Craft Descriptions - Special Effects / Prop Shop

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In the field of entertainment, the old saying has been adjusted to read, "Where there's smoke, there's a Special Effects man." Whenever the production requires that a certain physical, natural or elemental condition be reproduced in a controlled manner, a qualified Special Effects person is called in.

The Special Effects Coordinator staffs and supervises the Prop Shop. The versatile Special Effects/Prop Shop combination is responsible for handling any mechanical effects, constructed set dressing and prop needs required for film production.

Special Effects Definitions. For the purposes of this section, a Special Effect is a filmed sequence of controlled events which produces through artificial means a visual and/or aural impression of a physical, natural or elemental condition.

A further differentiation should be made between Special Effects, which are created by mechanical means, and Visual Effects, which are computer-generated images. It should be noted, however, that both Departments often work together to create even better, more seamless effects than previously considered possible.

The Special Effects/Prop Shop qualified members build and rig stunts (scenes which require physical daring or involve physical risk to a character being filmed) and gags (a sequence of controlled mechanical events which require some type of rigging). A veteran Effects person made this distinction, "Stunts happen to people, gags happen to things."

Another Special Effects distinction to be made is between an application (a particular way of creating an effect), and an appliance (any effect applied directly to a part of the body).

Special Effects fall into several classification areas: Wind and Air Effects, Rain, Snow, Fire-Flares-Torches, Smoke-Fog-Artificial Atmospheric- Ambiance, Steam-Cryogenic Breathable Fog, Water, Cobwebs and Dust (See "Classification" section).

CREW RESPONSIBILITIES. The Prop Shop is looked upon to construct any mechanical effects or needed props, set dressing items and rigging, while Special Effects sets up and supervises rigging, breakaways, creates weather conditions and other gags and effects, including pyrotechnics, usually for the camera.

The Special Effects/Prop Shop/Propmaker crew breakdown is as follows:

Special Effects Coordinator (classified under contracts as a Foreman). Oversees the design of effects and gags required by the production.

• Staffs the Prop Shop qualified members

• Breaks down the script and writes a budget for production meetings, including Prop Shop construction budget. Assists production in evaluating how budget allocations will affect the look of an effect.

• Hires personnel proficient or qualified in specific skills.

• Explains to Producer and Director the mechanics of a stunt or gag.

• Obtains necessary safety permits when a stunt or gag is required, such as with open flame situations: candles, fireplaces, camp fires and torches.

• Ensures stunt safety for actors and crew.

• Supplies Work Box and equipment.

Special Effects Qualified Assistants (classified under contracts as Gang Boss or Journeyman, depending on responsibilities). Usually hired to perform duties requiring a specific skill, or to assist the Special Effects Coordinator with general tasks. See "Minimum Professional Standards" for specific skill areas.

Prop Shop Foreman. The Prop Shop Foreman staffs and builds necessary items required by various departments: for instance, the Art Department might request the building of a craft from scale drawings or miniatures, the Set Decorators and Property Masters might need the Shop to build special set dressing pieces or props, and Special Effectsmight ask for rigging, welding or breakaways to be constructed.

The Prop Shop Foreman:

• Estimates Special Effects construction jobs.

• Makes recommendations on manufacturing processes.

• Orders materials.

• Oversees the manufacture of requested items.

• Repairs production equipment as needed.

• Handles Prop Shop paperwork and submits to Special Effects Coordinator for approval.

• Acquires needed permits for crews, such as welding and cutting permits.

Prop Shop (Gang Boss). Most experienced crew member assigned to oversee a group of Journeymen executing a specific Prop Shop construction order:

• Builds alongside Journeymen as a "working supervisor."

• Offers crew the benefit of his/her experience. Helps teach the Journeymen, and serves as a source of information and advice.

Journeymen Prop Shop Workers. They build the Prop Shop items. Their duties are as follows:

• Arrive with minimum tool list as required in contract (See "Tool List")

• Follow all building orders.

