To celebrate National Careers Week we ask makers about their career path.
What I Do
I make props for just about anyone—theatre, film, TV, museums, retail, private and corporate commissions!
As a prop maker I utilise the skills, materials and techniques of many different crafts to find creative solutions to complex problems. The job is very varied—one week I may be required to replicate an artefact, animal, or natural object (at any size or scale). The next week I may adapt my thinking to a more specialised prop like a stunt (SFX) prop, or perhaps an item that doesn’t exist yet on planet earth! It’s my job to combine ideas, research and skills to create three-dimensional pieces that meet the specialist requirements of the designer, client or production. A prop maker must also balance the look and function of a prop with the available budget and timeframe to determine how a prop is made. A prop rarely exists in isolation; it may form part of a larger display or stage set. Often prop makers must collaborate with other makers and departments as part of a larger team effort.
Making the weird and wonderful every day is a lot of fun. There are many facets to a prop maker’s job, it’s the large variety of artistic, practical, technological, historical, financial, organisational, mathematical and scientific problems (to name but a few) that make my job so addictive!
Jobs in Prop Making
The industry is buzzing with job opportunities, and the future seems bright as the UK entertainment industry continues to grow. A lot of the props you see on stage and screen have to be made by people like me!
There are many prop-making career paths to choose from. You could work in a prop, model or SFX company creating stuff for various clients and industries. If you fancy a different pace, you could join a prop department for a film or television production. Some people prefer the challenges presented by live performance and work for in-house props departments in theatre or opera. Others may work for theme parks and events companies. Perhaps you will try all of the above!
The majority of UK prop makers are self-employed and hired to work for different companies on particular projects. When you are self-employed you may have several jobs in a year. If you are proactive in making new contacts and present yourself as a thoughtful maker, new opportunities will keep appearing on your horizon and you’ll never be out of work.
From a young age I’ enjoyed making things from anything I could get my hands on! Boxes, toilet roll tubes and egg boxes were all valuable crafting resources. It all boils down to the pleasure I get from taking raw materials and assembling them into something I didn’t have before! As a child, I made myself a lawnmower from Meccano, Blackpool tower from Lego, a house from cardboard and greetings cards that I sold in the school playground. In my early teenage years I built a model railway layout, helped to build props and sets for my local theatre society, and carved my mum a jewellery box from various scraps of woods I’d been given by my uncle (see image on the left). If you want to be a prop maker you should be obsessive about making things. You don’t need to have a lot of space or money to get started. With time and a few basic materials and you can create the most beautiful objects. The only limits are your imagination!
As an adult I’m addicted to solving problems—I can work in almost any medium. I’m willing to try just about anything because every time I solve a new problem I know I will be rewarded by rush of dopamine whizzing around my brain. This reward-motivated behaviour makes me fanatical about what I do!
What I Studied?
GCSES: Art, Design Technology, English Language, English Literature, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, History, Religious Studies, Spanish
A-Levels: Art and Design, Resistant Materials, History, Drama, Critical Thinking
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do as a career. In the end, I went with my heart. You only get one life— I believe that you should do what you enjoy
Someone close to me advised me to persue the subjects that show academic excellence and keep my creative interests as just hobbies. Creative subjects are every bit as ‘academic’ as any other class you can study at school. Creative subjects teach us to make independent decisions and be critical about our work. They are the only subjects where we are encouraged to develop our teamwork, and in doing so, we become more emotionally intelligent, and confident communicators.
In my final year of A-Levels I applied to a couple of universities for art foundation degrees, but the open days didn’t excite me enough to ‘make the leap’.
In a state of indecision, I spent a year working as a Design Technology Technician in a Secondary School. The gap year gave me time to evaluate what to do with all my many interests! I enjoyed acting and theatre and I was good at 2D Art and 3D Design Technology. All I had to do is find a career that combined them all! The internet came to my rescue, and via the Royal Opera House YouTube channel I discovered various jobs including prop making and scenic art—they both seemed tailor-made to my specific interests!
In order to learn the skills of a prop maker I enrolled on the 2015 BA Prop Making course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD). The university was a vibrant place to study. With the many in-house theatrical productions going on it had all the dynamism of an operational West End theatre! The course provided me with a fantastic toolkit of making skills. More importantly, it allowed me to develop my ability to collaborate successfully with peers and professionals through live briefs and work experience.
My Career Path
There are many ways to get to your desired career path. You could do an apprenticeship, apply for work experience or study at university.
I was reluctant to go to university because it seemed like an expensive way to move forward. I had to put the fees to the back of my mind and focus on my education and passions. I took as many opportunities as I could at university. I was keen to create a portfolio of work that would show my potential as a prop maker. I forged good connections with the visiting designers. In my first year designer Keith Orton asked me to create a model train for a production he was working on outside of the university.
In my second year of university, I set up a website. Then I bought a domain name, and improved my SEO (search engine optimisation) so that people could find my website when they searched Google for my name or phrases like ‘prop maker’. SEO is an essential step in getting found—there’s no point in having a website unless people can find you!
Whilst stuyding I was able to use the university workshop for various jobs. When the BBC contacted me to make some animal masks I asked other students for help. This job was a great opportunity to learn how to run a project like a commercial enterprise. I am still honoured that people would choose me to make stuff for them and pay me for doing something I enjoy.
My career decisions have been influenced by gut reactions combined with many hours of internet research. I’m cautious about when to take advice—I have learnt that there is more than one way to cook an egg! I’m thankful to my parents for not pushing me in any particular direction. Instead, they provided me with a safe and supportive environment to try out new things and discover my own abilities and interests.
It’s always helpful to talk to professionals who work in your field of interest. Listen to their perspectives, but be sure to balance their ideas against the ideas of others to make informed decisions.
In university I had two wonderful tutors with a wealth of experience to bounce my ideas off. However, there is no substitute for first-hand experience. Work experience/placements atuniversity enabled me to try out different prop making jobs and get a feel for what I liked and disliked.
My Advice to You
If you’re here reading this then you’re possibly interested in finding a career in craft. My advice to you is to do some research into your best course of action and go for it—making a start is all that matters. If a challenge doesn’t scare you then it’s probably not that important, so challenge yourself. The best way to find out if an idea works is to do it, and don’t be afraid to ask others for help along the way. Finally, share your passion with others and you will learn so much more along your journey.