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11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Prop Masters

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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 History for Hire prop house in North Hollywood.
Props for rent at the History for Hire prop house in North Hollywood.
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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.

Soup cans and other mid-century food and daily items at the History For Hire prop house in North Hollywood, California
Mid-century canned food and other items at the History For Hire prop house in North Hollywood
Robyn 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.

Members of a film crew standing near a car covered in water or soap under lights.
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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.

An employee at Bonhams auction house holds a 'Kryptonite' prop crystal from the film 'Superman III',

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.”

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11 Secrets of Matchmakers
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In an age of dating apps and casual hookups, matchmakers may seem like a relic from another era. But although they've been bringing people together since long before we were swiping right, matchmaking as a profession is still alive and well. We spoke to several matchmakers to get a glimpse at how their job really works, from their sixth sense for making matches to how they deal with picky clients.

1. THEY’RE ALWAYS ON THE CLOCK.

Whether they’re shopping for groceries, waiting in a doctor’s office, or traveling on vacation, matchmakers always have their eyes peeled for ideal partners for their clients. “Being a matchmaker is not a 9 to 5 job,” matchmaker and dating coach Bonnie Winston tells Mental Floss. “24 hours, seven days a week is more like it. My employees go home, but I never close!”

Winston, who often works on weekends and evenings, also gives her clients dating advice before, during, and after dates. “It is not unusual that clients call me with inquiries about what they should wear before certain dates,” she says. “Or, I’ll get calls in whispered hush tones—secretly from bathrooms in dining establishments—to ask me questions on etiquette, or if they can hook up with their date because they have great chemistry,” Winston says.

2. THEY HAVE A SIXTH SENSE.

A young man and a woman sitting on park benches near each other
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Romance is mysterious—no one can predict whether two strangers will meet and fall in love. But successful matchmakers possess a high level of emotional intelligence and intuition that guides them in their work. Winston, who made her first successful match when she was 16 years old, says she just has a natural sense of which people would be good together. “Matchmaking isn’t something that can be bought or taught,” she says. “I will meet someone and just know when they are a good match for one of my clients.”

3. THEY’RE PART THERAPIST/LIFE COACH.

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Matchmakers meet with clients, interview potential matches, dispense dating advice, and attend networking events. But some also perform background checks, administer personality testing, and build psychological profiles of their clients. The best combine a therapist’s listening skills and objective perspective with a life coach’s ability to motivate. Matchmakers may also interview their clients to determine why past relationships have failed, and help them formulate a strategy to achieve their relationship goals.

4. THEY’RE MASTERS AT NETWORKING.

The most successful matchmakers love people. Meeting people, listening and talking to them, and ultimately pairing them together excites and inspires them. In a Reddit AMA, three matchmakers at Three Day Rule explained that successful matchmakers are extroverts, and highly confident when approaching new people. “You really have to be able to walk up to anyone. We go up to people on the street all the time and say ‘Hey, are you single?’ so you have to be ok embarrassing yourself a bit,” they write.

Besides speaking with people they encounter in daily life, matchmakers may also rely on their networks of family and friends. “My mother is one of eight siblings and I have literally dozens of cousins who are well aware that there is a ‘yenta’ in the family. I tap into those resources, too!” Winston says.

5. THEY WISH PEOPLE WOULD BE WARY OF PHONY MATCHMAKERS.

A young businesswoman holding money and writing on papers
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Although some reputable organizations offer courses and certifications in matchmaking, matchmakers don’t need any formal training to do their job. “Some [of these organizations] are legit, but others are just about the revenue,” says Jamie Rose, the founder and CEO of Rose Matchmaking. Similarly, some matchmaking companies are more about maximizing profit than helping people find love. Scammers who start these matchmaking businesses take advantage of desperate, lonely people looking for love.

So how to tell which businesses are legitimate? Watch for these red flags: matchmakers who won’t meet you in person, companies that have recently changed their name (perhaps to evade detection or create distance from angry former clients), sites that don’t have testimonials (or where the testimonials seem fake), and companies that have many negative user reviews.

6. OVERLY PICKY PEOPLE FRUSTRATE THEM.

Matchmakers get frustrated when clients have unrealistic expectations about love. “There is no such thing as a perfect match, and some people come in thinking that there may be,” Rose explains. Clients may also have emotional blocks that get in the way of finding love. “Some people say they want to get married but they don’t really want to,” Winston says. “They turn down every potential date for a ridiculous amount of petty and inconsequential reasons.”

Jennifer Hayes, the Director of Operations for South Carolina Matchmakers, adds that because bad relationships tend to harden people, matchmakers must encourage clients to keep their hearts and minds open to love. “One of the biggest hurdles we have as a matchmakers is encouraging clients to stay open to the possibilities of finding love,” she tells Mental Floss.

