What do you want to become?
Assistant Prop Master
Alternate Career Titles:
Assistant Property, Props, Assistant Propmaster, Assistant Propman, Prop Assistant
Career Overview: Assistant Property Masters assist the Prop Master with anything Actors handle on set. They ensure the correct props are prepared, are on hand for the shoot, and are archived once a scene is wrapped.
General Salary Range: $45,000 to $140,000. (Varies widely depending on union status, work tiers and ability to rent personal kit.)
Become an Assistant Prop Master
Paul Baker, a professional filmmaker and Assistant Prop Master of over twenty years, starts by laying out exactly what constitutes a “prop”: “Props are anything the Actors touch or handle (apart from furniture). It could be a toothbrush, a gun, a banana. Sometimes the prop itself helps push the story forward, and that’s always nice, or it can just provide lovely texture in the scene.” Baker explains the team dynamic in the Props Department, a subsidiary of the Art Department: “Initially, the Prop Master gathers the props; these are either purchased, rented, manufactured or invented. The Prop Master then brings them to set in their prop truck in the morning. There are usually two or three Assistant Prop Masters and we unload the truck to take stock of what we need for the day.”
Baker goes on to explain the “carts”, vital pieces of equipment in the Prop Department: “The Assistant Prop Master in the truck preps the day’s props in a ‘day cart’ — everything we need is on that. Then we have another ‘set cart,’ often called a ‘taco cart,’ with lots of drawers containing character pouches with all the personal props that an Actor normally needs (watches, sunglasses, necklaces, gun, etc.). The taco cart also has basic tools, sprays, and tapes that we need regularly on set. Then you have a ‘chair cart’ — for some unknown reason, the Prop Department is in charge of the chairs that the Actors, Producers, and Directors sit in. I don’t know why, and it’s a pain in the backside! Finally, there’s an ‘extras cart’ for when the Background Artists go to the prop truck to get ‘propped up’.”
Baker elaborates on the routine: “A couple of Assistants roll the chair cart to set, set those up and then begin preparing the scene for rehearsal. Then, the Assistant Prop Master on set and/or the Prop Master will go into the private rehearsal (normally they are allowed in) and hopefully everything doesn’t change from a Props perspective. After that, we get everyone ready, prop up the Extras and we’re ready to shoot the scene.” Baker explains that each Assistant Prop Master has a designated place on shoot day: “One is the point person on set, and another supports them, helping with whatever they need: running back and forth from the truck, propping the Extras, moving the Director and cast chairs. Finally, there’s an Assistant Prop Master in the truck receiving props, archiving them and prepping more for the next scene.”
Baker himself is a Director and filmmaker so he has always been a professional day-player as an Assistant Prop Master. This allows him flexibility to shoot his movies and commercials. Saying that, when he’s working full-time, such as his six seasons on Rizzoli & Isles, he lived on set. He describes his particular responsibilities and challenges: “When you’re on set, you provide what’s been listed for each scene. Then you attend the rehearsal in case things change, which they often do. For example, a janitor cart might turn out to be too clumsy for the actual shoot so they’ll decide to use a simple mop and bucket. But what if the mop needs to be a breakaway mop because they’re gonna hit the guy over the head with it? Then you have to improvise…”
Improvisation is an enormous part of the Assistant Prop Master’s day, as Baker reveals: “If we don’t have what is needed on-set, I’ll get on the walkie talkie with the truck person to see what we have. Prop trucks have all the staples: sports balls, coffee cups, picnic paraphernalia, bar glasses, all the big stuff. Failing that, we either send someone out to buy it, or we’ll liaise with the Locations Department to see if we have anything on location that we can use.”
Baker clarifies that the Props Department always tells the Director they will do their best to get what they need: “Then you bust yourself to make it happen! There are so many things that change on the day, especially in episodic television during the ‘tone meetings.’ For example, you might have an older Actor with arthritic fingers and the script calls for him to be loading bullets into a gun one by one and they can’t do it. So instead, they need a speed loader for a six-shooter and you’re calling local gun shops to find the thing! Or you have a food scene, but the Actor has a shrimp allergy and now we need sea bass instead of shrimp and you find yourself sent out to Craft Services or to the local fish market to solve the problem!”
