11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Prop Masters

Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images
Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images

Whether it’s the proton packs in Ghostbusters, the sinister teacup in Get Out (2017), or one of the many unsung objects used on sets every day, prop masters are responsible for buying, making, and/or managing many of the items you see onstage or onscreen. Mental Floss spoke to several of these multi-talented (and multi-tasking) professionals from film, TV, and indie theater about what it's like to wrangle foam core, test fake drugs, and make sure the food always look fresh.

1. THEY’RE BASICALLY MACGYVER.

Prop professionals have to make or buy a wide variety of objects, often using restricted materials or a limited budget, so it’s no wonder that they have a reputation for being skilled jacks-of-all-trades. According to Joanna Tillman, a prop professional working primarily on TV shows (she was the on-set prop master for Orange Is the New Black), prop work is a great fit for the rare individual who’s “an expert at knots, firearms, cars, and making things out of tape.”

That’s particularly true on indie or low-budget productions, where a prop designer has to “look at something that’s supposed to be one thing and see something different,” Stephanie Cox-Williams, a prop and special effects/gore designer for indie theater and film, explains. Williams says she once created a race car for a theatrical production out of foam core, wires, hoses, and a Nintendo console.

On big union shoots, however, a prop master’s job can be much more specialized, which means they may not have to employ MacGyver-level skills (although they always help). Anna Butwell, an on-set and assistant prop master for film and TV productions like The Affair series, says her job is specifically focused on managing interactions between actors and props on set, or “putting props in people’s hands and really hoping that they don’t get lost, broken, or damaged.”

2. THEY ARE EXPERT SHOPPERS.

Props for rent at the History for Hire prop house in North Hollywood.Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The job of a prop master often has less to do with being a mad scientist than with being a savvy shopper, and a project may involve long hours of trolling Amazon rather than hours spent in an art studio. “People think it’s this interesting journey,” Tillman says, “but instead it’s like 18 hours on eBay.”

Smart and efficient prop shopping is a skill that’s acquired over time, and much of it depends on knowing where to look. A good prop master will have a sense of whether a prop should be rented from a prop house, bought at a big box store, or scrounged from a dollar store or Goodwill.

3. JUST ONE PROP IS NOT GOING TO CUT IT.

It’s not enough for a prop person to locate just one perfect prop—they also need multiple backups. According to Hannah Rothfield, a New York-based film and TV researcher, art director, and prop master on the forthcoming Alec Baldwin movie Blind, “You should have at least three extras of any prop, because accidents happen all the time.” Props take a beating on set and get broken; mechanical props can malfunction; and props sometimes go missing. On a tight shooting schedule, considerable headache and panic can be avoided by always having a backup prop waiting in the wings.

Cox-Williams says that durability is a big issue for stage props, especially in indie theater, where the luxury of backups might not be an option. Props have to last. She describes being tasked with finding pool cues to be used in an action scene and discovering “the most expensive would not last more than a couple of hits in a fight. Therefore, the cheapest most durable prop I ever made was dowel rods and model magic painted to look like pool cues.”

4. THEY ARE VERY ORGANIZED.

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Even if a production has multiple backup props, it’s still crucial to keep a careful eye on them. Prop departments on large productions maintain a system of bins and labels to keep props organized and in their correct place. Great prop masters will also sometimes try to stay a step ahead of the production in terms of anticipating unvoiced needs. Rothfield says that after going through a script and highlighting all of the props mentioned, she makes a second list of props that are not mentioned by name but that might occur in a given setting. That way, if a director or actor requests something new, she isn’t caught completely off-guard.

Surprises do happen, though. Rothfield describes an instance when an actor requested a photo album for his character during rehearsals and she had 45 minutes to compile the photos, print them, and bind them if the production was going to stay on schedule.

5. THEY BECOME EXPERTS IN WEIRD AREAS.

Mid-century canned food and other items at the History For Hire prop house in North HollywoodRobyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Since props can encompass such a wide range of potential objects and time periods, prop masters often find themselves deeply immersed in a highly specific area. “A props person ends up being an expert in whatever it is they’re doing,” Tillman says. For example, while working on Mr. Robot she became familiar with how computer servers function; Nurse Jackie taught her about automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) and emergency room procedures; and Orange Is the New Black was a chance to learn about what is and isn’t considered contraband in prison and what might be considered a potential weapon.