7. SOMETIMES THEY HAVE TO BE BLUNT.

A man and a woman, each on a bicycle on a rural road, holding hands
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When a date goes poorly, matchmakers must walk a fine line between being honest and being tactful. “My least favorite part would be telling one client that another client wasn’t interested in them,” Rose says. Although most people don’t enjoy getting rejected and hearing about their off-putting habits, it’s essential that matchmakers be blunt with their clients. By speaking the truth in a kind yet firm way, matchmakers can build a trusting, productive relationship with their clients.

8. DATING APPS CAN MAKE THEIR JOB HARDER …

Dating apps give people a huge number of potential matches at their fingertips, but most apps don't vet matches—and good results are not guaranteed. “[Dating apps] make things so impersonal,” Winston says. “[Users] are deleting really good people forever so easily in seconds with their fingertips. And scratching their heads [about] why they can’t meet anyone.”

In addition, many dating apps are free, while matchmakers charge for their services. Matchmakers say that free apps propagate the view that finding love shouldn't cost anything, and thus threaten matchmakers’ livelihood.

9. … BUT APPS CAN ALSO DRIVE CLIENTS TO THEM.

An older man and a woman looking bored and each on their phones
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While apps may be many people’s initial foray into the dating world, a disappointing experience can lead unsuccessful daters to a matchmaker. “Honestly I think [dating apps] impact [our industry] positively,” Rose says. “People who try those apps or sites see that they are about quantity not quality, and then they research better options and find me.” Winston adds that matchmakers slow down the online dating process. “People who come to me are sick of swiping, scrolling, sexting and texting, getting poked, and being ghosted. They are burnt out,” she says. “I bring back old-fashioned courtship and romance.”

Matchmakers also lend a human element that’s often lacking in online dating. "We know as matchmakers that setting people up requires knowing them to some extent, and knowing people requires time. Unlike online apps we get to know our clients and build relationships with them so we can effectively match them," Hayes says.

10. THEY MAKE CLIENTS LOOK THEIR BEST.

Visuals and first impressions play a huge role in dating, and good matchmakers help their clients improve their image. “You’d be surprised how many people come to me with terrible selfies to find love!” Winston exclaims. Because she owned a fashion photography agency, Winston stays connected to top photographers and hair and make-up artists, and she provides her clients with professional photo shoots. “I want my clients look their best while showing their authentic selves,” she says.

11. THEY LOVE HELPING PEOPLE FIND TRUE LOVE.

A black man and woman, with their foreheads touching, smiling
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When matchmakers succeed in bringing two people together, they’re ecstatic. “I am joyful when my clients find joy in love. Especially when they immediately 'click'—I feel like I hit it out of the ballpark ... a homerun!” Winston says.

Rose adds that she enjoys changing people’s minds about each other. “I like when two people originally say no to one another, but you remind them of why they came to you. When that match works out you feel really good about it."

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12 Secrets of Roller Coaster Designers
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Back in the early 20th century, engineers attempting to push the limits of roller coaster thrills subjected riders to risky upside-down turns and bloody noses. A century later, coaster designers rely on computer software, physics, and psychology to push the limits of the roughly 4400 rides in operation worldwide. To get a sense of what their job entails, Mental Floss spoke with several roller coaster specialists about everything from testing rides with water-filled dummies to how something as simple as paint can influence a coaster experience. Here’s what we learned.

1. GETTING STRAPPED IN MIGHT BE THE MOST EXCITING PART OF THE RIDE.

Roller coaster passengers prepare for a drop
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Known as a “thrill engineer,” UK-based Brendan Walker consults with coaster manufacturers and parks on the psychology of riding the rails. In his experience, riders getting secured into their seats are at the peak of their excitement—even more so than during the ride itself. “The moment the lap bar is being locked down and you have that feeling of things being inescapable, that you have to suffer the effects of the ride, is the highest moment of arousal,” Walker says. “The actual ride might only achieve 80 percent of that excitement.”

2. THEY TEST COASTERS WITH WATER-FILLED DUMMIES.

Bill Kitchen, founder of U.S. Thrill Rides, says it can take anywhere from two to five years for a coaster to go from idea to execution. Part of that process is devoted to the logistics of securing patents and permits for local site construction—the rest is extensive safety testing. “We’re subject to ASTM [American Society for Testing Materials] standards,” Kitchen says. “It covers every aspect of coasters. The rides are tested with what we call water dummies, or sometimes sandbags.”

The inanimate patrons allow designers to figure out how a coaster will react to the constant use and rider weight of a highly-trafficked ride. The water dummies—which look a bit like crash test dummies, but filled with water—can be emptied or filled to simulate different weight capacities. Designers also sometimes use the kind of crash-test dummies found in the auto industry to observe any potential issues prior to actual humans climbing aboard.

3. EVERY FOOT OF TRACK COSTS A LOT OF MONEY.

A roller coaster track is ready for passengers
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There is absolutely nothing random about the length of a coaster’s track. In addition to designing a ride based on the topography of a park site, designers take into account exactly how much space they’ll need to terrorize you and not an inch more. When England’s Alton Towers park was preparing to build a ride named TH13TEEN for a 2010 opening, they asked Walker exactly how much of a drop was needed to scare someone in the dark. “It was a practical question,” Walker says. “For every extra foot of steelwork, it would have cost them £30,000 [roughly $40,000].”

