bigger canvas: the scenery or the set at large.
That is Ben’s job as a Propmaker / carpenter, which falls under “unexpected” production jobs. [For more “unexpected” production jobs that could give your career a boost, click here.]
But Ben didn’t set out to be a Propmaker. No, he stumbled into the industry after pursuing his passion for theater, which led him to creating short-form videos. Ultimately, Ben got a hands-on, crash-course in prop making, while wearing many production-related hats.
I had the pleasure of talking with Ben and what struck me the most is how working in the Art Department as a Propmaker is actually very similar to a lot of “ordinary” jobs that non-Hollywood types hold.
Prop making requires a keen eye for detail, collaboration with multiple departments, self-discipline / initiative and – above all – a diversified skill-set. Such a skill-set can only be gathered through practical application.
In other words, you need to convince others that you have a deep interest in learning the craft and can demonstrate the creative chops that may have carried over from another line of work.
There are quite a few Propmakers, who are former construction workers. Plus, with a shortage of skilled Propmakers in Southern California, there are newfound opportunities for skilled builders (because of new state tax incentives) with little production experience to work on union television shows.
Working “union” means a fixed rate, a contract, and more money.
For example, a non-union show can pay anywhere from 250 to 300 dollars on a flat day-rate, while a union show offers more lucrative compensation. Union pay, in some instances, can range from 30 to 40 dollars per hour (and even higher).
So if you got As in high school shop class, or have a special knack for building things, there may be a good-paying job in a Hollywood Art Department with your name on it.
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Q&A WITH BEN PAGE (ART DEPARTMENT / PROPMAKER)
RB: For those who don’t know: What is a Propmaker?
BP: The title will throw you off. We do make props, but for the most part, Propmakers make scenery. If there is a room that needs to be built, we build it. We replicate buildings or part of buildings. It’s a lot of construction.
RB: How did you get into the Art Department / Prop making and how did it lead to a career?
BP: I did a lot of theatre growing up in high school and college, and I did want to get into television and film. There was an organization called Channel 101. It was a monthly video contest where people submit short videos and compete. I then met other people involved with Channel 101, and they decided to make a pilot for VH1, and they hired me to work on that. The pilot got picked up, and from there, I was able to make more connections that led to more work in television and film.
RB: What attributes make for a “good” Propmaker in a Hollywood Art Department and how much creative input do you have?
BP: If you’re good at woodworking and sculpting and if you have an artistic vision that definitely helps out. Working fast is a very good thing too.
Usually on the larger shows, you don’t have much creative control. They usually give you a drawing of what they want you to make. You have control over how you want to build things, as far as materials, and that can be both challenging and fun. On smaller shows, you get more creative control, because you have a closer relationship with the Production Designer and the Art Director.
RB: Can you tell us about your “on the job training” and how others served as your mentors?
BP: There was much, much, learning as I was actually working. When I first started, I was completely unfamiliar with the correct way of doing things on the job. There is no training for a Propmaker. You have to just jump into it. Working with older people with experience is how I learned most of this job.
RB: You having started off in the Art Department, are there any hobbies or activities that one can do to sharpen their skills a Propmaker?
BP: Since there is so much involvement with wood working, a lot of guys have experience in that. There were a lot of things that I learned in my high school’s wood shop class. Making furniture is a hobby of mine, and I think that helps as well. A lot of the guys I work with have a construction background, and they’ve gotten into prop making, because it’s very similar. Prop making is easier, and it pays better.
RB: Being under the Art Department, how does a Prop Maker work alongside a Director, Producer or Writer?
BP: The Production Designer and the Art Director sits in on the table read, and they understand what needs to be built based on the script – whether it’s the location or a prop that an actor needs to hold. They make a list of what needs to be made. Then, they give those plans to the Construction Coordinator. The Coordinator gives those plans to the Propmaker, and then we do all the building. The Propmakers are usually the first to start work on a production.
We work at a mill that is separate from the shooting stage and that’s where we build all the scenery and the props. We usually do it about a week in advance to the scene [filming]. After we’re done, we send it to the painters for them to finish it off.
RB: How do you get into the union?
BP: It’s tricky. I got super lucky, actually. I met someone while I was working on this non-union show, and he got me another show that was about to “flip” from non-union to union, so that’s how I got in.
There are just so many productions going on right now in California since the state received the tax exemptions. A lot of the jobs have come back from Louisiana and Georgia, so there is a huge demand right now, mostly in film.
Last year, there was such a huge demand for Propmakers that they opened the doors, and they allowed anyone with experience in prop making to work on union shows, which would make you eligible to join the union. It’s kind of rare, but it happens every few years.
RB: What advice would you give to someone who’s looking for the “the best route” to get in this line of work?
BP: Absolutely surround yourself with like-minded people. If you see cool things online or something you’re interested in, contact them [the creators] and try to network. The most important thing in any project is completing it. Also, when you’re watching a show or movie, read the credits and look up the job descriptions. You might find a job that you didn’t know about but would love to do. There are a lot of jobs out there that pay really well, and you just have to match a job with your skills and lifestyle.
While Propmakers can be the unsung heroes of any production, there are tons of jobs on set in the Art Department / construction that the average person can transition into with a little hustle and a lot of skill.
“If you build it, they will come,” isn’t just a famous movie quote, it’s the bridge to creative freedom, one that Ben is slowly building as an aspiring writer. But right now, prop making feeds his creativity and allows him to work in the industry that he loves so dearly.
The bottom line: Check those rolling credits, because your dream job may just be a Google search away.