TOOL LIST. Prop Shop personnel should have a complete set of "Propmaker" tools as outlined in Exhibit "B" in the Black Book:

• 16 oz. Claw Hammer

• 25' or 30' Measuring Tape

• 100' Measuring Tape

• 12" Combination Square

• Framing Square

• Bevel Square

• 8 pt. Hand Saw

• 12 pt. Hand Saw

• Back Saw

• Key Hole Saw

• 1/4" - 1/2" - 3/4" - 1" Wood Chisels

• Cold Chisel

• Box Plane

• Hand Axe

• Two Chalk Boxes

• Dry Line

• Line Level

• 24" or 30" Level

• Compass

• Angle Dividers

• 24" or 30" Wrecking Bar

• 10" Vise Grip Pliers

• Pliers

• Diagonal Cutters

• Straight-head and Phillips-head Screwdrivers

• 10" Crescent Wrench

• Nail Sets - Various Sizes

• Wood Files - Various Types and Sizes

• Sharpening Stone

• Tool Belt

• Assorted Pencils and Marking Crayons

• Plumb Bob

• Utility Knife and Blades

• Gloves

• Cordless Drill

• Large Ratcheting Screwdriver (Yankee)

• Tool Box (with proper identification: "(Name)" and "Property Craftsperson - Local 44" )

STAFFING CONSIDERATIONS. The size and scope of a show may necessitate any of the following situations:

• Television shows with relatively light Special Effects duties generally provide for one Key Effects person and a Crew Member.

• Larger shows may require multiple Special Effects crews to staff each location where Special Effects are involved. The Special Effects staff for Science Fiction and Fantasy projects may number into the hundreds.

SPECIAL POINT OF CONSIDERATION: It is increasingly of value for effects-heavy productions to have a Special Effects Qualified person solely for purchasing and budgeting. The knowledge necessary for proper budget evaluation falls outside the expertise area of typical studio personnel.

DEPARTMENTAL INTERACTION. As television and filmmaking is a collaborative process, communication between departments is necessary. In the interest of maintaining a good working environment, a Special Effects Coordinator will most likely confer with the following departments:

(listed in alphabetical order)

Construction Coordinator. For building and scheduling requirements for stunts and gags.

Electrical Department. For electrical machinery which create an effect, such as ritters (wind machines), lightning machines. For other electrical equipment welding machines, trailer and shop electrical needs.

Grips. For certain types of necessary rigging, such as scaffolding and green beds as required. Collaborate on theatrical stage rigging as required.

Make-up and Hair. For special effects appliances on the body.

Production. For budgetary concerns.

Production Design and Art Department. To fit the "look" of a special effect with the design concept.

Property Master. For rubber items, breakaways, props and gags.

Set Decoration. To match set dressing with breakaway or rubber pieces used in the scene. To obtain necessary permits (for example, open flame permits for candles, fireplaces, torches on sets).

Transportation. For coordination with location assistance. For car, truck and vehicular needs for special effects: windshields, tires, parts, etc. For transporting Special Effects Coordinator's trailer. For purchases, pick-ups and delivery.

Wardrobe. For special effects gags concealed under or affecting clothing. For leather work and construction of period leather apparel, and certain plastic, or pre-formed wearing apparel.


QUALIFICATIONS. The path of advancement for Special Effects/Prop Shop qualified personnel is as follows:

(1) A qualified Propmaker logs 1,200 hours with IATSE signator employers in areas classified as Prop Shop Duties (See "List of Working Skills for a Prop Shop Person" outlined below); and

(2) Must pass a written Prop Shop test.

[At this point, the member is recognized by Contract Services Administration Trust Fund (CSATF) as a Prop Shop Journeyman. If the Prop Shop Journeyman wishes to advance to Special Effects, the process continues - ]

(3) A qualified Prop Shop candidate for Special Effects must hold a Prop Shop card for four years; and

(4) Must pass a written examination and appear before the Qualifications Committee for a practical examination.


- OR -

A non-union Special Effects Coordinator may also join Local 44 as a Propmaker if the following conditions are met:

(1) Candidate must log in 30 qualified days as a Special Effects Coordinator (as recognized by CSATF) on a show which is organized by the Union; and

(2) Pays all required initiation fees and member dues,and is sworn in by Local 44 as a Propmaker.

As a Propmaker, the candidate follows the specified path of advancement.