“You have to make sure you understand [the prop] because you’re going to have to explain it to the actor,” Tillman says, “and they’re going to have more questions about it than you ever thought possible.”

6. THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR FURRY CREATURES, TOO.

Cats, dogs, and birds may not immediately come to mind when you think of props, but the prop department plays a key role in handling animal actors. Tillman explains that while union productions typically hire an animal wrangler, props is responsible for finding an animal vendor and acting as a liaison between the director, writer, and vendor.

The situation can be a bit messier on non-union productions. Tillman says that one of her first production jobs was acting as both a rabbit wrangler and a prop-maker charged with creating a fake rabbit. “I was living in a hotel in Albany with two rabbits … [and] hollowing out a rabbit’s foot [to make a prop],” she says. “The rabbits would be looking at me, and I was like ‘don’t judge me.’ It was such a weird summer.”

7. THEY MIGHT HAVE TO DO DOUBLE-DUTY AS A CHEF.

Food-focused productions with a big enough budget typically hire a food stylist to oversee on-camera eats, but in other instances, that task falls to the prop handler. Their job includes making sure that the food looks the way the director wants it to, and that there are many, many, many backups, so that the food always appears fresh on camera. One potential complication in this area: actor dietary restrictions. Rothfield describes a shoot where a vegan actor was to be depicted eating a steak, so she and her prop assistant (who fortunately happened to be an ex-sous chef) went to a vegan restaurant for a seitan steak, which they smothered in mushroom sauce.

8. THEY’RE ALSO RESPONSIBLE FOR CARS. AND FIREARMS. AND SOMETIMES BLOOD.

iStock

Stunt choreographers are called in when a scene involves a car chase or shootout, but the stunt department doesn’t usually provide the guns or cars. That’s the job of the props department—although the stunt department often adds safety structures to the items. According to Tillman, every prop person with a union card receives a weapons certification and training on safe handling of firearms, and must undergo an FBI background check to rent blank-firing weapons in NYC.

Depending on the shoot, prop masters may also be in charge of fake body parts, blood, and other fluids. And according to Tillman, props may also provide hospitality items like heaters, tents, and chairs. Once again, their versatile reputation is well-earned.

9. THEY TEST THE FAKE COCAINE THEMSELVES.

Prop master tips for creating fake cocaine and other faux drugs, like the ones used in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), seem to be a source of ongoing fascination, no matter how many times they provide their secret recipe. (Cornstarch or Vitamin B powder for cocaine, oregano or hobby store moss for marijuana, freeze-dried regular mushrooms for magic mushrooms.) “There’s all these articles describing ‘this is what fake cocaine is,’” Tillman says. “Everyone knows what fake coke is. What they don’t know is that I test it to make sure it doesn’t hurt the actor to snort.”

10. MUCH OF THEIR WORK GOES UNNOTICED.

A Bonhams auction house employee holds a Kryptonite prop crystal from the film Superman III.Oli Scarff/Getty Images

When it comes to prop versions of common objects, a lack of attention from audience members means that the prop master has done their job correctly. Butwell says that her work generally should not be noticed “unless it’s an amazing prop, or you screwed up.”

“Props are essentially an iceberg,” she explains, “you see 10% sticking out of the water, but the 90% of the mass under the surface makes up the bulk of the material. If you see an actor drinking a beer on screen, there are probably five/six identical bottles standing by just in case. Most likely, all of these bottles had to have their real labels scraped off and fake ones put on. Someone else had to generate the graphics ... It has to be reset every take. And this is just for someone to drink a beer on screen.”

11. THEIR JOB IS NOT JUST ABOUT STUFF.

Union rules specify that a prop is any object touched by an actor, which means prop people have to think about the human side of the equation as well as how things look. They have to watch out for the safety and comfort of the actor at all times, whether that means testing cocaine or teaching actors how to use an AED. “A lot of the time you’re handing an actor something they could hurt themselves with, so you have to communicate,” Tillman says. This goes for common household items, like spray bottles of Lysol, as well as more dangerous props.

