What is a Property Master?
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Hint: Being a property master has nothing to do with real estate. A property master, at least in the world of film, is the person responsible for all portable objects (props) on a set. They are someone who likes to design and build things. They’re someone who is part artist, part sculpture, part carpenter, part designer and part furniture maker. If there’s a piece of portable property on the set, it’s because the property master made it happen.
There’s a fine line as to what constitutes a prop. Hollywood defines a prop as any physical object that a character interacts with during a scene that is not a costume (think Jason’s mask), a vehicle (think Back to the Future’s DeLorean), an animated object (think the Genie’s lamp) or a puppet. A list of classic props would include the lightsabers in Star Wars, the Rosebud sled in Citizen Kane, the horse head in The Godfather, the hoverboard in Back to the Future II, the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name, the boombox in Do the Right Thing, the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction. As you can see the variety of props is vast. It can include maps, machines, tools, weapons, furniture, artwork, signs, MacGuffins, symbols, household items and more.
The property master’s job starts in pre-production, when the director, art director, and production designer work with the property master to break down each scene to decide what props are required. This prop list is further broken down into those that need to be designed and built, those that can be purchased, and those that can be rented. Once the prop list is finalized, the property master gets the property department involved. From there, a budget is created and research is undertaken to ensure that props are appropriate for the period and culture in which the film is set. Next, the required props are built, bought or rented. During pre-production, the property manager acts as an artist, craftsman, and historian.
Two other considerations that fall under the scope of being a property master are the prop’s evolution and the prop’s usage during filming (example: the wear and tear of the DeLorean in Back to the Future). This is where the pre-production process and the property master’s experience really come into play. Pity the property master who doesn’t have the prop ready when the cameras are set to roll.
During Cast Away, there were 20 versions of the volleyball prop (Wilson). Some were used to experiment with in order to get the right look. During filming, there were five different hero balls used for closeups. Wilson, the prop, evolved throughout the movie, even growing hair. The volleyball as Tom Hank’s companion came about when screenwriter William Broyles Jr. was researching ideas and spent some time on an isolated beach setting in Mexico. After a few days, he was feeling particularly lonely when a volleyball washed up on the beach. The uplift to his spirits from this encounter is a central theme to the movie.
There were actually five different pianos used in the filming of The Piano. The main piano prop was used in the shot that circles the piano. Additional versions of the piano were used in the film. Different piano props were used in the scene where the Maoris carry the piano to Sam’s house, the piano that’s built into the box on the canoe, the silent piano that was filmed in the house, and the steel-frame version of the piano which gets thrown off the boat at the end of the film.
During production, the property master is in charge of making sure their crew stages the props in preparation for each scene and distributes props to the cast as needed. After each take, the property crew strikes the props and resets them for the next take or setup. The property master is also tasked with continuity—making sure the props are placed correctly for each take as well as for pickup shots. At the end of the day, the property master makes sure that all props are collected, stored, and ready for the next day’s shoot. After production, the property master returns all rented props, and arranges for all other props to be stored or sold. In short, during production, the property master needs to be the master of all portable objects, and manager and overseer of all the logistics and communication it takes to stay on top of the props in a correct, efficient, and timely manner.
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