Wendy Chandler teaches prop making courses at City Lit. Learn more about prop making, and what careers prop making courses can lead to, below...
Make props till you drop - Wendy Chandler
I have worked in the prop making industry for more than 30 years and have seen many changes on the way. One of my first commissions was making 25 Pink Panther costumes to promote the film of the same name, for probably reticent employees to wear and stand outside the cinema dressed in stretchy pink towelling and wearing a latex panther head piece. Apologies, if any of you reading this had to wear my costume.
Times have changed and I moved on.
I have since worked on many commissions in film, theatre and TV Drama productions, TV commercials, photographic shoots, window display designs and live events such as parties, weddings and fashion shows, exhibitions and promotional events.
The prop making industry covers a wide spectrum of job opportunities and it has certainly offered me an interesting and diverse career. Many professionals in this industry come from various backgrounds such as furniture making, engineering, architecture, fine art, sculpture, painting and design. There are also many determined individuals who ‘learn on the job’ and undertake an apprenticeship with a skilled prop maker or company, or perhaps start their career as a runner in the film industry. I personally fall in the latter category – after a degree in design I studied an M.A. in textile design – I enjoyed a fleeting relationship with the textiles industry for one year, but work in 3 dimensions was beckoning. I was then fortunate enough to be called up by a prestigious sculptor in the film industry to help finish costumes for a Pink Panther project, to which my textiles background was well suited.
My apprenticeship in prop making started here.
I hope the following will give you an insight into this fascinating industry.
An introduction to props
A prop, formally known as (theatrical) property, or ‘belonging to the company’ is an object used on stage or on screen by actors during a performance or screen production. In practical terms, a prop is considered to be anything movable or portable on a stage or a set, distinct from the actors, scenery and electrical equipment. Props can be ready mades, hired or made to a specification. Sometimes a prop can be sourced and then altered and customised to fit the job. The prop making industry has come to particular attention via blockbusters such as Harry Potter and Star Wars and many others; but props have been in use for centuries in theatre before even silent film was invented.
The first known props were stylised handheld masks in early Greek Theatre symbolising comedy and tragedy, and props have continued to play important roles in both traditional and contemporary productions including diverse works from Shakespeare; Pina Bausch contemporary dance productions; puppet performances such as Punch and Judy with the ubiquitous truncheon; Kermit and Miss Piggy from Jim Hensons’ the Muppets; plasticine sculpts from Aardman Animation; and mask making and puppets for the Lion King by Julie Taymor and Michael Curry. These are to name but a few.
Props are evident in some of the first silent movies from the Lumière Brothers (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat 1895) filmed using extras and telling stories of journeys and people shuffling around carrying bags, sacks and boxes of all shapes and sizes. Georges Melies’ 1902 production of A Trip to the Moon shows some ambitious early prop making which is especially important to the story telling process given the format of the silent movie.
There are differences in specification when building props for various industries: film, TV, theatre, video, stills photography, other live events such as festivals, carnivals, exhibitions, fashion shows and window display all have individual requirements- but generally skills are transferable. All require:
• a love of hard work and capacity for long and unsocial hours
• an ability to problem solve
• logical thinking combined with a knowledge of tools, processes and materials
• an aesthetic understanding and creative ability
• good communication skills and an ability to work within a team
Our society understands a performance to be something happening in front of an audience or a camera. Within a performance there can be costume, scenery, props, or puppets - the boundaries between these disciplines is not a totally defined one and there can be many crossings over during the development of the production.
Why prop making?
Prop making is exciting because it covers many disciplines such as sculpture, model making, mask making and costume, moulding, casting, paint effects and, the biggest challenge – problem solving. Every commission has a new remit, and often involves experimenting with unorthodox materials or sourcing strange artefacts and objects, and can require tiny details in model making or large sculptures for a set.
Very often commissions can spill over into the magical and fantastical world of make believe and we are all familiar with the Star Wars and Harry Potter marathons. There is an interesting connection between sculptural processes and prosthetic make up techniques, which requires working within a team of skilled professionals. There are endless techniques and processes available in this field of work and skills needed include a knowledge of life casting, competent model making and mould making techniques, casting in relevant materials, and application processes working with a qualified make up artist. Window display and promotion is another good outlet for prop making skills. Photographers Tim Walker and Kirsty Mitchell are two examples of industry professionals using props to make surreal and evocative imagery.
Moving on to contemporary theatre and blockbusters such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lion King, Alien, and many others, technological developments have become super sophisticated with the introduction of Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), Video Mapping, and 3d Printing, but it is worth looking at pre CGI productions such as 2001 Space Odyssey and the original King Kong and Alien to be excited by hands on possibilities. Cutting edge technology does not rule out the physical human touch at all – in fact it embraces and enhances it – the human element is endemic and necessary in contemporary productions and we continue to work hand in hand with digital technology.
Part 1 is a practical 10-week introductory course for anyone interested in the prop making industry. It is very accessible, hands-on and friendly! You will explore a range of materials and techniques including carving and sculpting, fabricating, mould making, body casting, finishing and paint effects. You will be encouraged to develop your personal interpretation and interests throughout the course.
The prop making industry revolves around problem solving, working to a brief, team work and delivering on time. This comprehensive course will introduce you to the challenges of being a prop maker and working to such specifications. The course is based on a collaborative group project, although each student will be encouraged to have an independent and personal input. You will develop ideas, then explore a range of relevant materials and techniques to produce your concept successfully in three dimensions. You will be interpreting and realising a brief, and working to a deadline. This is an exciting, challenging and creative course, and your final work will be exhibited.