Introduction to Props:

Prop Houses a by far the ideal place to start researching your main props. These are mainly centered only around large film centres like London and Hollywood. There are too many to mention here but annual publications similar to ‘Kay’s Art Department’. ‘The Knowledge’ in Europe and LA 411 in America has listings of all the main prop houses. These prop houses mostly specialize in there own particular theme like ‘musical instruments’ or ‘period furniture’ and have websites displaying a broad range of their items, though rarely comprehensive. If they are not able to help with a specific prop they are usually aware of other companies who might help so no harm is done in asking.

If a suitable item is seen, photograph it and check it is available for your shoot dates. They will then issue a job number and check your clients’ payment record (they usually hold black-lists of bad payers). All being well it will be pencilled for your production following payment or a company order form.

Shops are another useful source for props but care should be taken to negotiate carefully the rental or purchase price. A standard rate in prop houses is 20% of the items replacement value per week and this is a good starting point for negotiating. If an item is brand new the fee may be more and definitively more if damaged in your care, whether in transit or on the shoot. It is also known for shops to sell items prior to rental so ‘make sure you’ve got it’. There have been occasions where E bay has been useful but individual transport and storage for many items can be time consuming and prohibitive. Internet purchasing is by far the cheapest but be wary of their delivery times as despite their promises, by the time it gets to the dispatch department, anything can happen. It may seem expensive but far better paying extra for next day delivery to be sure of a reliable service. I have had many an agonizing time waiting for late arrivals in the post!

Small items are known as ‘smalls’ and can be difficult to estimate on a big set. It’s often useful to just calculate the overall runs or lengths of dressed shelves, especially with books, which are hired by the ‘foot/metre’, or ‘bumph’ (loose paperwork and files) as hired in boxes. Checking off then becomes simpler when each item is not individually listed.

Any practical electrical item will need PAT testing to be sure it’s safe to use. This is a standard test carried out by a specially qualified electrician. A sticker is applied showing when it was last tested and how long before re test (usually every job). Sometimes the prop houses will PAT test at an extra charge, if not, a quick call to the gaffer prior to your shoot can secure a qualified electrician to test props on the rig day.

The only way to avoid PAT testing is to purchase items brand new, which is obviously not possible for period items. If a lot of lights are involved, get it done on your shoot, with fewer items, have the prop house do it for you if possible.

Prop Disposal.

You can almost guarantee that any useful purchased props will have found a home by the end of the day but many of the large or awkward items can present a problem. Occasionally prop houses might express an interest but this may incur extra transport costs or storage. As designers we often have this dilemma and before long we wish we had never volunteered to assist by just taking it home to store as our premises which get more and more cluttered with items we never really wanted. This is one good reason for us, as designers, never to have anything larger than a small van, to avoid getting lumbered. We would be better saying that the prop has served its purpose and should be binned, sad though that may be. A special note here, if an item needs to be kept for possible future filming or continuity, it is the productions dilemma, not the designers. Whatever I’ve been asked to look after has rarely been used again and in the occasion it has, there has been transport or insurance dilemmas costing me time and money.

Prop Handling.

An experienced prop driver can be a huge advantage on set. Firstly they know where all the prop houses are and how they work. They can also load the props in shoot order so a ‘full’ truck doesn’t necessarily need emptying on your first location where say just only two props are required! They can assist with checking off and even help dress if required. I was once coming to the end of a job filming in numerous locations when in a quiet spell the driver suggested we check off all the props from the last two weeks filming. This was to save doing it in the dark upon wrap. We unloaded all the props on the grass and spent the next two hours checking off, wrapping, packing then loading the truck in order for a smooth return. Many other crew were also sitting on the grass just chatting including the producer who approached us and said, “Excuse me, I’ve been watching for a while and don’t understand what are you all doing”. He was totally unaware that this process happened on every job, but usually on a strike day in his absence, and was amazed at the amount of work involved. A job that is necessary to avoid loss and damage charges to the production!

A specialist prop man usually organizes prop handling. From the moment props arrive he will assume responsibility for their care and safety. If on a stage the prop man usually handles the stage keys and will open up and be last out in order to keep the props safe. He will also carry a kit (amongst others) for cleaning, polishing and general care of the props.

If budget won’t allow for a prop man or there are very few props it is taken care of by the designer or his assistant. Prop houses have special areas where items are checked, packed and unpacked. From here van drivers pick up paperwork, deliver and pick up props.

When the props arrive on set an area should be allocated where they can be unwrapped and checked off. A few props tables are helpful so all can be done at working height. Keep all the boxes and wrapping under your tables for the returns. It may seem a fruitless task checking off items that have just been unloaded but if an item is missing or damaged, and on the delivery note, you can be sure to be charged for that item even though it never arrived. Open up all the props and then check off each item with their appropriate note, note also for any damage.

A simple phone call to the prop house notifying of any loss or damage can save any future discrepancies. Usually, there is a combination of purchases and rented props so it is a good idea to mark these items for future reference (after a few days filming it’s easy to get confused on their return).

All legitimate production companies should have your props insured from the moment they are picked up to when they are returned. However; it’s wise to check cover with them should you pick up the items personally by car, as there have been cases of insurers refusing to pay out when personal transport has been used, (More in the book).