Baker isn’t above bending a few rules to get the shot: “I remember doing a low-budget movie in Rhode Island and we needed local license plates (we had run out) so I took a few off some parked cars and left a note. That was extreme, but I did what I had to do. Obviously, I returned them before I was charged with a federal offense! There have been so many times I’ve had to improvise.”
It is also important to remember that the Assistant Prop Master is often the face of the department: “On a movie, the Prop Master is there on set with you and you’re like their lead assistant. But if the Prop Master needs to walk away, you take over. On TV, because there’s always a new episode coming up, the Assistant is very often left in control. You have a lot of responsibility, and you learn to work it all out yourself.”
Practically speaking, Baker describes himself as always being one step ahead of the shoot: “What I like to do is, once the scene is up and running, I send one Assistant ahead to start prepping the next sequence. That way, when it comes to the rehearsal, everything is already set up. For example, if you’re doing a cop show, you’ll want to go to the crime scene beforehand to lay down the evidence, the caution tape, whatever is needed. When the Actors come in, everything is already there and you’re not rushing around. A good Assistant Prop Master is always a step ahead of the game.”
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“I got into the Prop Department by accident”, says Baker. “I wanted to be directing but I was young and a friend of mine talked me into doing props. In Props, you have to interact with the Actors, read the script, talk to the Directors and be involved. Props was like a second film school for me with first-hand experience and problem-solving on the set.”
Baker is an anomaly in the Props Department because he is also a Director and is advancing to become a full-time Producer/Director. However, he explains that his comprehensive understanding of the industry stands him in good stead in his career as an Assistant Property Master, and the benefits are two-way: “I’ve worked with some really fantastic Directors and crew — they’ve come to work on my own productions so I’ve been very lucky to be working in Props. I’m a full-time day player. I have detailed prop understanding and experience, but I also offer all-round knowledge as a filmmaker. Anyone who wants to be a filmmaker could do a lot worse than work as an Assistant Prop Master — Props got me right in the action and I was able to learn from all the Directors in front of me.”
Education & Training
Baker recommends studying at college so you have a safety net: “I studied Communications (with a film emphasis) and minored in English. Honestly, I was going to be Eddie Van Halen so I only went to college to have something to fall back on. I’m glad I did; when I learned how to edit in college, it changed everything. I understood I could make my own films and keep music in my life by scoring them. Then I went to Miami to work as Assistant Editor and PA; there, a friend of mine invited me to help out as an Assistant Prop Master and I learned on the fly. I had written some scripts but I hadn’t directed anything so I propped for a couple of years, saved up some money, then directed my first short film.”
With regards to specific training, Baker suggests checking out all the top film schools: “There’s NYU, USC, and so many others. The way they teach is they break it up so all the departments are taught. Props is a part of the Art Department so, at film school, you’ll just get a little touch of what we do. Personally, I think it’s always good to get a degree so you’re covered, but there are others who would advise you just to get on set right out of high school and that’ll be your education. Either way, film school or not, degree or not, on set experience is key.”
Experience & Skills
Given that Props are part of the Art Department, it does help if you have an artistic bent. Baker elaborates: “If you know tools, or have an artsy side, if you can create something out of nothing, that really helps. And, in Props, you have to think quickly and solve problems gracefully so any experience in a problem-solving environment is going to come in handy.”
Baker points out that a love of film and television is just as crucial as your practical skills — we shouldn’t lose sight of the art and the alchemy. As he describes it: “A movie crew is like a circus. We move into a location, we tell a story and then we leave. It’s magic. When I go to the movies, I still get a chill up my spine when something cinematic comes on. That passion for storytelling means a lot. Even as a kid, I went to the movies all the time, and I still do. So, even though I didn’t know it, I was always training to be a filmmaker. You need that love of the art.”
“It’s always good to be outgoing and brave”, says Baker. “I remember working on Big Love and I was doing a lot of propping for Bill Paxton while he was focusing on his dialogue. He told me Prop Assistants are best when they are ‘ninjas.’ You have to know when to keep quiet, especially for the high emotion scenes — you need that tact. It’s good to be a ninja!”
