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.”

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Meet Ice Cream Scientist Dr. Maya Warren

Maya Warren
Maya Warren

Most people don’t think about the chemistry in their cone when enjoying a scoop of ice cream, but as a professional ice cream scientist, Dr. Maya Warren can’t stop thinking about it. A lot of complex science goes into every pint of ice cream, and it’s her job to share that knowledge with the people who make it—and to use that information to develop some innovative flavors of her own.

Unlike many people’s idea of a typical scientist, Warren isn’t stuck in a lab all day. Her role as senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery takes her to countries around the world. And after winning the 25th season of The Amazing Race in 2014, she’s now back in front of the camera to host Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya on Instagram. In honor of National Ice Cream Month this July, we spoke with Dr. Warren about her sweet job.

How did you get involved in food science?

I fell in love with science at a really young age. I got Gak as a kid, you know the Nickelodeon stuff? And I remember wanting to make my own Gak. I remember getting a little kit and putting together the glue and all the coloring and whatever else I needed to make it. I also had make-your-own gummy candy sets. So I was always into making things myself.

I didn't really connect that to chemistry until later on in life. When I was in high school, I fell in love with chemistry. I decided at that point I should go to college to become a high school chemistry teacher. One day I was over at my best friend's house in college, and she had the TV on in her apartment. I remember watching the Food Network and there was a show on called Unwrapped, and they go in and show you how food is made on a manufacturing, production scale. In that particular episode, they went into a flavor chemistry lab. It was basically a wall full of vials with clear liquid inside them. They were about to flavor soda to make it taste like different parts of a traditional Thanksgiving meal. So you had green bean casserole-flavored soda, you had turkey and gravy-flavored soda, cranberry sauce soda. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, like how disgusting is this? But how cool is this! I could do this. I'm a chemist."

I love the science of food and how intriguing it is, and I had to ask myself, "Maya, what do you love?" And I was like, "I love ice cream! I’m going to become one of the world’s experts in frozen aerated deserts." I found a professor at UW Madison [where I earned my Ph.D. in food science], Dr. Richard Hartel, and he took me under his wing. Six and half years later, I’ve become an expert in ice cream and all its close cousins.

How did you arrive at your current position?

I didn't actually apply for the job. Six years ago, I was running The Amazing Race, the television show on CBS. After I was on it, a lot of publications reached out wanting to interview me. I did a couple of interviews and someone from Cold Stone found my interview. They noticed that I’m a scientist, and they were looking for someone with my background, so they reached out to me. I was actually writing my dissertation, and I was like, "I'm not looking for a job right now. I just want to go home and sleep."

I originally told myself I wasn't going to work for a year because I was so exhausted after graduate school and I needed some time off. But I ended up going to their office in Scottsdale for an interview. At that time, I still wasn't sure if was going to do it or not because I didn't want to move to Arizona. It's just so incredibly hot. I ended up being able to work something out with them where I didn't have to move Arizona. I came on board back in 2016. I started as a consultant at first because I didn't want to move. But then I proved I could make this work from afar.

What does your job at Cold Stone Creamery entail?

I'm the senior director for international research and development for Cold Stone Creamery. A lot of what I do is establishing dairies and building ice cream mixes for countries all across the globe. Dairy is a very expensive commodity. Milk fat is quite pricey. Cold Stone has locations all over the world, and they all need ice cream mixes. But sometimes bringing that ice cream from the United States into that country is extremely expensive, because of conflicts, because of taxes, different importation laws. A lot of what I do is helping those countries figure out how they can build their own dairies, or how can they work with local dairies to make ice cream mixes more affordable.

The other part of what I do is create new ice cream flavors for these places. I look at a local ingredient and say, "I see people in this country eating a lot of blank. Why don’t we turn that into ice cream? How would people feel about that?" I try to get these places to realize that ice cream is so much more than a scoop. In the States, we have ice cream bars, ice cream floats, ice cream sandwiches. But many countries don’t see ice cream like that. So getting these places to come on board with different ideas and platforms to grow their business is a big part of my job.

Maya Warren

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor you made on the job?

I made a product called honey cornbread and blackberry jam ice cream. Ice cream to me is a blank canvas. You can throw all kinds of paint at it—blue and red and yellow and orange and metallic and glitter and whatever else you want—and it becomes this masterpiece. That's how I look at ice cream.

