Becoming a Prop Maker: How to Make Props for Theatre, Film & TV | The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

How to make Props for Theatre, Film & TV

Prop Making Course Leader Dot Young discusses how to become a Prop Maker, and making Props for Theatre, Film & TV.

Image of Prop Design BA, a prop making course for prop makers at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London. Pictured: Prop Making Research Project with Clay Masks

By Dot Young, Course Leader for Prop Making at Central

How to Make Props for Theatre, Film & TV

The heart of prop-making is problem solving and skilled making. I recently said in the Guardian that we’re the modern day alchemists, experimenting to create new solutions to complex problems. In Prop-making we lean to costume, we lean to scenic construction and also scenic art – we don’t make a prop that’s not painted.

Our students have to be able to sculpt, weld and make moulds, life cast and vacuum form, use plastics, woods, metals, plaster and paint effects – they’re flocking things, they’re gold enamelling things. We’re making creatures, Roman pillars, giant bananas, skeletons, severed heads…it’s very broad!

As a Prop Maker, it’s unusual to just work in one genre of performance. You will make props for theatre, film, TV, events, advertising and window display, so that’s what’s key about prop making – you’re making for performance, but all the skills you use you’re applying to different industries.

There’s an enormous amount of work in the film industry, and a lot of our graduates go into film; many go into opera and theatre, TV and window display – all in equal parts. When we talk about how to make props, we’re talking about how to make props for all those genres.

When you go to the Warner Bros Harry Potter Experience, you see the result of the training that we do; all the props that you see in film, TV or theatre are coming from courses like the one we run here at Central.

What skills do prop makers need?

The key thing to understand about being a Prop Maker is that you live in a very three dimensional world. You will be replicating objects, creating new objects and liaising with designers and directors in whatever genre you’re working in.

You’re going to be the sort of people that are always fiddling with a bit of plasticine or Blu-Tack or foil. You might have made a skeleton out of coat hangers when you were a kid. You might have collected all the polystyrene when your TV got delivered and glued it together to make a robot! So it’s going to be people that are quite fanatical about making, but it’s fun as well – you never ever make the same thing twice, ever!

You have to be very adaptable, have a very, very fine eye for detail and quality of outcome, and have a real understanding of three dimensional form. You have to be able to draw to describe a shape, and have a certain amount of art history, so you know how to make something that looks like it’s from the 1920s and not the 1940s.

You have to have a sense of humour, to be playful and very experimental. Quite often we go off-piste by taking the traditional way of making something and then we bend it and shape it into some cheeky way of solving a problem. You might look at somebody and think ‘why have they got an old football and a plastic cone and an elastic band’, and it will be because that is the absolute perfect answer to the problem they’ve been set.

So it’s quite unorthodox, and there’s a bit of mad scientist to it. You have to learn traditional skills and making, but you also have to have a playful, inventive mind to go your own way with it, to find a solution to complex problems.

It can involve a lot of engineering, drawing, and a lot of sculpting – most often it involves thinking outside the box, and thinking creatively and inventively and creating a unique object. You might make a tree, then another tree, and then another one, but they’re never the same – they’ve always got a different purpose. It’s always driven by purpose: what does it have to do? Does it have to bounce? Does it have to be waterproof?!

How and why do you become a prop maker?

You probably become a Prop Maker because you love making things and you’re good at it. You could go on a course to shore up those skills, where you could learn to really hone them, and develop soft skills as well, such as communicating with people in the industry – talking to a designer, learning to be adaptable, learning what a director is and what they need.

You need to learn about how a Prop Maker functions in the theatre and film industry, by working with professionals that are from that industry, by going on work placements. You could try and initiate those work placements yourself but you’d certainly get more leverage if you were on a course that was connected to the industry.

At Central, we have staff who work freelance in all those genres: film, TV, theatre, events, advertising; so we get people into the industry through work experience, once they’ve been trained enough to cope in that context.

Opportunities for prop making jobs

There are lot of well paid jobs for prop-makers. One of our graduates worked on the film Dunkirk and Dr Strange in special effects, another on Star Wars, that’s one way that you can go, and they have been extremely well paid. Another graduate works regularly at Glyndebourne (a renowned opera house) and The Royal Opera House also; the National Theatre and independent companies like Asylum & Creature Effects also offer high Self Employed Rates.

Everything you see on a screen or in a performance space that’s been made has been made by prop makers. So you can imagine the vast amounts of roles you can take on – there’s an enormous amount of work out there. Certainly on our course, our 3rd year have just graduated and we’ve got 100% employment on leaving. The day after they graduated I couldn’t get them to meet for lunch because they were all going to work!

If you’re skilled, and playful, and hardworking and canny and know what you’re doing, if you’ve really got an eye for it, you can make a lot of money, and you can work endlessly.

Are academic qualifications important?

It’s not so much saying you have the academic qualification per se, it’s more that having done an academic qualification you’ll have more work experience and more training in your soft and hard skills. You’ll be pushed to achieve more in your making and be able to research effectively. By studying on a course you really get your bare talents shaped and honed, and you’re pushed to really get the best out of yourself. Outside of that context, it’s hard to self-generate that, so it’s easier to achieve your full ability on a taught course.

At Central, we do have set levels of what’s required, as the course requires academic engagement, research, analysis and reflection. but quite often we’ll have someone apply who’s been out of education for quite a long time and they’ll just come with a blinding portfolio. For all applicants if they’ve been self-directed in their making and projects, and they’ve clearly got a brilliant problem solving head and love working in three dimensions, and have made some really interesting and ambitious pieces, then that’s the sort of person that will really blossom on the course.

Find out more

If you like the sound of prop making, check out our Prop Making, BA course

Image of Dot Young, Prop Making Course Leader at Central

Dot Young is Prop Making Course Leader at Central