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 History for Hire prop house in North Hollywood.
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.

Slate film and notebook on a white background.
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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.”

14 Secrets of Food Sample Demonstrators

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

Ever turn a corner in your local grocery store or warehouse club and see the aisle backed up? You might be able to blame a food sample demonstrator, those stationary sales representatives who invite congestion in stores by offering up free bites of food products in an effort to raise sales. (The strategy works—one study found that samples can increase sales by as much as 2000 percent.)

The task might look easy, but it isn’t. Sample demonstrators have to endure annoyed customers who can’t navigate aisles due to the traffic, unattended kids, and more—all while adhering to food safety regulations. To get a better perspective on the job, Mental Floss spoke with two former demonstrators. Here’s what we found out about life in the apron.

1. THEY’RE USUALLY NOT EMPLOYED BY THE STORE.

Food demonstrators are often mistaken for store employees, but they're usually not. The people working behind sample trays at Costco, for example, are often employed by Club Demonstration Services (CDS), a separate entity that hires sample representatives to present products endorsed by Costco and usually backed by the product manufacturer. (Companies can send their own reps out, too.) “CDS might have an office set up in the back of the store,” says Jim, a former food sample demonstrator for Costco locations in California. “We’d sign in, go through the warehouse, and get a quick brief on the product we were demonstrating.”

Though CDS is owned by Costco, CDS employees aren’t technically store employees, and don’t migrate to other work areas. But because customers figure the demonstrators work for the warehouse, they’re often asked for directions. “People just assume you know where stuff is,” Jim says. “I usually told them to find someone in a red vest.”

2. THEY CAN SPEND HALF THEIR SHIFT PREPPING.

A man mixes ingredients in a bowl
iStock

It may seem like a sample demonstrator is burning calories at the rate of a Queen's Guard, but they're usually very busy during the course of a six- or eight-hour shift. Food prep—including mixing ingredients for things like chicken salad or cooking steak strips—can take up as much as half of their time. It’s worth it, as cooked food has a huge advantage over ready-to-eat samples like chips. “There’s a kind of anticipation you build up when cooking something like steak,” Jim says. “It could take a few minutes or 45 minutes, and people are standing there asking when it will be ready.”

3. THEY NEED TO STAY WITHIN A 12-FOOT RADIUS OF THE CART.

Food sample demonstrators may sometimes work in a massive warehouse, but they don’t have the run of the property. Once they’ve settled into their work area—typically near where the product they’re demonstrating is stocked or wherever there’s free space in the building—they’re expected to never be more than 12 feet away from the cart. “The 12-foot radius has to do with the fact that you’re responsible for maintaining your station and keeping customers safe,” says Skyler, a former demonstrator for Costco. “If a kid sees an unattended station with a hot grill running and grabs a sample off of it and burns themselves, it’s a liability.” Demonstrators also need to make sure no one is grabbing a sample and then putting it back, which would be a gross (literally) violation of food handling safety. Once you touch it, it goes either in your mouth or in the garbage.

4. THEY FOLLOW AN ACRONYM FOR SALES SUCCESS.

Vice-president Joe Biden greets food sample servers at a Costco
Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images

Food sample pushers don’t work on commission, but they can get bonuses if they sell through their inventory, so it benefits them to make sure people are consuming what they’re offering. One method for enticing customers is what Jim describes as a corporate acronym called SITGA. “It stands for Smile, Invite, Talk, Give Sample, and Ask,” he says. Demonstrators are also free to come up with their own strategy. “I liked to rhyme, like ‘come on by, give it a try,’ that sort of thing.”

5. THEY HAVE TRICKS FOR STAVING OFF BOREDOM.

Speaking with the Yes and Yes blog, Sam's Club food demo specialist Jan said that the hours spent sporadically interacting with customers can require demonstrators to make up their own fun. "I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance ... I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, or I try to engage customers in conversation."

