For February's Crew Role Profile we talk to Prop Master Michael Betts about his storied career working on productions like 'Frost' and the upcoming feature film version of 'Dad's Army'.
During our chat, Michael explains the ins-and-outs of his all encompassing role and offers his advice on how budding prop enthusiasts can get the best possible start in the industry...
What is your role and what does it involve?
I’m prop master and my job is to turn the designer’s ideas into reality. A bit like a warrant officer in the army, I get everything to the battle - the guns, tents and anything else and put them away afterwards. In simple terms it’s prepping the sets and getting all of the action props. I’m the do-er, we do the jobs that no one else does.,
What would you say have been some of your career highlights so far?
I had a good career at Yorkshire Television. I worked there for twenty seven years and worked with David Jason for twenty five years. I did worked on all the series of ‘A Touch of Frost’, ‘The Second Quest’, ‘Micawber’ ‘Ghost Boat’ in Roman Malta. You had to be good to work on ‘Frost’ and I worked on nearly every job that David worked on in the North. So I had a good twenty five years there but I decided to leave about ten years ago and become a freelancer. My first job as a freelancer was probably one of my highlights; working on a job called ‘Casanova’ with David Tennant and Peter O’Toole. I’ve just worked on ‘Dad’s Army’ with a fantastic designer called Simon Bowles.
What’s the strangest prop you’ve been asked to get hold of over the years?
I was studio based originally, so I got a good grounding working on ‘Three, Two, One’ with Dusty Bin and we used to get everything. We’d have life-sized bears on wheels which we would have to wheel across the yard and if it was raining you would have to put an umbrella over it. I have dealt with tonnes of prosthetics. On one ‘Frost’ we had a life size alligator that was unbelievably life like and I was asked to make it sink in a pond, but it was made out of rubber and wouldn’t sink. So we had to devise a way. I worked on a job about endangered species on ‘Frost’ and we had a tiger in the back of a truck, a real life tiger in a cage and my driver got a shock when he opened the back of the van that day. It is a wonderful thing to do what I do, you never know what is coming next, it could be an ice cream van or an albatross, you just don’t know.
What are the various roles in your department and what do they involve?
I’m the figure head, then I usually have two Standbys and depending on how big the film or TV project is, if it’s a fairly big period drama or if it’s a decent sized feature, I would have a Store Man. The standbys work primarily on camera with the artists, their responsibility is to make sure all of the day-to-day action props are there to follow the continuity, which can be quite difficult if it’s a big period drama. I’m the logistics man, I’m responsible for the stuff that comes and goes. A big shoot can be a really complicated beast to look after. On ‘Casanova’ we were filming in three different countries and I once sent a machine gun for a submarine, a real deactivated one from the second world war that weighed one and a half tonnes with armour and a prop guy in truck to Rome. Then when we had finished with it in Rome, I had to have it sent over to Malta where we met up with it. That was a big logistic headache but it’s what I’ve done for thirty seven years so I’m pretty used to it by now.
How did you start out in this line of work and what training did you receive?
I’m originally a studio prop guy. I worked at Yorkshire Television in the busy years of the 70’s and you got full training then. You worked in every department, with scenes, with the outside crew bringing the scenery in. You started off in the prop store, which is a good basis for any Prop Man to know the prop stores side of it. You need to know about hire companies, the logistics of getting it here and there and hire periods and we were taught all of that at Yorkshire Television. You would spend a month with the buyers, you’d work in the construction shop for a month; you would have to work on the night crew setting and de-rigging the sets, so I got proper studio training.
I’ve got a few young lads on my crew and I have trained them as I was trained. I’m very keen to train people if I get chance because the people that are coming in are not as well trained as I was. It’s not their fault - there’s not the big studio set-up and not many productions train people. I’ll do my best to tell them everything I’m doing and why we’re doing it.
What are the major differences, if any, from working on a feature film compared to TV?
To be honest I think there has been a massive change in the industry. With the tax break and HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, some of the TV is bigger than the features. In film you don’t want to see props that have ever been seen before, so we tend to make a lot, whereas on TV they are recycled a little bit but it’s getting so high-end now in to TV that it’s hard to tell the difference.,
Who should graduates send their CVs to?
I would send it to the Prop Master as you need to spend time with the Prop Crew. If you’re coming into this industry and you want to go in to the Prop Crew then you need to be around them for a while. You need to know how it works, what the politics of it all are as well who works with who. I work with the Buyer and Set Decorators on a lot of occasions; the Set Decorator is ultimately my boss and then the Designer who is doing the overall look. We’ve got to be a team because we’re going to spend 12-16 hours a day with each other, more than our families, so if we don’t get on then we’ve no chance.
What skills are key to this role?
Usually the ideas are more inflated than the budget will allow and it’s what we can do to create those ideas. There are a lot of times where we have to find props that are old and it’s our job to go and find stuff or try to create it ourselves. That’s the experience side of it, knowing there are things available. You’ve got to use your eyes and look around. That’s one of the most important things for a Prop Man: observing everything - where props are. If there’s a prop in a prop store stood there and not going on set, why is it there? I always expect my apprentices to look at everything that’s in the prop stores and question, because if it’s sat there burning a hole in the floor costing money, then I’m not doing my job right.
What’s the one thing that people should be aware of when starting out in this role?
You have got to have stamina. You could be working in conditions that most people don’t work in and it can be incredibly heavy. A lot of people think coming on to a Prop Crew that you’re going to be making props all day, on most jobs we get Prop Makers for that. We do the logistics; we get it there, if we’ve got one hundred tables to get on to the 18th floor of a flat and there’s no lift, we’ve got to work out a way of getting them up. You won’t be sat in an office making props that day, you’ll be humping one hundred desks up the stairs. It can be incredibly tedious at times doing the basics and we sometimes never see the filming because we’re always ahead or behind. You need stamina, the ability to be a team player to be robust,
Do you need to be able to drive an LGV?
I wouldn’t say it’s essential if it’s a big crew and you have enough drivers but it is something that you do need to learn if it’s going to be your career, because you are going to be driving a lot.
What advice would you off to people looking to do what you do?
First of all I’d make sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for. It’s a fabulous career, you’ll get to do amazing things, travel to amazing places and meet amazing people but you will be away from your family a great deal and you’ll be married to the job as well as your family. If you are going to come in to this industry you have got to realise it involves long hours.
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- Crew Role Profile