Read as Richard Coyle talks about his career as a Hollywood Prop Maker. Find him at www.racprops.com.
What do you do for a living?
I make recreations of movie and TV hand props, i.e., Star Trek Phasers, Tricorders and Communicators, and Blasters, like Forbidden Planet, Blade Runner and Battlestar Galactica.
How would you describe what you do?
Long hours and hard work with so-so pay. Some fun working out details and recreating the prop and making the mold master.
What does your work entail?
Ordering parts and raw pewter metal, firing up a 600 degree furnace and pouring pewter into molds. Some are spun cast. The cleaning up of these parts and soldering in holes and sanding them, drilling them, taping them, fitting the parts to each another to build a complete model, polishing some parts and painting others, and chemically treating some of the parts to produce the look of steel.
Casting the plastic parts and cleaning them up, sanding them and drilling them and polishing some of them.
Lastly after a couple of months, doing the final assembly and shipping them to customers.
Casting Plastic models, cleaning them up sanding and painting and building the electronic drivers and installing into the models.
What’s a typical work week like?
Work almost every day when I am able.
How did you get started?
Funny story, I went to see Star Wars the first day and found out there was a Star Trek convention being held, went to that and wanted to do more. I found there was a dealers room where people sold all kinds of things, and with my background in electronics (as a TV repairman), I was able to put lights and sound effects into my ray guns (this was back in 1977…). This became a way to go to Sci-Fi cons…make models, sell models and have fun at the Cons.
What do you like about what you do?
The creating of a new prop. Figuring out how to make it.
What do you dislike?
That it is a failing business….older Sci-Fi like Star trek, Lost in Space, even Battlestar Galactica had a near cult following. Back then we were the underdogs, and our shows were very special to us, but now a days we got what we prayed for but it came with a price, we became popular, main stream, BUT that also brought many, many new TV shows and movies, which means to the younger fan these are replaceable..if the one you’re watching now gets canceled, well there will be a new bunch next fall.
Fans no longer hang onto shows.
Thus they only buy while the show is on and if it is hot.
And many so called Sci-Fi show are earth bound, in the very near future, and have no uniforms and no props, OR if they do a far future show they use modern weapons, like they did on the New Battlestar Galactica…
This means there are NO special props to recreate.
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
When I was in Hollywood, two ways, payment from the studios when I was hired to build something for them and selling models to fans at the Cons. But due to health problems I had to give up on Hollywood in 1992. Later I got on the internet and found customers on web sites.
How much money do Prop Makers make?
For me it is a hand to mouth income..low income, barely a living. Sadly it has been this way all 35 years.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
Very little. My first wife and my second wife worked and helped out.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
Jack of all trades, I use all I have learned about electronics, in TV repair, A/C repair, and automotive repair and studied more, all I could learn about RTV Mold making, and pouring casting plastic into these molds and now mostly pewter. I am self-taught to run a Milling Machine, and Lathe, vacuum former, and drill press and belt sanders, dremels and band saws…and to design model masters and a hundred other things…Computer skills help with ad copy and putting one’s self out on the internet.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Making a living wage.
What is most rewarding?
Making a better than living wage
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Don’t, IF you’re thinking of Hollywood consider this true story: I was given a chance to make props for Star Trek the Next Generation: I was asked if I was a member of any union, I answered yes, the Teamsters, (Working at a prop house, The Hand Prop Room, we all became members of the Teamsters union so that the Teamster truck driver would transport props to and back from the studios).
They asked if I would join the Prop Maker Union. So I call them and asked about joining. I was told sorry but with 5000 card carrying members out of work they were not allowing any new members. It did not matter as I lost the job to a guy who had more friends on the lot.
The fact is propmaking is a dead end job/career for me and for most.
Propmaking is a highly competitive career with hundreds, if not thousands trying for each job.
How much time off do you get/take?
What is time off??
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That it is high paying..and that we get to meet the stars…that we will become well known. Consider, because I used my own name and did not follow custom of creating a fancy name for my company, and because 90% of propmakers that do get work from the studios moonlight on props from their other studio wanted work, Like Greg Jein who is best known for making miniatures or others who do special effects makeup as their main work. So I became well known only for prop making and I find that even now I am still world famous as the best known prop maker.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
To find a way out..to find work I can do and make a much better than living wage. To find a product that I can have made by others and sold by others..
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
It was fun in the 80s, I traveled a lot, to many cities to do many Sci- Fi cons. I got work on many Movies and some TV shows…I did meet some stars and I had high hopes…BUT working a killer job almost did that, kill me. I contracted chronic fatigue.
For 35 years I have barely made a living, and if not for getting chronic fatigue while slaving in Hollywood during the 80s and thus NEEDING a job where I can work at home at my own speed and days, I would have gotten into something else. In fact, I am still trying to find something.
And this kind of failure has happened to 80% of the people I knew from my 12 years in Hollywood, and those that have managed to stay in propmaking do so by living at home with their parents, off a supporting girlfriend or wife, and even then most live a substandard life.
I have no savings, no health insurance, no retirement fund, will not get much from SS, and will most likely work at my bench until I drop dead. (IF I don’t find something else…)
The ONLY good part was the fun, going to conventions, and getting on the studio lots once in a while and see my work up there on the big screen. BUT as I no longer work in Hollywood and thus do not do any props for the studios, nor with the fading interest in Sci-Fi shows, the conventions have also faded, and the studios are closing the barn door long after the cows fled, are hassling prop makers selling props without a license (something they did not care about for some 20 years of my work..) so it is a closing door for me.
The pay was also good for the 1 to 3 months out of a year I got propmaking work from the studios, the rest of the time I hustled models at Sci-Fi cons..
There is a reason I am one of the most famous and well know propmakers, as I am one of the very few that lasted longer that 5 to 10 years, I simply will not go away…
Model making is also a dying art, we are no longer needed just as sculptors are also no longer wanted, we are being replaced by 3D prototypers and 3D printers and in some cases CGI.
So my warning is parents do not let your children grow up to be propmakers.
Feel free to ask questions.