6. THEY GET TIRED OF HEARING THE SAME RESPONSES.

A man in an apron looks tired
iStock

Sometimes it's hard to tell what's worse—going for long stretches without customers, or hearing the canned answers they love to give over and over (and over) again. "Customers make stock remarks about certain foods," Jan said. "If you serve sausage, they ask, 'Where are the pancakes?' If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get, 'Now I need a donut.'"

7. THEY HAVE TO DEAL WITH “SAMPLE NINJAS” ...

There’s usually no cap on the number of samples a customer can grab from a cart. Still, people can feel a degree of embarrassment going back for seconds—or thirds—and sometimes try to sneak a taste without being seen. Skyler calls these people “sample ninjas” for their attempts to go undetected. “People love free food,” he says. “They don’t want to be seen as freeloaders, they don’t want to hear a sales pitch, they just want snacks.”

8. ... BUT THAT SHAME CAN WORK IN THE STORE’S FAVOR.

A woman examines a supermarket shelf
iStock

When people are so addicted to a food sample they keep going back for more, they might opt to just buy the product rather than risk being perceived as a greedy shopper. “There have been cases where I’ve been shopping at Costco myself and went and bought something because my overwhelming shame kept me from grabbing a fifth sample,” Skyler says. “The system works.”

9. THEY HAVE A HEIGHT POLICY.

Kids represent a dilemma for demonstrators. If they’re unaccompanied by a parent, it can be potentially problematic to offer up a baked good or other food that could contain an allergen. Fortunately, most kids are aware of their food sensitivities. According to Jim, the unofficial rule of thumb is to give out samples to unattended children if they’re tall enough to see what’s on the cart. “We can’t really determine the age of a kid just by looking,” he says. “They just need to be tall enough to see the sample and discern what it is.”

10. THEY HAVE REGULARS.

Food samples are set out on a tray
iStock

Many Costco demonstrators stick to one store or district, making them a familiar face for people who shop there frequently. “There were definitely regulars,” Skyler says. “I would see old teachers from school, old friends, new friends, and regulars who would know my sales pitch and always play along—for more free samples, obviously.” Others were memorable for other reasons. “I was making cookies once and a woman grabbed the raw cookie dough and yelled at me because it was not cooked.”

11. THEY DEMO NON-EDIBLE PRODUCTS, TOO.

While Jim estimates that 90 percent of his time was spent demonstrating food, CDS also handles accounts for a variety of indigestible products, like Ziploc bags. “I’ve done dish soap and laundry soap, which is hard to demonstrate on the floor,” he says. “You have to give someone a sample and hope they try it and then come back.” Another time, Costco charged him with selling prefabricated outdoor tool sheds. “No one is buying a $3000 shed on the spot. They take a flyer. We didn’t get a sale the entire week.”

12. THEY HAVE A PLAN TO MAKE SURE NO FOOD GOES TO WASTE.

Food sits in a trash can
iStock

Toward the end of their shift, demonstrators start to estimate how many more samples they’ll need to meet remaining demand without setting out food that will wind up going to waste. “I do what I can not to waste anything,” Jim says. “We’ll usually make sure we’re done cooking by a certain time so nothing is left over.” Sealed food might go to a food pantry, depending on store policies, but prepared and unused food goes into the garbage. And no, it's not going to the demonstrators: They’re prohibited from taking the excess home.

13. NOT EVERYTHING THEY MAKE IS APPETIZING TO THEM.

Sample demonstrators are usually expected to taste their supply so they can make informed comments when a customer presses for details. While most everything is intended to be delicious, it may not necessarily be the demonstrator's own personal preference. "[I served] horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved," Jan told Yes and Yes. "When cut into bite sized pieces, [they] squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them."