“The objects that we use in our everyday life, as soon as you put it on camera and give it to an actor it becomes the most foreign thing in the whole world. Normally people think ‘I won’t spray myself in the face,’ but the actor is doing a lot of work on their character.”

And, of course, props have little meaning outside of their relationship to an actor. “I love when you get on set and you lay out your props and the actor suddenly gets into character with it,” Rothfield says. “That’s when the prop can become a star of the film.”

Thursday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Guitar Kits, Memory-Foam Pillows, and Smartwatches

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 3. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Professional Songwriters

A songwriter in her natural habitat.
A songwriter in her natural habitat.
Soundtrap, Unsplash

Behind every club banger and power ballad is an eclectic team of individuals, each with their own role in its creation and promotion. Needless to say, it couldn’t happen without the songwriters. These gifted musicians don’t just pen the lyrics that fuel all your car concerts and karaoke nights—they also manage egos, help artists articulate their innermost feelings, and juggle their own side gigs. So what does a songwriting career actually look like? Mental Floss chatted with three experienced songwriters about everything from how they make money to how they make hits.

1. It’s common for songwriters to have their own music careers.

From Carole King to Pharrell Williams, the music industry has long teemed with talented artists who’ve written songs for other acts—so it’s not exactly surprising that so many songwriters are nurturing what they call their own “artist projects.” In fact, all three songwriters interviewed for this article have released new music in the last few months. Daniel Capellaro released the EP Nightside [A] in November under the moniker “Dvniel”; Skyler Stonestreet’s first single as “The Sunshine State” dropped in late October; and Trent Park has been unveiling a steady stream of singles and corresponding music videos since June.

Though it seems like it could be difficult to constantly fork over songs that they might want to release themselves, the collaborative nature of the business prevents this from being a major issue. Often, the songwriter is working off ideas and emotions specific to the artist they’re writing for, so the song truly feels like it belongs to that artist. Other times, the song gets tweaked by so many writers and producers that it’s no longer the original songwriter’s personal opus. “When a song comes out, sometimes I’m like, ‘Ah that was good, but I would’ve done it a totally different way,” Park says. “But that means it wouldn’t be the song that it is.”

2. Songwriters sometimes have to fake it ’til they make it.

In a business built on relationships, it’s pivotal for up-and-coming songwriters to always be on the lookout for new connections. Sometimes, this means acting first and thinking later. During Capellaro’s early days in Los Angeles, his demo CD was his de facto business card. About a month after giving one to an executive from Universal Music Group, he got a call from the company asking when he was playing next. Having no dates lined up, he picked one at random: March 16. “So I hang up and I'm like, ‘OK, I’ve just committed to playing a show. I've got no venue. I've got no band. I have to get all this put together in the next 30 days,” Capellaro remembers.

He found a former bass player from the band Lifehouse on Craigslist, and the two set about securing the rest of the band. For the venue, Capellaro chose a well-known rehearsal space called SIR (Studio Instrument Rentals), only to find out that the Universal exec slated to see the show “[had] never signed a single act at SIR—she hates that place.” It was too late to switch venues, so Capellaro reassured his Universal contact over the phone that “she won’t recognize it” and immediately transported everything in his recently furnished living room to the stage to give it a whole new look. “I had a couch, a rug, tea candles,” he says. “I wanted it to feel like MTV Unplugged.” The hard-to-please executive was duly impressed. “She’s like ‘You sound great. How long have you guys been playing together?’ and I’m like, ‘Ah, you know, for a while.’ I didn’t want to tell her ‘Four days.’”

When asked what surprised him most about the industry, Park answered without hesitation: “That nobody knows what they’re doing.” He, too, confessed to occasional fibbery. “There are some times when I reach out to an artist and I say, ‘I love your stuff. I have a song for you,'” he says. “I’m completely lying. I just want to work with that person, and once they reach out I end up formulating songs in the vein of their stuff.”

