Meet the Prop Master – How to Handle Guns on Set

Photo Source: Margaux Quayle Cannon

By Marci Liroff

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I’ve been working on set as an Intimacy Coordinator for the last several months and I’ve been soaking up the atmosphere and learning so much.

It piqued my interest when the prop master came on to set with a gun and announced, “Gun on set!” Even though it was a rubber replica of a handgun, it was handled with the utmost safety. I’ve always been surprised that a prop master handles firearms. I spoke to Rebecca Kenyon (Moonlight, Cobra Kai, Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, Council of Dads) to dig deeper into her job.

At what point do you get hired? Prop masters are typically brought in during prep a few weeks before principal photography. Usually hired by the production designer, we work in conjunction with the art department, prod designer and set decorator to make sure the props we’re bringing match the chosen look for the project.

In pre-production, I typically start with the organizational aspect of a project doing the breakdowns of the props, the graphics, and the specialty props. I collaborate with the director and designer to come up with visual references and make boards to further narrow down the look.

I like to open set. Opening set means being on set at or before call to supervise and establish props on set. I like to be there to answer any last minute questions, address any concerns or changes that might come up, and go over the day with my crew, help with the morning set-up and be there to answer any questions my crew, the director, cast or anyone has. Usually all choices have been made in advance, through the course of several meetings. This makes the shooting days much smoother and easier, so we don’t have to bother a busy director or producer on the day. During the course of prep we have several meetings including: the concept meeting, props meeting, props show and tell, production meeting, and any specialty meeting we think might require more specific attention. Examples of specialty meetings we’ve held recently include: the toilet meeting where we discussed how to portray fixing a toilet on screen, a drug meeting where I demonstrated some various tactics for consuming fake drugs, and meetings about boat work.

What items on set are you in charge of? A prop is anything an actor touches. While we don’t do furniture, we are in charge of paperwork, weapons, food, glasses, watches, anything someone touches.

What are some items you are responsible for that people would be surprised to know?

People are always surprised by the weird and random things the props department does (wedding rings, watches, eyeglasses).

We get to do weird and exciting things that people don’t even know exist. We create the stunt props like rubber weapons, foam bricks, and retractable knives. I even made a silicone spike bracelet for a character on Cobra Kai to drag across another character’s face.

What can an actor do to help your job? What do actors do that drive you crazy? Understanding the departments is a huge help. It is not impossible, but it definitely can be difficult to accommodate all last minute actor requests. Sometimes there can be a stroke of genius or something can come up out of nowhere, and we’re glad to help. 

How are guns handled on a set?

I have taken some basic weapons training courses, but most of my training came during experience with others who have more training and experience. Sometimes I work with armorers. A licensed armorer is someone with the proper credentials to handle weapons and ensure the safety of everyone on set. They are used for any specific weapons or firearms handling and are licensed and proficient with many varieties. Armorers help the director and props department make choices best suited for each project.

What is the protocol for bringing a gun on set? It differs on a case by case basis, but the essentials are mostly the same. Guns should always be brought to set by the armorer, or props dept in a secured, lockable compartment. Who actually brings the firearm to set depends on the local laws and restrictions as well as the comfort and knowledge of the prop master. If there is anything that requires specific skills or licenses, an armorer is needed. It’s often a good choice to bring an armorer in because the prop master doesn’t always get to be around on set. There are plans to be made, meetings, shopping, ordering and always a lot of paperwork.

The guns should be carried to set and first shown to the first assistant director, then the gun is offered to be shown as fully empty and safe to any other members of the crew. The prop master or armorer calls, “Rubber gun on set.” Rubber, foam, and resin guns are all used on set to achieve the look of the firearm without the real thing.

“Cold weapon on set” meaning the AD and any concerned parties have seen and acknowledge that the firearm is empty and safe. 

Then the gun is presented to all actors in the scene – especially the one who holds the weapon and anyone it may be pointed at. That would be the protocol for a non-firing weapon on set. All guns used are modified to fire blanks only. In the case of firing of a blank in the scene, the armorer will observe the rehearsals and determine the concerns and needs of the director to help accomplish the scene safely.

(Unfortunately, even with all the safety and precaution accidents can still happen. In 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum was a 26-year-old actor and had been filming a scene on a tv show called Cover Up.

Hexum grew increasingly frustrated with delays to filming the scene and began playing with the gun, spinning the barrel like a game of Russian roulette. He playfully spun the barrel, which had one bullet inside, and placed the gun to the temple of his head and pulled the trigger. The gun discharged a wad of paper which shattered his skull. He was put on life support and ultimately died due to his injuries

In 1993, actor Brandon Lee was shot dead in a scene gone wrong on the set the film, The Crow, when his costar fired a prop gun that had a dummy bullet lodged in its chamber).

Actors are always spoken to before participating in gunfire. We will usually ask if the actor has any training or experience with weapons and I encourage everyone to be as honest as possible. Its ok if you haven’t shot a gun. You won’t be able to say that by day’s end. Often times we do practice or test fire with anyone who would like it. We want everyone to be as safe and comfortable as possible.

Make sure to check out my online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.

Warning: I grant permission to share my blog as written with no additions or deletions. Posting my blog is in no way an endorsement of another site unless you obtain my written consent.

How to Be Superstar on Set

Photo Source: Margaux Quayle Cannon

By Marci Liroff

Working on a tv series over the last three months has reminded me how much knowledge actors need to work on a set effectively. From what I can see, most acting classes don’t teach this.

