Prop master to brand master

John Stolly as Roger Sterling in Mad Men

You may not know their name, but you know their work.

From the Wilson volleyball in Cast Away to the hover board in Back to the Future… whether you take the red pill or the blue pill in The Matrix or lift a boom box over your head in Say Anything, these items, as iconic as they’ve become, are classified as one thing: props.

A prop, in any given production, is anything the actor touches, consumes or interacts with outside of their costume or wardrobe. On the onset, it sounds simple, but the beauty behind the art form is the research and meticulous process of sourcing the right prop that not only gives an actor a tool to play with, but builds their character and turns that object into an extension of who they are.

The responsibility is significant and it belongs to an unsung hero in Hollywood. Someone who over the years has presented audiences with iconic and memorable props. Props that in some cases, have become as synonymous in pop culture as the film itself. This of course, is none other than the property master or prop master.

A prop master is a department head in a production who runs the prop department. Their work starts in pre-production, often six to eight weeks before principal photography begins and sometimes earlier for high concept or period productions. In close conjunction with the art department, sets, production designer, costume designer, director and actors, the prop master must carefully choose props that fit within the production’s environment, color pallet, time period and character alignment.

The prop master must also be a subject matter expert. If the story is about a barber shop, the prop master must fully understand the type of clippers, styling gels and other accessories the actors will be using, so they can not only source the correct props but also show the actors how to use them. In the case of a futuristic science fiction film, a prop master must create and source props that feel accurate and appropriate to the time period, environment and core plotline. They have the task of identifying props that help make the characters relatable to the audience, despite the onscreen world looking nothing like our own.

Scott Bauer, a highly-accomplished, 20-year veteran of the industry, has continued to hone his craft as the brand landscape has evolved and brand placement has become more prevalent. As it relates to getting it right, education plays a most important role.

“We do a great deal of research and think about every aspect of what a character would use, and more importantly, why they would use it,” he says. “It lends itself to authenticity and what feels most natural to the storyline.”

It is often said that if a prop master is doing their job right, you won’t even notice their work, because everything in the frame will seem completely natural and organic to its environment. In a term known as “layering”, a first coat of paint is applied to the set and the prop master and their team goes in and adds all the personal touches that round out who a character is and why the audience ought to care about them – from the type of water bottle they have in their cubicle, brand of headphones they wear when they go for a run to the type of watch they wear every day.

In the past, getting brand props wasn’t exactly the easiest proposition. Sometimes, the prop masters needed to create things from scratch (still a practice today, but not as prevalent as in years past) and only due to their skill and talent did the props work within the framework of a story. Even getting real brands on board provided a real challenge.

“Years ago I would have been scrambling to find product where I could,” said Bauer. “Having that relationship with the product placement companies and the brands really gives me creative freedom to help me do my job and to tell the story that much better.”

That said, it is still incumbent upon the creative teams to work with brands to articulate the importance of trusting the process and that they all take stewardship of a brand’s product seriously. And it all starts with keeping the lines of communication open.

“I think everybody needs to have an open mind and an open dialogue about what the brand or product can do for the scene,” noted Bauer. “Trying to force a product into a scene that doesn't necessarily work, just to get the product in there, is a problem. I think if there's an open dialogue between the production, the prop master, the client, and the product, I think that's the best route to take.”

Indeed, Bauer, in looking at his track record, knows what he’s talking about. From TV to film, he has mined the creative landscape to not only follow the core story, but to find and use the margins and opportunities to add nuance which, ultimately, can make a story even better — another facet of integration and trust that brands should understand.

“[Brand should be] open to different ways the product can be used. Most prop masters are fairly savvy with that,” said Bauer. “Brands must trust the creative process because, generally, prop masters and producers are not going to be irresponsible with a product, so brand should get over the fear of that.”

Props can carry tremendous weight throughout a story – whether it’s a top that our hero spins to determine if the world he’s in is real or just another dream, or a piece of candy that makes us realize that an extra-terrestrial is not much different than us. When a brand can be a part of a moment like that, it transcends anything they could achieve in a 30-second ad spot because they are now an essential part of a story that will live on beyond production.

As Hollywood, a town built on relationships, continues to illustrate the power of honest collaboration with brands looking to make an impact — and as more and more content is created by the incumbents and newcomers — there is ample opportunity to continually create meaningful moments and partnerships with the experts, like the prop masters, who live it every day.

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