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Art & Design careers

Prop & Set Design

What is the purpose of prop and set design?

The set or the props used in film, TV or theatre production can sometimes become as iconic as the production itself. For instance, the volleyball (“Wilson!!!!”) in Cast Away, the lightsabers in Star Wars, Dorothy’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz, or the sledge used in Citizen Kane are all world-famous because of their intrinsic association with the films they were in.

Prop and set design is a very cool and creative part of the entertainment industry and, of course, it’s not just films you could work on, but theatre and television projects too.

Prop and set designers, who fall under the umbrella of production design, have the responsibility of bringing a production to life. The words, storyline and ideas are already in place, but the whole thing needs to become real and believable. Every backdrop, every piece of furniture and every single prop needs to perfectly reflect the production’s style, design and era. For example, you can’t have an actor wearing a Casio wristwatch in a film about life in 17th century England.

What makes a good prop or set designer?

You’ve got to have an acute eye for detail. Every last detail needs to be considered, from the products the actors and actresses use, to the cars they drive and the food and drink they consume. It’s all got to be spot on.

Regardless of whether you’re working on a film, theatre or TV production, you need to have unrivalled enthusiasm for what you’re doing – only then will you be able to excel.

You’ll need to have superb research skills, a good knowledge of previous productions and magnificent communication skills. You also need to be able to take in information, store it away and share it with others.

For example, if the director has five minutes to talk you through how a particular scene should look, you need to take note of absolutely everything. Not only do you need to take everything on board, but you need to be able to relay it to your colleagues.

What roles make up a prop design team?

There are loads of different roles within prop design that you can get into, such as the prop master who oversees everything prop-related, the prop maker who physically makes each prop, the props storeman who deals with the storage and transportation of props, and the team who work to install them on production locations. For smaller productions there may even be only one person handling everything.

How does set design differ from prop design?

Set designers work on a slightly larger scale. While the prop team are concerned with general ‘items’ and ‘things’ on the set, set designers are responsible for where the scene is shot (film) or how the scenery and backdrops move and can be changed (theatre).

They’re in charge of designing the general atmosphere of the production and devising how this affects the audience. This can mean anything from choosing the location, to ensuring that there is just enough smoke in the shot to create a spooky, misty setting.  

If it’s theatre-based productions you’re interested in, you’ll usually work on a number of different sets to create different scenes. Take the new Spiderman musical, for instance. To portray the acrobatic nature of Spiderman, countless ropes, harnesses, nets and human cannons are used to create the stunts.

How does set design work?

Traditionally, a set designer’s job would involve making a small-scale model of how you want the set to look, discussing this with the director, making any relevant changes and eventually working with your team to get it up and ready.

You’ll also work closely with the prop team to ensure that all the work is being created in the same mould. Collaboration between the prop and set designers is essential for making the right artistic impression on the audience.

Maybe you could come up with the next deathstar (“That’s no moon…”), find the exact right skull for poor Yorrick, or keep the nice sheen of authenticity onDownton Abbey. If any of this appeals, a career in prop and set design should certainly take centre stage in your future!