Setting the scene from stem to stern with these growing Georgia prop houses.
How does one truly “sell” a film to an audience? There are many ways that film industry professionals can create compelling and dynamic works that tell a story, one of the most fundamental being the use of props. Short for “theatrical property,” props have been used in film, television, and theatrical productions for hundreds of years. The term first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1841. During the Renaissance, many theatrical troupes would pool resources and travel together, putting on performances in a variety of locations. Back then, many of the actors would provide their own outfits and costuming, but items such as stage weapons and furniture would belong to the troupe as a whole, hence the term “property.”
As a general rule, props are items that are used by actors in a production to set the scene and further the action. Additionally, some props go on to become motifs and carry special significance for the overall storyline, like the ring in the Lord of the Rings series. A prop can be something as innocuous as a cup of coffee, as temporary as breakaway glass, or as crucial as a “hero” prop: something that’s central to the story and specifically used by the main characters. Sometimes these hero props might include functional, moving parts or incorporate technology such as LCD screens.
While watching any performance, you can learn a lot about the characters and plot from examining the props. Perhaps they are intended to blend into the background, or maybe they convey important messages about the characters you watch. For instance, a devout religious person with sacrilegious imagery hanging on the walls of their bedroom could imply a lesser known or seldom seen side to that character.
So where do these props all come from? In many cases, it’s unrealistic to expect each production to go out and buy every item that’s needed for a film or show at cost, especially given that one crew might work on vastly different types of productions within a short amount of time. That’s where prop houses come in, offering a vast array of items available for rent. Some shops specialize while others try to offer a little bit of everything.
According to research by the Motion Picture Association of America, Georgia is quickly becoming one of the nation’s largest film and television production hubs. Statistics tell us that in 2016, the industry generated $1.7 billion in wages for over 25,000 people in the state. With an ever-increasing litany of productions coming out of the state, it comes as no surprise that prop houses are in high demand. After all, nearly every show, play, or movie needs props, and they have to stay somewhere when they are not on set.
For this feature, Oz spoke with eight of Atlanta’s top prop houses about what it’s like to work in the industry and provide the items that help directors, writers, and actors tell their stories.
Bright and Tidy and On Display
“This is a changing world every day,” explained Claire Foley, the general manager of the Atlanta branch of Bridge Furniture & Props. Indeed, the very spaces in which Foley walks every day are always changing. Their bright and tidy warehouse is located off of Interstate 75 in the Underwood Hills area, divided into sections by large shelves, packed with neatly organized items of virtually every sort. In the open floor spaces in between, carefully crafted room scenes appear ready for a production as is. Strategically placed measuring tapes can be found from aisle to aisle for the convenience of shoppers.
As prop masters rent out and reserve different items from the warehouse, Foley and her team must then come behind them to neaten and tidy the remaining items, resulting in continuously evolving miniature sets. “It’s fun,” Foley said. “It’s hard work and it’s really busy.” Founded in 2006 by Matt Hennessy in Brooklyn, New York, Bridge Props has seen continuous success in the industry. The company has since expanded to three locations: New York City, Los Angeles, and most recently, Atlanta.
“NOT JUST ATLANTA, GEORGIA IS LEARNING.”
Foley has a diverse background, with a degree in psychology from UGA and a career that includes stints in sales, retail, restaurant management, and even working on a cruise ship. It was thanks to an old co-worker who was hired to fill a senior role at the New York branch of Bridge Props that Foley was recommended for the role at their new Atlanta location. Her knowledge of managing people and caring for clients in retail and the service industry allow her to make and maintain a strong network of professionals in the area. Though she admits that sometimes she is teased by her co-workers for her Southern accent, it is precisely her genuine nature and Southern hospitality that makes her such a perfect person for the job of general manager.
As for the vibe at Bridge? Foley describes it as being professional while still keeping things real. “I’m proud of that,” she said. The prop house has contributed to productions such as MacGyver, Ozark, Star, The Walking Dead, Sully, Baywatch, and Dynasty, just to name a few. They have also stocked commercials for brands like Gold Bond, Georgia Lottery, Georgia Power, Dannon Yogurt, and have even provided props for rap music videos.
Since accepting the job two years ago, Foley has seen an increase in business not just for her shop, but in the productions that are taking place in Georgia. “It’s very word of mouth here,” she explained. “There is so much growth and there are so many new people coming to town, so I hope they get to know us.” Fortunately for Foley, the local scene is a friendly one. “Everybody tries to help everybody out,” she said.
From the outset, Hennessy’s goal has been to provide a selection of higher end items. He had been working at another prop house when he realized his dream was to start a company of his own, and thus formed Bridge. Though the three branches of Bridge carry distinctly different items, which is due to the types of productions that take place in each city, there are some overarching themes that remain constant between the locations. For example, Hennessy is an animal lover, so he included a clause in his contracts for employees that encourages them to bring their pets to work. He even built a cat hotel for strays in the New York office, and he runs an informal fostering program out of the prop house. Despite operating with a robust history of work and the proven success that Bridge has found, Foley thinks there’s still more to learn. “Not just Atlanta, Georgia is learning,” she said.
Local Inventory Strikes True
“I could not be happier to be in the Atlanta area at this exciting time,” said Dave Di Pietro, director of new products at Museum Replicas. In the prop business, it’s important to not only be accessible, but also to carry items that the customers want to rent. Having local inventory is key. “They can stop in and shop for things that they would normally have to ship in from Hollywood or other areas throughout the United States.”
Originally from the Philadelphia region, Di Pietro has found a happy home in Atlanta. “The amount of friendly, professional people we have here is quite staggering!” A filmmaker in his own right, he has worked in Super 8, 35mm, and 35mm film. Di Pietro expresses a distinct love for model building, though he fears that this role may be “a disappearing art with the current digital age.”
“A DISAPPEARING ART WITH THE CURRENT DIGITAL AGE.”
Beyond working in his preferred roles of distressing costumes and aging props, Di Pietro also writes and directs an action-packed steampunk web series called Archangel from the Winter’s End Chronicles. Knowing what it’s like to be behind the camera gives him an added appreciation for the work he does supplying props at Museum Replicas. When television shows The Originals and Sleepy Hollow rented almost their entire set, Di Pietro felt a sincere appreciation for what he does. “That made me feel great, that two network TV shows found my creations exciting enough to feature them as a key set on their shows!”
Museum Replica’s selection features swords, daggers, helmets, suits of armor, costumes, and home accents, specifically within the realm of Greek, Roman, Viking, Medieval, Renaissance, and steampunk styles. The company, established in 1983 under the parent company Atlanta Cutlery, has provided sets, prop replicas, and costumes for films such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Gladiator, Braveheart, and The Lord of the Rings.