Assistant Property Masters are self-employed so no gig is permanent. Along with that insecurity, the hours are long and days regularly stretch to ten/twelve hours. For Baker, day-playing allows him to duck out when he needs and focus on his filmmaking — that allows him to maintain a healthy balance. He goes on to explain that, “Most Assistant Property Masters want to become Prop Masters or Production Designers. Then some are quite happy doing what they’re doing, running the set as Assistants. I’m an anomaly because I’m a filmmaker, and it means I have meaningful, creative equilibrium in my life.”
There are no conventional, tried and tested routes into the Property Department, but Baker has some excellent, practical advice for people looking to break in: “Assuming you’re in New York, Atlanta or Los Angeles (the main production hubs), I would go to all the Prop Houses with your business card and resumé and talk to the salespeople — they know all the Prop Masters coming into prep their shows. Tell them you’re non-union but looking to get on any kind of set: a feature, a TV set, a reality show or a commercial, anything so you can get some experience. Prop Masters go to these Prop Houses all the time and they shoot the breeze with the salespeople. If they mention they’re losing an Assistant or they’re looking for someone hungry, the salespeople can pass on your details.”
Earnings fluctuate depending on how much work you garner over the course of a year, but Baker lays out some of the fundamentals: “Assistant Prop Masters on commercials get a day rate, and it’s around $500 for ten hours. For union TV shows, it’s an hourly rate set by the union and it’s around $40 per hour. There are times when you can negotiate for higher than the scale rate, but as a day player, my contracts are already set. If I were full time on the job, the Prop Master would negotiate the rate on my behalf.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
The union representing Assistant Prop Masters is the IATSE Local 44. Baker explains the benefits of membership: “They protect you so you get overtime after 8 hours. 8-12 is time and half, and after 12 hours it’s double-time — we normally work over twelve hours a day. The union also ensures we get a meal every six hours, and they pay into an annuity, so you have some money for your retirement. On top of that, the major boon is healthcare. I think it’s worth it just for that!”
- “Get an IMDB Pro subscription — it’s a great source. Let’s say you love horror movies. Go on IMDB Pro, find the Prop Masters on the horror movies you like then find a way to get hold of them. Contact them, hound them!
- Sometimes there’s a Production 411 in the city; LA has one. Find emails, phone numbers and contact the Prop Masters. Tell them you want be a Prop Assistant and you’ll do whatever they need — you’ll shop, you’ll sweep the truck. There’s no substitute for the old-fashioned hustle. You have to make the cold calls, you need to make the effort.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Walk into the top Prop Houses and find out if the Prop Masters on your favorite movies or shows ever shop in there. Hunt these people down! Even if they’re on a union movie, make sure they put your name in the hat for the next opportunity.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“People should step back, watch and listen more. The other golden rule is ‘Never have one of anything.’ You should have at least doubles, if not quadruples or more. Even if it’s a watch for your hero Actor, have another one in case it gets lost or you need to put it on a stunt double.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“I’m a pit bull. I suppose it’s about tenacity. That, and I just love movies and television!”
After graduating from Rhode Island College, Paul Baker lived in Miami. He worked for a year at a production company, then took a gig as a Property Assistant for the first time on the indie film Illtown. Over the next five years, Paul enjoyed learning about the prop craft — the many nuances of it were fascinating and challenging. With savings earned from an array of films and television in Miami, Paul funded his first short film with prop money.
Paul moved to Los Angeles where he continued to hone his craft in the Prop Department working on films, episodic television, half-hour comedies, and commercials, finally becoming a professional prop day-player. This allowed him to be employed by multiple shows at the same time, and still be able to make films. He was the additional labor on big cast/background days, or replaced co-workers who needed time off. He worked on 2nd Units and double-up days when the production needed two crews. He became the prop guy who was fluidly interchangeable and could do each job within the department. He adapted to different Prop Departments and their varied styles, learning what worked and didn’t work.
Currently, Paul uses his IATSE Local 44 property card to work on union shows in between directing his own smaller, non-union projects. Both careers teach and inspire each other. His prop profession happened by accident but has given Paul a unique way of earning a living, and an interesting perspective on the film business.
In between his films, Paul has over 45 Assistant Prop Master credits on IMDB and he is currently freelancing on the feature film, Space Jam 2.
Next up for Paul is his debut feature film. Stay tuned at paulbakerfilmmaker.com