4. ROLLERCOASTER TYCOON BROUGHT A LOT OF PEOPLE INTO THE BUSINESS.

The popular PC game, first released in 1999, allowed users to methodically construct their own amusement parks, including the rides. As a proving ground for aspiring engineers and designers, it worked pretty well. Jeff Pike, President of Skyline Attractions, says he’s seen several people grow passionate about the industry as a direct result of the game. “I remember when the game first got popular, I would go to trade shows and there would be kids looking to get into it using screen shots of rides they designed. The game definitely brought a lot of people into the fold.”

5. PAINT MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE IN SPEED.

Cans of paint are arranged on the floor
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For all of their high-tech design—the software, fabrication, and precise measures of energy—a good coaster ride can often come down to whether it’s got too much paint on it. “The one thing that will slow down a steel coaster is a build-up of paint on the track rails,” Pike says. “It softens where the wheel is rolling and hitting the track, which increases the drag.” A good, worn-in track will have grey or silver streaks where the wheel has worn down the paint, making it move more quickly.

6. A COASTER’S SKYLINE IS KEY.

Brian Morrow, Corporate Vice President for Theme Park Experience at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, says that the looming curvature of coasters spotted as guests drive toward and enter the park is very purposeful. “It’s like a movie trailer in that we want you to see some iconic coaster elements, but not the whole thing,” he says. “You approach it with anticipation.”

7. SOME COASTERS ARRIVE AS GIANT MODEL KITS.

The loop of a roller coaster track
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Whether a coaster’s theme or design comes first is largely left up to the end user—the amusement park. But for some rides, manufacturers are able to offer pre-fabricated constructions that designers can treat like the world’s biggest Erector Set. “Sometimes I work on rides that have already been built,” Walker says. “They’re produced by a company and presented almost like a kit with parts, like a model train set. There’s a curve here, a straight bit here, and you can pick your own layout depending on the lay of the land.”

8. WOODEN COASTERS ARE WEATHER-SENSITIVE.

If you’ve ever been on a wooden coaster that seems a little shaky from one trip to the next, check the forecast: It might be because of the weather. Pike says that humidity and other factors can shrink the wood, affecting how bolts fit and leading to a slightly shakier experience. “The structure itself can flex back and forth,” he says. It’s still perfectly safe—it just takes more maintenance to make sure the wood and fasteners are in proper operating condition. A well-cared-for wooden coaster, Pike says, can usually outlast a steel model.

9. THE TIME OF DAY CAN AFFECT THE RIDE EXPERIENCE.

A roller coaster track at dusk
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“A coaster running in the morning could run slower when cooler,” Morrow says. “The wheels are not as warm, the bearings are warming up. That could be different by 2 p.m., with a slicked-up wheel chassis.” Coasters experiencing their first-ever test runs can also be slightly unpredictable, according to Pike. "Those first trial runs [during the testing phase] can be slow because everything is just so tight," he says. "A lot of coasters don't even make it around the track. It's not a failure. It's just super-slow."

10. DESIGNS CAN COME FROM UNUSUAL PLACES—LIKE JAY LENO’S CHIN.

The twisting, undulating tracks of coasters can often be the result of necessity: Pike says that trees, underground piping, and available real estate all inform designers when it comes to placing a ride in a specific park. But when they have more freedom, coasters can sometimes take on the distinctive shape of whatever happens to be around the designers at the time of conception. “We had a giant piece of land in Holland that just had no constraints, and we were sitting around talking," Pike says. “And we started talking about Jay Leno’s chin.” The ride was a “loose” representation of the comedian's jaw, but “it is there.”

11. RIDERS ARE REALLY PERFORMERS.

Roller coaster riders enjoy the end of the ride
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For Walker, the best advertising for a coaster is having spectators watch riders de-board after an exhilarating experience. “It’s all about that emotion,” he says. “A spectator basically asks, ‘What’s making them so aroused? What’s giving them such pleasure?’ The line for the ride is the audience. Imagining yourself on the structure becomes a very powerful thing."

12. THE FUTURE IS VERTICAL.

Biggest, fastest, longest—coasters are running out of superlatives. Because rides can only be designed with so many drips, rolls, or G forces, some companies are looking to the sky for their next big idea. Kitchen has been overseeing design of the Polercoaster for years: It’s a sprawling, skyscraper-esque ride that uses electromagnetic propulsion to carry riders upwards instead of across horizontal tracks. “We want to put it in places where land is very expensive, like the Vegas strip,” he says. “You can only do that if it takes up a lot less space.” Kitchen believes it’ll be another two years before ground is broken on the project, which is set to exceed the 456 feet of the current tallest ride, Kinga Ka at Six Flags in New Jersey. “It’ll be the world’s tallest—and hopefully the most fun.”

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