Of all the awards handed out at all of the awards shows, there's an unsung hero that is absolutely vital to a film, and this scavenger, sleuth, hunter, hoarder, builder, collector, provider, and protector gets no props at all. That person is the prop master, of course. Have you seen that Samsung commercial, recently - the medley of all those sci-fi watches worn throughout the years in TV/film? That's not set design. Those aren't costumes. Production design? No. They are props.
A prop is (technically) anything an actor touches. Production design can be spectacular, but rarely will it be in a close-up. The gun, the phone, the case, the shoe, the finger print, the whip, the lipstick, the typewriter, the trophy, the sled, the note; these can be as large as the screen, and thus, excruciating attention to detail must be paid. Almost every movie has a prop that is introduced in the first act that will inevitably be a vital part of the climax of the film. A filmmaker would not insert a prop as a key narrative device without resolving it.
Why take precious time to zoom in on the strange necklace Jake Gyllenhaal's character discovers on the corpse if it is not going to be critical to his epiphany towards the end of Prisoners? Consider how key a role the lipstick plays in American Hustle, or the coins in 12 Years a Slave, or the diary in The Book Thief, the letters in Invisible Woman, and the phone cord in Wolf of Wall Street (my favorite prop of the year -- the phone and that cinematically long phone cord compliment the impeccable acting in that scene; itself one of the year's best).
Props are meticulously sourced, and just as many are expertly crafted. Ken Wills, a Canadian prop master who's worked on such great films as Unforgiven, Legends of the Fall and Brokeback Mountain, has probably the most extensive collection of props for westerns in Alberta, and probably all of Canada -- a compelling reason why many productions of western-type fare (e.g. Hell on Wheels) seek out Calgary and the Canadian Rockies. Prop masters are time machines. They are autonomous bounty hunter craftsmen who are empowered with a director's vision and quested to come back having materialized it.
Here's a typical pre-production conversation between a director (in this case, me) and his prop master (in this case, Betsy Goslin -- talk to anyone, she's amazing):
Me: "So, we need a cider press. You know the old wooden kind with the crank thing that you might see in a farmers market in the Shenandoah Valley. The thing has a thing at the top where you put the apples in and there's a big crank that you turn and a palette that presses the apples into the grinder and you stick an old wooden bucket at the bottom and all the apples grind up and the cider spills into the bucket. You know?"
Betsy: "Yeah, sure."
Me: "Great, cause I want Taylor to crush Leslie's head in the cider press at the end."
Betsy: "Oh cool!"
Me: "Yeah, well, with a good Foley cracking sound and her cranking down on his head I think we can pull it off."
Me: "I saw one of these years ago at a farm in Virginia. I dunno where you're gonna find one."
The Line Producer: "We need it by Tuesday."
Betsy: "No problem."
Directors shoot two things, for the most part: their actors and their props. This, in my mind, makes the prop master one of the director's very most important assets. It's high time that we recognize them, formally. Here are my 2014 prop awards:
Best sourced props: American Hustle
Runner-up: 12 Years a Slave