Know your lines: You’d be surprised how many actors get hired and come to set without knowing their lines. If you don’t know your lines inside and out, you won’t be able to hear and institute the director’s direction because you’ll be too busy trying to remember what to say. Be prepared for changes in the dialogue. In some situations you will stick to the script exactly. In others, you may be encouraged to improvise or to catch the “happy accidents” that may occur. That “lightning in a bottle” may slightly change the dialogue and you have to be on your toes to fold in those lines into the scene with ease. Also know that your performance should be exactly as it was on your audition and rehearsal. Now is not the time to try out something new.

The marking/blocking rehearsal: When you arrive on set you will run through what’s called a “marking” or “blocking” rehearsal. In this rehearsal, the actors run through the scene with dialogue and, along with the director, sort out what the action is within the scene. For instance, you come into the room, say a line to your girlfriend, grab your keys and phone, walk to the door, your girlfriend joins you there for a goodbye kiss, and then you exit. While you’re doing this, someone from the camera department is marking every place you go with tape or little bean bags on the ground. You’ve got to hit those marks consistently and without looking so that you’ll be in focus and lit well when doing your scene. You also must manage your continuity. Continuity is when you repeat actions in the exact same order, along with saying your lines in the same spot and making sure to have your phone and keys in the same hand for each take. The script supervisor is also tracking your continuity to make sure that all your takes are identical so the editor can cut them together for a realistic scene. You don’t want to be the actor who is a nightmare for the production because nothing cuts together.

Pace yourself:

I think the biggest misconception about shooting is that it’s action-packed and fun filled.

When I say that there’s a lot of hurry up and wait, I’m being kind. You will often find yourself with a call time of 6am and only have one scene and one line that doesn’t shoot until 4pm. You have to learn to pace yourself so that you’re ready and fresh when they finally do get to your scene. Have plenty to do – you can bring a book, knitting, or whatever you like to do to pass the time but stay close by and alert. A production assistant will come get you from your trailer when they’re ready to shoot your scene. If you leave your trailer for any reason, or walk off the set, make sure you tell a P.A. where you’re going so they can find you at a moment’s notice.

Know the lingo: As I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’ve worked on a set, there’s a very specific language used on set that can make you feel like you’ve walked into a foreign country. Once we’re shooting, things are very fast paced so it’s crucial to understand this lingo so as not to slow things down. I created a list of some of the most common words I hear on a set, along with some oldies but goodies!

Some new terms you’ll hear on set these days are:

“Take your masks off/on” – while acting on set you are required to wear a mask at all times except when you’re shooting. The A.D.s will tell you when to remove your mask and when to put it back on.

Zone A and testing – because of the virulent spread of the Covid-19 virus, production has taken great pains to keep everyone healthy. If you’re in Zone A (an actor or anyone who works in close proximity) there will be lots of testing if you’re working regularly on a show (I get tested every other day because I’m in Zone A).

Gone are the days of feasting on the table at craft services. Now, you’ll order your meal from a menu ahead of time and all food is individually packed and no touching the craft services table. Someone from that department will hand you what food you request.

Make sure to check out my online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.

Warning: I grant permission to share my blog as written with no additions or deletions. Posting my blog is in no way an endorsement of another site unless you obtain my written consent.

My Life as an Intimacy Coordinator on “Hightown”

Photo Source: Margaux Quayle Cannon

By Marci Liroff

I’ve always reveled in being a multihyphenate. In addition to casting, producing, coaching actors, and designing jewelry, I recently added another feather to my cap: I’m now a certified Intimacy Coordinator for film and television.

I started working in this field at the end of 2018, and (miraculously) got a job during the pandemic working on a television series called “Hightown” for Starz. When a scene calls for nudity or simulated sex, it’s my job to make sure that the actors are safe in all scenes and have clearly given enthusiastic consent. Collaborating with the actors and filmmakers to help bring their vision to the screen is truly gratifying.

Without an intimacy coordinator, actors are often left to their own devices to map out how an intimate scene should go.

There is a high risk of blurred lines and abuse in a workplace where workers are required to kiss and simulate sex.

To combat this, it’s becoming best practice to have a coordinator on set. In fact, HBO has made it mandatory that one is hired for all of its shows that include this content.

Think about it: When a production executes a stunt, it hires a stunt coordinator who makes sure that every member of the crew remains safe, is educated, and has given consent to perform the task at hand. This requires interviews with the production team to determine exactly what is called for in the scene down to the smallest detail. It also requires extensive choreography, planning, and safety meetings. Now, with intimate scenes, the same thoughtful attention to detail can be given to create a safe environment for the actors involved, as well to ensure that the vision of the director and producers is met, thereby saving the production time and money.

In a nutshell, here’s what I do: During pre-production, I meet with the production team to determine what is called for in the scene. I then meet with the actors one-on-one to discuss ideas for the scene. During this time, we confirm what areas of their body, in line with their nudity rider, they are comfortable revealing. In addition, we discuss consent for potential choreography for intimate scenes, and I invite any concerns to be raised.

I find that most actors are hard-wired to say “yes.” Not just “yes,” but “yes, and….” You are trained to jump into most circumstances with trust and an open heart. But you should know that your “No” is very powerful. For instance, there’s a clause in your SAG-AFTRA contract stipulating that you have the right to say no to a scene while you’re in the middle of shooting, even if you’ve agreed to it and have signed a nudity rider. We can then compromise on the scene and continue shooting, or we can employ a double for you. The double can only do what’s in your nudity rider, and the production can use the takes you’ve already shot. The new SAG-AFTRA 2020 agreement also affords you several other rights where this content is involved; it was written with the help of the industry’s leading intimacy coordinators.

Make sure to check out my online course “How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp”. You can view it on your laptop or your mobile device and your subscription gives you lifetime viewing privileges for this course. I’ll be adding lectures throughout the year.

Warning: I grant permission to share my blog as written with no additions or deletions. Posting my blog is in no way an endorsement of another site unless you obtain my written consent.

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