In the late 1980s, Chris Call was in Pittsburgh cutting his teeth on props for a movie starring Cesar Romero (the Joker in the 1960s “Batman” series) when he got his first lesson in the hazards of culinary preparation.
The upstate New York native whipped up an omelet for a dinner scene with Romero’s character. To make it colorful, he filled the dish with spicy red peppers. Call wasn’t worried because Romero wasn’t supposed to eat the dish. But the actor went off script. He took a bite and, immediately after the scene was over, yelled out for water.
Since then, Call has always made a point of sampling any food that he uses on set.
It’s among the many tricks of the trade the 61-year-old Los Angeles prop master has learned while working on film sets over the years.
Now he and some of his veteran colleagues want to impart some of that expertise to the next generation through the Property Masters Guild, a newly formed nonprofit trade group.
In the absence of any formal school for the craft, and with many veterans on the verge of retirement, organizers hope the new members organization will train and promote nascent prop masters, the technicians responsible for all the props — from omelets to cigarette butts — used on film productions.
“When I was coming up … you would work for a seasoned prop master and learn the ropes by working for that prop master,” Call said. “That has kind of faded away over the years.”
The role of property masters in film and TV was thrown into stark relief following the shooting of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins with a prop gun on the set of the New Mexico-based western “Rust.” Two young women with few credits who handled props for the movie, including weapons, are at the center of an investigation over the Oct. 21 accident, along with the assistant director.
Hutchins’ death also has been a rallying cry for safer film sets among crew workers who’ve long complained about extended hours on productions with tight budget schedules.
Organizers said the guild was not formed in response to the “Rust” shooting; they had been planning it for years. Nonetheless, they said the tragedy reinforced the need for education and training, including weapons handling classes, at a time when a boom in production has created a shortage of experienced crews.
“If there was a PMG open and operating and everything else before the ‘Rust’ tragedy, maybe the ‘Rust’ tragedy could have been prevented,” said Joshua Meltzer, president of the Property Masters Guild.
Call added: “People need to understand that they have a responsibility when they are property master, especially when it comes to safety.”
The group said its mission is to raise awareness of the craft of prop masters; educate its members, cultivating future generations, including those from underrepresented backgrounds; and foster greater collaboration among those in the profession. The guild currently has nearly 80 members who pay $250 a year to join.
Similar professional organizations have formed over the years to represent the different crafts in the film and TV business, such as the Producers Guild of America, the Set Decorators Society of America and the Society of Camera Operators. These groups host their own awards shows to promote their work.
“Some people refer to us as the silent ninjas because we don’t have awards,” said Call, a PMG board member. “The academy doesn’t recognize us. … We want to change that because we are an integral part of filmmaking.”
PMG is not a labor organization or affiliated with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which represents various Hollywood crew workers, including prop masters, who belong to Local 44. The union said in a statement that it supports the PMG.
But the guild won’t be involved in lobbying on such issues as banning guns from film sets. Some prop masters and armorers have argued that a new movement to stop using real guns in filming threatens their livelihoods or may push production out of California to more gun-friendly states.
“The guild is truly nonpolitical,” Meltzer said. “ This is a membership club for education.”
When Meltzer was in his early 20s, he became one of the youngest prop masters to join the union.
When he first started in Hollywood in the 1970s, working on shows like “Quincy” and “The Rockford Files,” he said it required 5,000 hours of work in props to become a property master — as well as written and oral tests.
Today, it takes just over 2,500 hours and three years as an assistant prop master to qualify as a property master on a union show.
For the record:
12:25 p.m. Dec. 24, 2021An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the number of hours it takes to become a prop master in the union.
“In the next five years, this craft, property masters, is going to lose probably close to a thousand years of experience through retirement,” the PMG president said. “The generations under us, unless they’ve been trained formally by veteran prop masters, a lot of them don’t know a lot of the ins and outs of how to do the job correctly.”
Prop master Hope Parrish, who first talked with Meltzer and others about forming the guild in 2017, was sold on the idea.
“There are so many young people who I speak to that are starving for knowledge that want to know the tricks of the trade that you only learn through experience,” said Parrish, a 42-year veteran whose credits include “Django Unchained.”
Support also came from some of Hollywood’s largest prop houses that have become founding sponsors, including Independent Studio Services, the Hand Prop Room and History for Hire.
“We support the craft [in] every way possible, and the formation of the Property Masters Guild is long overdue to get property masters the respect they deserve in the collaborative television and film industry,” Independent Studio Services CEO Gregg Bilson said.
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