3. Songwriters don’t just write for career music artists.

Songwriters like Capellaro and Stonestreet, who are signed to music publishing companies, mainly do work on songs for fellow artists. Park, on the other hand, is an independent songwriter—so his clients sometimes come from other industries altogether. “Right now I'm writing for a couple lawyers that are just doing it as a passion, but they pay me really well,” he says. “I’m there for everyone. Honestly, it’s way better money.” Park also spent a few weeks writing songs for the wife of a billionaire app developer. Not only did she pay him triple his per-song rate and triple his per-diem rate, she also insisted on posting him up in a luxury hotel and giving him an additional $500 each day for food and other expenses. “That was a really cool [scenario],” Park says, “I’m hoping for more of those.”

4. There are countless ways to create a song—and countless people involved.

Songwriting isn’t exactly a linear process. “You can start from any place,” Capellaro says. “You can start with someone toe-tapping, or have a piano pulled up and just start playing a C chord over and over again.” Often, the record label has already started for you—they’ll send an instrumental track to multiple songwriters, who each adds their own lyrics and melody. Then, the label simply chooses their favorite.

Other songs originate in songwriting camps. Basically, a record label will gather various songwriters in a house, split them into small groups, and “see if magic happens,” Stonestreet says. During a camp meant to generate hits for Dua Lipa a few years ago, it did: Stonestreet and several other writers penned her 2018 single “IDGAF.”

But even after a track has lyrics and a melody, there’s always a chance it’ll undergo another round of edits. Maybe a label liked a certain producer’s work on another song, so they ask them to tweak this one; or they bring in a new writer to fine-tune a few words or add a post-chorus. Big artists also sometimes have personal collaborators that they want credited on the song, whether or not they actually helped create it. “That’s why when you look at a Katy Perry song, you’re like ‘How did 14 people write this one song that has the most juvenile lyrics I’ve ever heard in my life?’ They didn’t—it’s all politics,” Capellaro says.

5. Songwriters don’t make much from music streaming services like Spotify.

Music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are notorious for pocketing most of the earnings from artists’ work. Spotify, for example, pays the rights holder as little as $0.006 for each stream—and that paltry sum must then be split among all the people involved in making the song. Songwriters, producers, musicians, managers, label executives, and any number of other people could each be entitled to a certain percentage of the profits. “I have over a million streams on one catalog, and that translated to $785,” Capellaro says. “If I sold a million copies, I would’ve had a house up in [Beverly Hills].” Not only are the rates low, but artists also have to somehow make their songs stand out from the tens of thousands of other new songs released each week, which Capellaro admits is “virtually impossible.”

6. Songwriters often juggle other jobs.

Since songwriters can’t rely on streaming dividends for income—and salaried music publishing positions don’t always come easy—they often make ends meet with a variety of side gigs. Park realized early in his career that while songwriters were mainly earning money from royalties, producers were often paid an hourly rate or up-front lump sum. “So I learned how to produce,” he says. Then, he purchased a mic and other equipment so he could record vocals at home—like hooks for people’s rap or EDM songs. “Basically, I’m an a la carte thing,” he explained. Park eventually branched out into music video production, and he’s now directed videos for chart-topping artists like G-Eazy and Ty Dolla $ign. He also served as a music technical consultant for 2020’s The High Note, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson; in that position, he made sure the dialogue, instruments, and other music-related details matched real life.

Even when a songwriter appears to be working a job entirely unrelated to the music industry, there could be a shrewd reason for doing so. Capellaro spent more than a decade running a restaurant called Amici in Brentwood, California. “I knew I wanted to be there because that’s where the celebrities live,” he explains. Sure enough, he connected with people like J.J. Abrams, Laura Dern, and Bonnie Hunt, who was hosting her NBC talk show at the time. One evening while refilling Hunt’s water glass, Capellaro posed a question: “Hey Bonnie, what would it take to be on your show?” She asked if he had a CD on hand, which he did, and booked him as a musical guest within weeks. The day after the taping, Hunt dined at Amici again and lauded Capellaro for his performance. “I’m like, ‘This is so surreal. I was just on your show yesterday, and now I’m bringing you sea bass.” A producer who caught the performance later reached out to Capellaro and ended up inviting him to his studio for songwriting sessions—which yielded hits for Chris Brown and Boyz II Men.

It was also at Amici that Capellaro developed a friendship with Marc Caruso, a music engineer who happened to be the founder of a music publishing company called Angry Mob Music Group. About five years ago, Caruso, knowing Capellaro was itching to give up his restaurant job and focus on music full-time, offered him a music publishing deal; Capellaro’s been there ever since.

