5 Tips for Getting Started as a Set and Prop Builder in the TV and Film Industry
Woody Woodburn is a carpenter and prop maker for the TV and film industry. Woody has had the opportunity to work for Paramount and Goldwind Studios and has worked alongside some of the bigger names in Hollywood, including John Houston and Paul Newman.
With 20 years of experience, industry veteran Woody Woodburn has built sets and props for films such as Paint Your Wagon, Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Big Valley, and the Bonanza TV series.
Woody first started as a carpenter, framing houses before learning to weld cars as a hobby in his free time. When a friend suggested that Woody’s background in carpentry, welding experience, and understanding of hydraulics and electricity made him well-suited for working in special effects, Woody took note.
But most people don’t start out in special effects… and neither did Woody. First, he earned his journeyman’s card and began working as a prop maker.
Woody shares with us 5 tips for getting started as a set and prop maker in the TV and film industries.
– Be Curious and Never Stop Learning
– Find a Mentor
– Be a Creative Problem-Solver
– Be a Team Player and Use Common Sense
– Be Willing to Evolve
Be Curious and Never Stop Learning
The most important trait you need to get started and be successful in the TV and film industry is an endless curiosity and a desire to learn.
Seek out every opportunity you can to learn as you get started and be willing to learn new things and to learn from others – Woody suggests finding a mentor to help you learn all you can as you get started in the industry.
Even if you think you know how to do something, it’s worth your time to watch another journeyman, so you can see how different people do things in different ways.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this kind of learning is to see and understand the thought process others follow as they work. This only adds to your tool belt, so if your strategy won’t work in a particular situation, you can start problem-solving based on what you’ve seen others do.
Typically work follows a seniority ranking, with those with more experience getting called to work before those with less, but Woody found that he was moved up the list, despite a low seniority ranking.
Woody shares his story about how his curiosity and desire to learn more helped him get ahead:
“I just couldn’t learn enough. When everybody else was out to coffee, I was hanging around the plan bench, trying to figure out what was going on and how they were doing it – you know, I’m always fascinated by all the different ways that they did things.“
Find a Mentor
One of the best ways to learn is to find a mentor who knows what they’re doing and learn as much as you can from them.
Woody suggests finding somebody whose workmanship you respect and hang around that mentor as much as possible. Watch as they plan and build, and look for the nuances in their technique.
Watching the way a more experienced journeyman or prop maker works is crucial because the way they work becomes part of the end product. Knowing different ways to achieve an effect or end result will help you do as good a job as you possibly can.
“A true craftsman has an inborn desire to teach. The key is to show them that you want to learn and that you will absorb what they teach.”
Woody describes making a deal with older, more experienced journeymen, offering to do the hard labor and the dirty work in exchange for their agreeing to teach him something new. He says he held them to it, and after a few days, they’d see that he was serious about it and they’d pull him aside and teach him some tricks of the trade. The TV and film industry moves fast, and you need to be willing to put in the work to keep up.
Be a Creative Problem-Solver
Woody’s next tip is to think outside the box. Don’t be afraid to come up with ideas about how to do something or to take other people’s ideas and turn them into what you want.
Working on sets is really more about problem-solving than about being creative. The director or set designer tells you what they want, and you go about solving the problem of how to get that desired end result.
You have to be willing to look at things from as different a perspective as you can to help you think outside that box.
One of the best parts of the industry is that there’s a lot of directions you can go and there’s tremendous room for self-expression in creating sets and props for productions.
Be a Team Player and Use Common Sense
When you put two heads together, you come up with things that you wouldn’t have come up with working on your own. As a team player, look out for one another and work to get the results expected from the set designer or director.
But you can’t only rely on teamwork. You also need safety and common sense.
“You want to keep safety in mind. You want to make sure you keep your eyes protected and your hands – watch where you are with your hands. Safety is . . . you want to be there to come back the next day.”
Working in carpentry or welding can be dangerous and you need to let common sense drive decisions and make sure you’re considering your safety (and the safety of others) every step of the way.
What Woody Carries In His Toolkit
Woody shared a shortlist of the most essential tools to keep in your tool belt while working on set:
– A claw hammer (a 16-ounce curved claw hammer – no need for a large framing hammer)
– A 12-foot measuring tape (you don’t need a gigantic 25-foot tape)
– TWO number two pencils – “If one of them breaks, I’ve got another one to write with”
– Side cutters
– A craft knife
– A nine-inch level
– Screw divers – medium flat
– And a number two Phillips
“One of the things that I would say is to buy quality tools. If you have to save money to buy a quality tool, save the money, take the time, buy the quality tool.”
Think of your tools as an investment in your future. It’s something that you’ll have for a long period of time… if you take care of them. In this fast-paced industry, there’s no time to be constantly replacing tools and equipment. Always be prepared.
“If you have the proper tools and you take care of them, they will take care of you.“
Be Willing to Evolve
Woody’s last tip: The industry will continue to change and evolve, and you have to be willing to evolve with it.
When Woody started, there weren’t many computers or automated aspects to the work, but that’s no reason to push back against the growing presence of computers.
Instead, Woody advises any young person getting into the industry to learn all they can about computers and the way they work, and the different programs being used.
In particular, learn how to draw with a computer and learn how to express yourself on a computer.
Because ultimately, there’s only so much a computer can do, so learn as much as you can about the computer aspect of it, but also learn the basics. Learn what it takes to build and assemble sets because that’s a skill that’s not going away anytime soon.