Ice cream starts out with a white base that's full of milk fat and sugar and nonfat dry milk. It’s plain, it’s simple. For this flavor, I thought, "Why don’t I throw cornbread in ice cream mix?" I put in some honey, because that’s a good sweetener, and a little sea salt, because salt elevates taste, especially in sweeter desserts. And why don’t I use blackberry jam? When you’re eating it, you feel the gritty texture of cornbread, which is quite interesting. You get that pop of the berry flavor. There’s a complexity to the flavors, which is what I enjoy about what you can do with ice cream.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

One of the most rewarding things is being able to produce a product and see people eat it. The other part of it is being able to have a hand in helping people in different countries get on their feet. Ice cream isn’t a luxury for many people in America, but there are people in other countries that would look at it that way. Being able to introduce ice cream to these countries is fascinating to me. And being able to provide job opportunities for people, that sincerely touches my heart.

The last part is the fact that when I tell people I’m an ice cream scientist, it doesn’t matter how old the person is, they can’t believe it. I’m like, "I know, could you imagine doing what you love every day?" And that’s what I do. I love ice cream.

What are some misconceptions about being an ice cream scientist?

When I tell people what I do, they automatically think I just put flavors in ice cream. They don’t know that there’s a whole other part of it before you get to adding flavor. They don't think about the balancing of a mix, the chemistry that goes into ice cream, the microbiology part that goes into ice cream, the flavor science that goes into ice cream. There’s so much hardcore science that goes into being an ice cream scientist. Ice cream, believe it or not, is one of the most complex foods known to man (and woman). It is a solid, it’s a gas, and it’s also a liquid all in one. So the solid phase comes in via the ice crystals and partially coalesced fat globules. The gas phase comes in via the air cells. Ice cream usually ranges from 27 to 30 percent overrun, which is the measurement of aeration in ice cream. You also have your liquid phase. There’s a semi-liquid to component to ice cream that we don’t see, but there’s a little bit of liquid in there.

People don’t think about ice crystals and air cells when they think about ice cream. They really don’t think partially coalesced fat globules. But it’s really fun to connect the science of ice cream to the common knowledge people have about this product they eat so much.

If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

If I wasn’t an ice cream scientist, I think that I would have been a motivational speaker. When I was a kid, my parents would send me to camp, and I remember having a lot of motivational speakers that would come in and talk to us. I always wanted to do that as a kid. So it’s either between that or a sport medicine doctor, because that was the track I was on in college. So if I didn’t figure out food science, I probably would have gone back to sports medicine. But I’m glad I didn’t go down that path, because I think I have one of the coolest and sweetest jobs—pun intended—that exists on planet Earth.

You’ve been hosting Ice Cream Sundays on Instagram Live since May. What inspired this?

At the beginning of quarantine, I was like, "What am I going to do? I can't travel anywhere. What am I going to do with all this extra time?" I was on Instagram, and I started seeing people at the very beginning of this make all this bread. And I was like, "I need to start talking about ice cream more. Ice cream can’t be left out of this conversation."

I started making ice cream and posting here and there, and people would ask me about it, and I would ask them, "Do you have an ice cream maker?" I put a poll up and 70, 80 percent of people who replied did not have ice cream makers. So I was like, "How am I going to make people happy with ice cream if all I do is show photos and they can’t make it?" Then I decided to make a no-churn ice cream. That’s not how you make it in the industry, but it’s how you make it at home if you don’t have an ice cream machine. I think it was around May 3, I decided I was going to do an Instagram Live. I’m going to call it Ice Cream Sundays with Dr. Maya, and I’ll just see where it goes from there.

I did one, and from the beginning, people were so in love with it. Then I thought, "Whoa, I guess I should continue doing this." I’ve made a calendar. People really attend. People make the ice cream. People watch me on Live. I’ve always wanted to have a television show on ice cream. I figured, if I can’t do a show on ice cream right now on a major network, I might as well start a show on Instagram.

What advice do you give to young people interested in becoming ice cream scientists?

My advice is: If you want to do it, do it. Don’t forget to work hard, but have fun along the way. And if ice cream isn’t necessarily the realm for you, make sure whatever you do makes your heart flutter. My heart flutters when I think about ice cream. I am so intrigued with it. So if you find something that makes your heart flutter, no one can ever take away your desire for it. If it is ice cream, we can get down and dirty with it. I can tell them about the science behind it, the biology, the microbiology that goes into ice cream itself. But I just encourage people to follow their heart and have fun with whatever they do.

What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?

If we’re talking just general flavors, I love a good cookies and cream. I’m an Oreo fan. I also make a double butter candy pecan that is my absolute jam.