List of Working Skills for a Prop Shop Person. Once a Propmaker is recognized by the union, that candidate may apply work hours with IATSE signator employers towards qualifying for the Prop Shop. The hours are as follows:

(1) Read and construct from blueprints. 100 hours

(2) Build and install sash and doors. 50 hours

(3) Build and layout of stairs. 50 hours

(4) Glazer: a) Cut, grind, and polish all glass and mirrors

                    b) Install all glass mirrors on sets and props 50 hours

(5) Layout of all sheet metal products. 100 hours

(6) Gas Welding and cutting. 100 hours

(7) Arc Welding. 100 hours

(8) Machinist - Operation of lathes, mills, grinders, indentification and use of grinding stones, drill presses, punches, tapping operations, boring and sharpening of all cutting tools necessary to perform these operations. 50 hours

(9) Cabinet and Furniture Building. 100 hours

(10) Plastic:

          a) Identifying plastic content, selection of correct softening and glueing agents, extensive knowledge of fastening methods, forming, cutting, coloring and polishing along with tensile strengths.

          b) Use of vacuum forming machines.

          c) Use of urethane gun.

          d) Use of fiberglass gun. 100 hours

(11) Rubber - Thorough knowledge of chemical content of compounds needed for each product; manufacturing of armature and preparation for casting; trimming and preparation for painting and/or coloring. 100 hours

(12) Leather - Identification of skins, stripping, their strength and accepted uses; methods of fastening, forming, preserving, refurbishing and dying. 100 hours

(13) Break-away Glass - Knowledge of chemical content of break-away glass, heating and pouring methods, manufacturing of armatures for molds; preparation of molds for use and coloring of products. 50 hours

(14) Break-Away Woods - Extensive knowledge and ability to select proper material and build all break-away, prepare and repair of break-away. 50 hours

(15) Miniature Builder - The act of reducing full scale to fractions and/or to over scale from drawings, pictures, and from full scale objects; effectively using all types of material; miniature electric and rigging of all kinds; an extensive knowledge of architectural applications and an ability to create perspective graduated layouts of miniature sets and props along with hanging and activating same. The miniature builder is adept at creating and handling animated props manufactured from all material. Creating miniatures both over and under scale. He/she is an exceptional blueprint reader and draftsperson. 50 hours

(16) Electrical Fixtures and Prop Builders - Thorough knowledge of electricity in prop making division and safety regulations as required by law. 25 hours

(17) Rigging - All types of rigging and construction used by the Prop Maker in the Motion Picture Industry. 50 hours

(18) Heli-arc Welding - Proper preparation of metal to be welded; knowledge of metal content and identification of metals to be welded along with proper filler and weld metal. 25 hours

Minimum Total Hours 1,200 hours

Licensing. In the interest of safety, proper licensing is a necessary and favorable requirement for hiring. Depending upon the type of work performed, a member may need "Powder Cards," or Pyrotechnic Licenses issued by the California State Fire Marshal's Office -- Third Class, Second Class, and First Class (most experienced); a Welder's Licensing for welding work; Diving Certification for underwater work, among other certifications for aerial licenses and powder-actuated tools (See "Skill and Licensing Information").


MINIMUM PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS. Since Prop Shop Skills are the foundation upon which a career in Special Effects is built, knowledge of basic areas of Prop Shop Skills are essential. The following list helps to further define skill areas mentioned in the "List of Working Skills for Prop Shop Person":


Plexiglas Fiberglass, Resins - ridged, flexible, gelcoats

Polycarbonates, Lexan Glues and Finishing Techniques

Thermal Plastics Clothes, ropes and fabrics

Heat Forming Plastics Chopper Gun and equipment needed

Liquid Plastics - Clear Resin Vacuum Forming

Rubber and Urethane Materials (foams)

2 Part foam - 2 lb. to 8 lb. Mix and pour. Mold making with RTV

2 Part foam - spray application Plaster molds

Liquid wood Guns, Swords, knives and clubs

Silicone rubber Armatures for molds, props

Epoxies Rubbers for protection - sorbathane, foams


Breakaways in Sets and Props

Wood-cork Glass - breakaway, tempered

Foams - snow plaster Mirrors (safety mylar)

Plastics Building structures

Plasters and Stearic Acid Vehicles

Set Dressing - chairs, tables, etc. Fastening techniques, types of joints

Props - vases, glasses, lamps


Scaling down and up Plastics (formed-replications of other

Hobby shop - cars, trains, planes materials)