14. THEY APPRECIATE A LITTLE CUSTOMER ETIQUETTE.

Food samples are set out on a tray
iStock

While free food can cause some of us to abandon civility and manners, food sample demonstrators always appreciate when customers acknowledge they have a job to do—and it’s not to hand out free stuff. Listening to their sales pitch is the polite thing to do in exchange for the eats. “Just try to remember that it’s a sales job and that final sale number is being held over the sample demonstrators’ heads,” Skyler says. “They’re not just someone being paid to hand out food to boost customer morale.”

17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Bookstores

iStock
iStock

For book lovers, there’s no more magical place than the local bookstore. Endless shelves of stories and characters, all at your eager fingertips. And while most of us have probably spent a significant amount of time wandering the aisles, few of us know what goes on behind the scenes. Here are some insights into the life of a bookstore, gleaned from the people who keep the shelves stocked.

1. EMPLOYEES WANT YOU TO ASK THEM FOR RECOMMENDATIONS.

“A person will say, ‘I have a really strange question, I’m sorry, but can you recommend a book?’” says Phyllis Cohen, owner of Berkeley Books in Paris. “That is the most normal question. It is my favorite question in the world! Give me some clues. I’ll ask them some pointed questions and then I make a pile for them. When they discover it they’re over the moon—it’s like they have a personal shopper in the bookshop.”

2. BUT BOOKSELLERS ARE NOT MIND-READERS.

They want to help you find your book, but they can’t if you don’t know the book’s name, author, or what it was about. This happens all the time, and it drives them crazy. “Customers will say ‘I don’t remember the name or what it was about but it has a blue cover. I think it had this word in the title,’” explains Katie Orphan, manager at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Sometimes the questions are so vague that no amount of Googling will help, and then the customer leaves unhappy.

Even a botched title is better than no hints at all. “One funny thing that happens with customers is they get the titles totally wrong,” says Marissa Rodriguez, who has worked in a bookstore for two years. “High school kids will say ‘I’m looking for ‘How To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘Angry Grapes.’”

3. THEY CAN SPOT THE BOOKWORMS FROM A MILE AWAY.

A woman browsing near a sign for half-price paperbacks at a bookstore
iStock

Just browsing? Bookstore workers can tell. “Cookbooks is one of the sections where that happens the most,” Orphan says. “Art books and cookbooks. The people who are going to buy books, I can tell by the way they look at them, touch them, start carrying them around in a stack. I can always tell when people come up who is going to buy a book and who isn’t.”

4. THEY KNOW WHEN YOU’RE “SHOWROOMING.”

In recent years, many brick-and-mortar stores have fallen victim to online outlets like Amazon, which often offer the same books for a lower price. Some customers will browse for books they like, only to buy them later online, and they’re not very sly about it. “They’ll come in and use their phone to take a picture of the cover and barcode and just use the bookstore as the Amazon showroom,” says Keith Edmunds, a former bookstore owner. “It was awful. Seeing people do that was the height of ignorance.”

5. AND WHEN YOU’RE PLAYING THE SYSTEM.

“Some regulars would buy books one or two at a time and then within the two-week return window bring them back and be like, ‘I bought the wrong book,’” said Kat Chin, who worked at The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto for five years. “You’d know they read them because you could see the book was a little bit worn or the spine was cracked.”

6. THE GOAL IS TO GET BOOKS IN YOUR HANDS.

A red sign advertising bestsellers at a bookstore
iStock

One trick to get customers to commit to a book is to physically put the book in their hands and have them flip through it. “You can direct them to a part of the store, but that’s only half of selling a book,” Rodriguez says. “It's important to get merchandise in people's hands so they feel there’s already some ownership happening. They say ‘I like the way it looks and feels in my hands and I like the way it smells.’”

7. YOU HAVE TO HUNT FOR THE COFFEE SHOP.

Many bookstores, particularly the bigger ones like Barnes & Noble, have incorporated cafes into their layout. Alex Lifschutz, a London-based architect, told The Economist that putting the coffee shop at the back of the store or, if there are multiple stories, on the top floor, “draws shoppers upwards floor-by-floor, which is bound to encourage people to linger longer and spend more.”