7. Songwriters have to form close bonds with artists in a few hours or less.

Because the goal is to create a song that feels personal to the artist, songwriters usually prefer to work directly with them whenever possible. And getting the artist to give them some seed of inspiration means forging a deep friendship with them within minutes of entering the studio.

“There’s so much trust that needs to happen in the room. You’re telling potentially intimate details about yourself that would be uncomfortable sharing [with a stranger]. So much of it is trying to create a safe place for the artist and a safe place for the writers, all the while dealing with egos the size of tall buildings,” Capellaro says. “It’s almost like a therapy session: What’s your mood today? What happened over the weekend? What’re you pissed off about? What’re you inspired by at this very moment? Because it can change at 5 p.m. today, and maybe that inspires the song.”

Stonestreet expressed a similar sentiment. “I honestly love when the artist is involved. You won’t know anything specific unless you’re sitting there having a conversation—it can be emotional. You form a relationship, and you trust each other to handle the information.”

8. Songwriters have to say “no” without actually saying “no.”

Songwriters have to find creative ways of steering a song in the right direction without flatly rejecting an artist’s not-so-great suggestion. Stonestreet might toss out a compliment and lean on the lackluster reaction of the room as evidence that they haven’t yet struck gold. Something to the effect of: “‘That’s cool, and I like it, but maybe it’s not jumping out, and it’s not making everyone jump around the room and [giving everyone] that feeling of ‘This is so exciting.’”

“I always say, ‘Let’s try it,’” Park says. “‘I don’t necessarily hear what you’re talking about, but let’s try it.’” Sometimes, hearing their idea come to life is enough to make the artist realize it isn’t a great fit. Park also occasionally asks the artist’s manager, significant other, or another trusted party to weigh in, hoping they’ll side with him. “But I am always honest. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I don’t think the idea works. If you like it, 100-percent do it. It’s not my vibe, but it’s your song.'”

And since the artist does have final say, the writers also need to know when to cut their losses. If the artist is hell-bent on certain subpar lyrics? “You’re going to go with whatever they’re going to like,” Capellaro says.

9. Songs sometimes get lost in the abyss.

Earlier this year, Stonestreet wrote Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s duet “Stuck with U,” which got released mere weeks later. “I just heard the demo of it last week, and it’s coming out Friday. I don’t understand what’s going on,” she thought at the time. “That was a freak thing. Usually you do have to wait a minute.” A minute could be a year—or never. “So many people have to say yes to the song for it to come out … All the label’s people, the artist’s team, your team.” Even after getting all those green lights, a single could still test poorly among advance radio reviewers and end up stalling indefinitely.

Sometimes, a record label neglects to send the finished product back to the songwriter. “I think some songs can go into a complete abyss where they just sit on a hard drive for years and years,” Stonestreet says.

10. Songwriters have mixed feelings about making music via Zoom.

Since songwriting often involves multiple people spending long hours in a small studio, the coronavirus pandemic threatened to upend the whole system. So songwriters went virtual. Some, like Park and Stonestreet, already had recording equipment at home; Capellaro, meanwhile, quickly invested in a mic, a monitor, cables, and all the other requisite gadgets. To shift the workflow online, they’ve had to more clearly define each person’s task for each song.

“I’m a vocalist, so I’m going to record vocals in my house, and I will send the stems to producer X, Y, or Z, have them tune them for me [and] put them into the rest of the track," Capellaro says. “I can have another guy master it, [and] we can always hop on a FaceTime or Zoom call to get it written and recorded.” This streamlined process has actually helped with productivity. “I have been writing more music since March than I was previously,” Capellaro says.

Making music via video chat tends to work better with fewer people, so Stonestreet has enjoyed the opportunity for more one-on-one sessions. When there are several people on the call, they cut down on confusion over who’s speaking (and singing) by thoroughly explaining each suggestion. “You really talk things through, which has been really nice,” she says. That said, the camaraderie born in the studio is hard to recreate on a computer screen, and songwriters are eager to experience that again. “I love Zoom, but I also really miss people in the room with me,” Stonestreet says.