Foams with wooden supports/armatures Wood (balsa)

Soft woods Plasters and stearic acids

Special tools Other applications


Safety Seat Belts and Show movement- support on inner tubes,

Safety Harnesses installation bungee cord, spring

Driver's seats Roll cages, Pipe ramps

Throttle springs for carburetor Cannon (air installation and principle)

Light dimming and hot lights Towing and release(headlights)

Stagecoaches and wagons

Fuel cells, principle of Breakaway tongues, blind driver, and

Brake adjustments and Emergency tipovers

Brake rig for 180 degree slide

Process bodies (car parts removed for camera)

Electrical and Electronics

Basic theory and principals Rotary switches

AC/DC applications Transformers

Remote Control units Pulse circuit

Various variable resistors Batteries - series and parallel

Electronic timers (blinking lights, telephones or klunker box)

Hydraulics - fluid & air

Rams Bimba rams

Pumps Elevator Cars

Motors Tipping over of Vehicles

Application and principals Counterbalancing

Gimbals Jerk back (stunts)

Air cannons Types of Valves, Controls

Air mortars


Piano wire ties/Cable ties Elevator doors

Cables and Rope Knots Rotary platforms, turntables, etc.

Charts - size/strength of piano wire Jerk-backs and ratchets

Descenders Releases, pelican hooks (trips)

Towing and release - vehicles, Arrows and knives on wires

Airplanes, wagons, stagecoach, etc.


People Flying Suits

Objects Flying Pans

Piano wire Platform and Parallelogram

Monofilament Rabbits

Cable Hardware

Flying tracks Counter-balance weights

Flying Basket 360 degrees Sheaves, pulleys, rope lock

Flying Bars


Types of Metals Bandsaw, dual

Lathe, speeds, cutting fluids Blood knives

Mill, speeds, cutting fluids Collapsible knives and other props

Drill press, speeds, cutting fluids Tubing benders

Iron worker Welding - Heli-arc, stick, wire and brazing

Radiack-cold saw and blades

Sheetmetal Work

Types of metals Rodex punch

Shear Rollers - stove pipe, flat seams, stove pipe

Brake-types of bends joints

Spot welder Hoods - fire, windows, forge

Soldering Hand tools for sheet metal work

Power Systems: Gas, Diesel and Electric

Gas Gearing chain and belts

Diesel Eccentric

Electric Motors AC/DC Application to power objects


Types of leathers and hides and their uses

Stitching andl lacing and dyes and finishes

Tools, Fasteners


MSDS sheets for materials used

Safety and Hazards

Basic Computer Skills

NOTE: For those on the path of advancement from Prop Shop to Special Effects, further application and refining of Prop Shop skills are necessary. The candidate should be able to demonstrate skills in the majority of the following areas:

Wind and Air Effects

Safety Air mortars (blow debris)

Wind machines Air cannons (throw objects)

Blowing debris/leaves Uses on stage (brushes.leaves)

With smoke and fog Pellet gun

Process filming Blood hits

Air movers


Equipment Rain pipes (control areas)

Materials Drip pipes (windows)

Safety (AMPTP bulletins) Interior/exterior

Water sources with wind

Pumps Night filming

Waterproofing Goose drownder (rain head)

Lightning effects Traveling rain (vehicles)

Rain stands (types) Noise, Silencing

Rain bars


Types of materials/supplies Holes in ice (pond/lake)

Falling Hot wax gun

Blowing Presurized tanks

Drifts Applicators, Falling snow

Curbs Jet-x foam, Syphon

Handrail/windows Anti-foam solutions

Streets/roads Potato flakes

Slush Hypo Crystals

Trees and Bushes Snow blanket, cotton

Exterior house Footprints in snow

Window frosting crystals Equipment for making snow

Frozen bodies of water Equipment for making frost

Fire - Flares - Torches

Permits Use of sparks

Fire proofing Fire logs

Fire protection Hot coals

Water Supplies Blacksmith's fire

Eddy valves Buildings

Safety (AMPTP bulletin) Doors

Flares Windows

Torches( gas/fuel) Cars

Campfires (interior/exterior) Brush fires

Types of fuel Burning of cars

Flicker effects Burning of sets

Use of smoke

Smoke - Fog - Artificial Atmospheric - Ambiance

Safety and Hazards Breathable fog (liquid oxygen, liquid nitrogen mix) AMPTP Safety bulletins Ambient diffusion (stage)

