The world of Prop Design includes everything and the kitchen sink. In the Cinematic Arts, a prop is anything and everything that isn’t part of the set or the costumes. A car is a prop. A phone is a prop. A meal is a prop. Every object in a character’s world is carefully selected by the Prop Design team, because each one carries an unspoken backstory that helps the audience frame not only where and when they are in time, but also who they are watching onscreen. The term “prop” is the abbreviation of a “property.” The audience makes different assumptions about a character who uses a silver spoon versus a plastic one.
Props play a critical role in Set Design, and selecting the right ones to portray a film’s world can entail an extraordinary amount of research. A period drama requires collaboration with experts in antiquities, while a futuristic one means meeting with scientists and engineers. The end goal is always the same: to have each object onscreen help present a more believable world, be it one of enchanting fantasy or stark reality.
In addition to reinforcing a film’s world, props can play pivotal roles in the narrative arc of a story. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously said that if a gun appears on the wall in the first act, it must be fired in the second. “Chekhov’s Gun” is now a term that applies to any object in a story that at first blush, seems insignificant, but is later revealed to be of critical importance. Similarly, many narratives employ a plot device known as a “MacGuffin,” a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, describing a goal or motivation which serves as the driving force behind the action. A MacGuffin can be a concept as elusive as hope or an object as tangible as a ring. In the case of the latter, it’s up to the Prop Design team to make it memorable.