8. THE KIDS SECTION IS STRATEGICALLY LOCATED.

According to Edmunds, the kids books are almost always located at the back of a store. “If the parents want to get a book for the kid they have to go through the whole store,” he says. “They’re hoping the parent will see something they want.”

9. SOMEONE PAID FOR THAT PRIME SHELF REAL ESTATE.

A red sign advertising bestsellers at a bookstore
iStock

In many big-box stores, publishers pay for good placement on “front tables, end caps and window space, in the same way General Mills and Procter and Gamble buy space for their breakfast cereals and dish detergents in the supermarkets,” Andy Ross, a literary agent, told The Book Deal.

10. AUTHORS, BEWARE THE “SOCIOLOGY” SECTION.

No author wants their book tucked away in the “sociology” section, claims veteran publishing insider Alan Rinzler. It’s “a catchall section for ambiguous titles, and the kiss of death for book sales,” he says.

11. BOOK THIEVES LOVE THE BIBLE.

At The World's Biggest Bookstore in Toronto, “the Bible was the number one stolen book of all time,” Chin says.

Other frequently stolen books? Japanese comics (a.k.a. manga), expensive medical books, and Kurt Vonnegut’s work. Chin also says Haruki Murakami books were so frequently stolen that her bookstore had to take them off the shelves, only bringing them out when they were specifically requested.

12. EMPLOYEES HATE WHEN YOU LEAVE BOOKS WHERE THEY DON’T BELONG ...

Long rows of books at a bookstore
iStock

“Neatening up a bookstore is a daunting process,” says Demi Marshall, a bookseller in Austin, Texas. The next time you pluck a book from its designated shelf slot, put it back when you’re done. Otherwise, “it’s like if you go to a clothing store and unfold all the clothes and then put them back on the shelf but don’t fold them,” Chin says.

13. ... AND WHEN YOU TREAT THE STORE LIKE YOUR LIBRARY.

“It’s nice to be able to go in and read maybe a chapter to see if you’re gonna like the book,” Chin says. “But then when you sit and read the whole book and put it back on the shelf, it gets grubby.” You’ll know a bookstore is trying to nudge you out the door if multiple employees drop by to ask if you need any help. “We would quietly pester people,” says Caleb Saenz, who used to work at Barnes & Noble. “I was at my peak passive aggressive phase when I was working at a bookstore.”

14. THE INTERNET HAS ACTUALLY BEEN A GOOD THING.

A brick-and-mortar Amazon bookstore in Seattle
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Before the internet became ubiquitous, the process of looking up a book for a customer was daunting. “We had to look it up in 'Books In Print,’ which is a multi-volume, 4-inch thick, hardcover book,” says Liz Prouty, who owns Second Looks Books in Maryland with her husband, Richard Due. “It was a slow and cumbersome process and if anything was indexed wrong or a customer had the first word of a title wrong, you were out of luck.”

15. IT’S ALSO MADE US LOVE BOOKS MORE.

Some thought the e-book would surely spell the death of the bookstore. But many independent sellers say digitization has actually made people crave physical books more. “I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, so many people come in waxing rhapsodic about the smell of books, the feel of books,” Prouty says. “And they say it more now because the alternatives exist. People are deeply attached to the old-fashioned books.”

16. SOME BOOKSELLERS CAN IDENTIFY BOOKS BY THEIR SMELL.

Especially used booksellers. “These Penguins have their own particular odor,” Cohen says. That odor? Vanilla. Others might smell like almond or coffee.

17. BOOKSELLERS AREN’T IN IT FOR THE MONEY.

A blue sign with white letters spelling out the word "books" and a hand pointing
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In fact, most of them have second jobs or need monetary support from family members. “It is definitely a work of passion for everyone that I know,” Marshall says. “We don’t do it for the money, we don’t do it because we have any power or prestige. It’s genuinely just that we love books and we love getting them into people's hands.”

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

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