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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.

The Totally Uncensored List of Casting Director Pet Peeves

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The Totally Uncensored Casting Director

By Marci Liroff

It’s that time of year again. During the summer break my casting director colleagues get together and celebrate the end of pilot season before episodic casting starts up again. Inevitably, we get to talking about our pet peeves in the audition room. Amid the cocktails, we regale each other with hilarious tales mixed with some scary ones.

In the interest of education, I’d like to share them with you so that you’re not “that guy” who’s making a bad name for himself in offices throughout the town.

Don’t wear perfume or cologne. Year after year this seems to be the #1 peeve from my colleagues. Please remember that we have to sit in an often small and cramped room without ventilation for hours on end. When you come in wearing your girlfriend/boyfriend’s favorite scent we have to live with it for the next several hours. Some of us are highly sensitive and allergic to perfume and get migraines and nausea. Think of the casting office like you would a doctor’s office. Don’t do it!

No weapons, not even fake ones. I’ve had actors pull fake guns and knives on me – it was very traumatic. If a scene asks you to pull a knife out of your jacket … please don’t do that in an audition. Especially if you don’t tell the CD before hand. This could lead to furniture being toppled and a big producer putting you in a choke hold.”

This one is very simple. Wear underpants.

This seems so basic I hesitate to even share it, but, make sure your picture and resume are stapled together before you arrive at the casting office. Don’t ask to borrow my stapler or my assistant’s stapler. Make sure your contact info and agent/mgr. is written on the photos and your resume in case they get separated – which happens all the time. When I ask you for your picture, don’t hand me three different choices and ask me to pick which one – make a choice beforehand.

Excuses. Leave them home. Actors that preface their audition with an excuse, “I was tired, sick – all it says to me is, “get ready, I am going to be really bad today.”

Coming in with a bad attitude. Never underestimate the effect being pleasant has on everyone.

Don’t prop yourself up with props. Don’t use a prop in a scene unless you are totally comfortable with it. I’ve seen props totally befuddle some people. A phone is fine. Just don’t set up a one-person show – unless you’re Carrot Top.

If it’s a driving scene, you don’t have to pretend to actually “drive” the car.

For The Men: I’m not going to have sex with you so don’t even TRY to seduce me into thinking you are a better actor than you are. Charm is good. Wit. Personality. But flirting in a creepy way is…well.. creepy.

Be nice and courteous to everyone. You never know: that receptionist could end-up being a director or producer some day. And the interns definitely “rat-you-out” when you leave. The guy who used to clean my toilets was nominated for an Oscar ten years later.

Don’t slap your sides on your thighs. It’s an unnecessary distraction.

Because producers and directors are rarely in the room anymore, actors feel like they can take their time and work out the material with us as if we’re their coach. As if they don’t have to impress us because we’re not the director or the producers. So they want to stop and start over and over again until they get a take they like. It’s us that you have to impress because we decide if we’re even going to send along your audition. I hear things like “let’s just play” or “let’s just try it a few different ways”.

We’re not your roommate or your acting teachers or coaches. How you are in the room is my only assumption of how you will be on set. So if you start and stop or swear or break down, I have to assume that’s how you will be on set.

Don’t eat during the scene. I auditioned a Julliard grad for a scene taking place during the Vietnam war and he insisted he couldn’t do the scene without also eating an apple. “That’s how I practiced it.” “But you’re under enemy fire.” “But I need the apple.”

When they don’t do the easy homework. The question, “So what exactly is this?” drives me bonkers. Just taking the time to go through all the information on the breakdown, not just their character description, but the names of the producers, the casting team, which studio/network the project is for, googling/youtubing clips helps inform their choices and gives them confidence to just focus on the character and be in the moment. I try to remind actors that if they treat their audition prep like a regular job interview, and go through all of the information that’s provided to them, it’s going to free them up to simply act.

Take a shower first.

If you just got the sides and won’t be ready to audition, then what happens when you get the job and they give you new pages the morning of the shoot?! You’re telling us that you can’t actually do the job even if you get it!

Don’t look around the audition room and ask if anyone else is going to be coming in. If they were, they’d already be here.

Assume that if you’re there it’s for a reason.

Don’t start commenting on how you don’t match the description or people in the waiting room don’t look like you, or ask if everyone is there for the same role. Just focus on the task at hand – which is your audition, right now.

Asking the CD permission to do something during the reading – instead of just making the choice and letting it be fresh and exciting to our eyes.

If your agent sends you an audition for a role with specific needs and you know you are not qualified (i.e. authentic native language, dancing or singing ability) please cancel.

It’s your job to know your conflicts. Do not audition if you know you have a date conflict. Work in partnership with your agent & casting.

If you have a time conflict: it’s one thing to call ahead, find out the time perimeters and ask if you can come earlier/later, that’s fine. But don’t just show up hours early (or late), expecting us to drop what we’re doing in order to audition you.

We have a small office and when you pace outside the door and rehearse your scene LOUDLY, EVERYONE inside that office – including the actor auditioning and the producers/director sitting watching that audition – can HEAR YOU. And it’s RUDE. And please don’t all have GabFest 2015 right outside the door either with your fellow actors.

If you have somewhere to be and we’re running a little behind, don’t just leave. Let us know and we’ll squeeze you in. And please, for the love of god, do not slap the casting director reading with you! Or try to kiss them. Or give them a lap dance. You know what? Just don’t touch the casting director.

If I give you an adjustment, please don’t explain to me why you made the initial choice for the character. I didn’t say that you sucked, I didn’t say you were wrong – You don’t have to justify your choices. Sometimes I’m giving you a note because I know what they are specifically looking for and I want to help you get the job. Sometimes I’m doing it because I want to see if you can take direction.

Please please don’t show up with ANY illness, fevers, coughing, rashes…puking in the trash cans! Yep it happens. Keep your germs at home. If you get can’t get rescheduled then ask to self- tape or you may just have to miss it. Some of us are immune suppressed, pregnant and have kids – or just want to stay healthy(not a big request) NO AUDITION is worth us getting sick over.!

Believe it or not, all of these stories are true (as shared by my casting colleagues). I’ll bet that the actors reading this have equally unprofessional stories to tell about the producer who was on the phone the entire time they auditioned. Or, the casting director who never once looked up from her computer to connect during their audition. (tell me your stories of how YOU were treated unprofessionally, and I’ll do a blog on that!)

Thankfully, these stories are the exception and I’m continually amazed and impressed by the talented actors who come through my door.

Make sure to check out my new 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.

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(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.)