Fully furnished: 5 tips for using props effectively

A detailed set can be an important communication tool.

Whether you’re shooting a feature-length narrative or a simple interview, props add richness to your video’s environment and can alter the viewer’s interpretation of your message. The right prop can impart subtle information about your video’s setting or subject, so it’s important to give them plenty of thought starting in pre-production. Consider these tips as you plan props for your next production.

Set dressing

Don’t let your characters live in an empty house! All those knick-knacks on your shelves and dressers are a reflection of your personality, so be sure to let your characters express themselves in the same way. Maybe your lead is an amateur art collector with a line up of quirky sculptures on the window sill. Or, maybe they like things clean and tidy, so the only thing left out in the kitchen is a single scrub brush and soap bottle. Either way, the set dressing should reflect something about the character’s personality or the environment they are navigating.

Don’t let your characters live in an empty house!

If you are shooting an interview, include background props that say something about them or their line of work. For an archeologist, for example, try including some significant relics in the set dressing.

Personal props vs. hand props

Personal props and hand props are both handled by the actors. The difference is that personal props stay with the actors and become a part of the character, helping to define their personality. If a character is drinking coffee in a cafe scene, that cup of coffee is a hand prop. If that character is seen repeatedly drinking coffee out of the same cup, that cup becomes a distinguishing marker for that character, almost like a part of their wardrobe. Personal props should be carefully selected for character development.

Practicals and practical effects

Sometimes, props can have a function beyond plot or character development. Any electronic prop that actually performs its apparent function is called a practical. The most common example of this would be the household lamp. While usually not the only source of light, when a lamp is turned on within a scene, it really does illuminate part of the shot. Similarly, practical effects, or effects that are produced on-set or in-camera, will all require special props such as sugar glass, squibs and pyrotechnics. The judicious use of practicals and practical effects can lend a sense of realism to the set while also giving your actors something substantial with which to interact.

Planning ahead

Just as you would for cast and crew, once the script is finalized, make a complete list of every prop that you will need for your production and make note of when and where each item will be used. Screenwriting software such as Final Draft and Celtx often include tools for extracting this data from your screenplay, so make use of these tools when possible.

Once you have your props list, the next step is to acquire or manufacture what you don’t already have. This is where you get to be creative. Check thrift and consignment shops for hard to find items, or make your own. Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty with clay or paper mache; these can be great tools for fabricating custom props. For especially important props, consider purchasing or producing a duplicate in case catastrophe strikes and the prop gets destroyed.

Keeping props organized

After you’ve collected all the props needed for your production, it’s important to keep them safe and organized. On set, designate a table specifically for the storage of props between takes, and make sure there is a safe place to keep props at the end of each shooting day. Of course, if you have the human resources available, designating a properties master is always a good idea to ensure props are always there when you need them.