Types of materials Ash trays

Equipment Car exhaust

Their uses Car Radiator

Types of smoke Train smoke

Types of fog Smoke stacks

Exterior haze Clouds

Low-lying fog Showers/baths

Steam - Cryogenic Breathable Fog

Permits and licenses Steam on car windows

Safety Material used

Type of steam boilers Dry ice

Water and power source Fire protection equipment

Operating temperature Cryogenic application (liquid oxygen, nitrogen mix)

Fire protection equipment Co2

Volume Broken steam pipes

Steam manifolds Car radiator

Steam hose Teapot/kettle

Pipes/fishtails Coffee cup

Manhole covers Shower/bathroom

Curbs/flex conduit


Permits Heating

Water source Waterfalls

Water pressure Streams

Equipment Portable spill tanks

Tank volumes Wetdowns (streets)

Materials Frost on car (night)

Coloring Trees

Suds/foam/bubbles Bushes

Wet look (long lasting) Heating (swiming pools)

Waterfront wet look Showers/bath tubs

Pond agitation Quicksand

Waves/wave makers Slime

Splashes (sides of boats) Environmental safety


Plumbing Recap: Water, Steam, Air, Natural/LPG Gases and Cryogenic

Safety Types of manifolds

Permits Valves (manual/electric)

Suppliers Gauges

Types of piping Types of insulation

Pipe fittings Phase separators

Copper tubing Relief Valves

Tubing fittings Pop-offs

Types of Hoses Regulators

Hose fittings Tanks and accumulators



Safety Dusting set, cars

Cobweb Equipment Dust trails

Cobweb Materials Dust storms

Advanced Computer Experience

Word Processing, Calendar, Accounting Program (Quick Book Pro or MYOB), Spreadsheets, Databases and the Internet in order to perform the following functions--

• Breakdown of script, list of things to do with scene numbers.

• Lists of labor, equipment, tools, supplies and rentals.

• Track job costs and timecards.

• Invoice costs of materials and supplies.

• Costs for rental equipment, day/week.

• Calendar for scheduling scenes and labor.

• Database for Vendors: names, companies, addresses and phone numbers.

Additionally, the following will be useful depending upon area of specialization:

• Common sense

• Understanding of load capacities

• Knowledge of a variety of materials

• Knowledge of how lighting and camera lenses will affect the look of the stunt or gag

• An understanding of how Special Effects and Visual Effects can complement each other in creating various effects

• Ingenuity and problem-solving skills

• Continual willingness to learn, retrain and test

• Understanding of electronics and remote controls

• Knowledge of craftsmen possessing specific skills and licensing

• Ability to perceive how the individual filmed sequences of a gag will add up to the visual concept

• Knowledge of the editing process

• Understanding of rigging

• Knowledge of flying props

• Advanced computer skills


The Special Effects Coordinator should:

• See that requested production repairs are made so long as they don't interfere with immediate job duties. Because of the vast experience Special Effects Coordinators and their crews bring to the job, it is not uncommon for other departments to look to them for repairs -- for instance, broken props and set dressing.

• Confer with the Cinematographer for special needs. Ask about subtle effects.

AWARD ELIGIBILITY. Local 44 Special Effects members are among the most respected in the field, and they have garnered countless nominations and numerous awards.

Film. Members may be nominated for an Academy Award in the category of "Visual Effects."

Television. Members may also be nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards in the category of "Visual Effects."

ORGANIZATIONS. For support and fellowship:

The Alliance of Special Effects & Pyrotechnic Operators, Inc. (ASEPO)

 12522 Moorpark Street

 Studio City, CA. 91604

 Phone: (818) 506-8173

 Fax: (818) 769-9438

Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS)

8949 Wilshire Boulevard

Beverly Hills, CA 90211

(310) 247-3000

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences

5220 Lankershim Boulevard

North Hollywood, CA 91601

(818) 754-2800