How to Become a Professional Prop & Costume Maker

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You want to make props and costumes for a living, do ya?

Every single day I get a message from one of you wonderful fans, asking how to turn your prop or costume making hobby into a career. Enough of you desire to know the secret to turning your crafting hobby into a job, so I’ve decided to put it all down on paper. Er… on the internet. Here is the roadmap to turning your creative passion into a full time career.

Step 1: Get really good at prop or costume making
You really can’t skip this step. No matter what, if you want to turn your hobby into a career, you’re going to have to convince people that you’re technically proficient at creating things. This means being among 99th percentile of other hobbyists. It also means it might take you years to develop the maker skills necessary to climb to the top of the pile. I started making props and costumes in 2009 and I didn’t quit my day job until 2012. That was even with years of formal art training and lots of practice doing other creative things (I was a 3D modeler for about 7 years). Also, when I quit my day job I was 30, so I had more than a decade of other job experience under my belt.

I also get a lot of messages from you guys who are still in school and want to know what classes you should take. Traditional crafting and art skills are necessary, but you don’t really need college to learn those skills. You’d be better off apprenticing or interning under a professional for that kind of experience. You can also go it alone, practicing in your spare time using information that’s now available for free or cheap on the internet. If you’re already in college and want to pick up some handy knowledge, take some classes on business, marketing, sales, and anything else that will help you sell yourself as a professional in any field. Even if you don’t start your own business, that kind of knowhow is useful in many aspects of life.

Step 1 done? Great! You’ve spent the last few years honing your maker skills and you’re ready to take the plunge into a creative career. What are your options?

Option 1: Don’t
The first and most viable option is to just don’t. Don’t turn your hobby into a career. This is the option that most of you will take, even if you’re really super good at making things. For most people, trying to turn their craft into a job will only sour the enjoyment they got from the creative process. I made this exact decision with my photography hobby. From about 2008 to 2012 I worked extremely hard on my photography and considered taking it full time. After shooting a handful of weddings, however, I decided that photography was a fantastic hobby and I left it at that.

The result of many years of photography practice.

The result of many years of photography practice.

Does this mean you shouldn’t stay employed and take paid jobs here and there? Certainly not! Even if you keep your day job, you can pick up some paid prop or costume commissions on the side. In fact, this is a great way to fund your hobby! This way you don’t lose the security of your job, you don’t have to rely on the commission money to pay your bills, and you can earn a little cash on the side to pay for new tools and materials. This is exactly what I did for the majority of 2011.

Option 2: Be a Hired Fabricator
You could totally get hired as a fabricator for a prop fabrication company. I hesitate to say this is “easier” than self employment, because you’re going to work your tail off regardless, but there are some things that make this option more painless. For starters, it’s probably way easier to do your taxes, especially if you get hired as a full time employee. As a contractor it get’s a little more confusing, but it’s still easier than managing taxes for an entire company.

So long as the shop has work, all you need to do is show up and work your butt off every day. No need to bust your butt looking for commissions and clients, that’s what your boss does. You also don’t need to worry about the cost of shop overhead, that’s also covered by the shop owner. What a swell guy.

Does this mean all you need to do is sign up at the local prop maker shop and you’re in like Flynn? Absolutely not! There are all kinds of pitfalls to working for someone else as a professional fabricator.

First and foremost, you’re going to have to relocate to where the work is. For a lot of people, that means moving to Los Angeles, CA. Once you get there you’ll find that these kind of jobs are highly competitive. Plenty of other fabricators are ready and willing to work hard and, while they may not be as good as you, they’re probably way faster. You’re going to have to be really good at working alongside these other makers too. If you aren’t a good team player, you won’t get hired again. Also, starting wages for this kind of work aren’t traditionally in the six figures, so it’ll be rough going for a couple years while you prove your worth.

Always be improving. My first prop circa 2008 vs my 2015 piece.

Always be improving. My first prop circa 2008 vs my 2015 piece.

Also consider that this kind of work tends to operate on a feast or famine schedule. You may have solid, well paying work for a good 3 months during crunch time for a movie, but when the movie is done, you’ve gotta take some time off while you or your boss bids on a new job or you move to another company.

Finally, it’s unlikely that you’ll get any of the credit for your work. Even if you get to build things for the next Star Trek movie, traditionally the prop fabrication shop gets the screen credit for the work, not the individual fabricators. You may not care about getting credit for your work, but if you do care, this is a bummer.

Still, if all you want to do is get paid to make props and costumes all day long, this is probably the best option for you.

Option 3: Unemployment Self Employment
Maybe you don’t think you could take the lifestyle of a hired prop fabricator. You also don’t work well with others and desire all the credit for every greeble you create. Well then I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is you can start your own prop or costume making company! Just like that. Nobody is going to stop you. YAAAY! The bad news is that it’s a metric crap ton of work and headaches! BOOOO! *sobs*

The best upside to working for yourself is that you get to be your own boss. This is something that I value a lot as a self employed fabricator. The freedom earned through self employment is extremely liberating. There is literally nobody above me to say what I can and can’t do. I get to pick all the projects and decide how they’re built. It. Is. Glorious.

And it really sucks.

Especially in the first few years of running your own business, you are the only employee, which means you do all of the work. Once you quit your day job, you’ll quickly learn that there is an amazing amount of responsibility that piles at your feet as a self employed creative person. Here are some of the responsibilities that I had when I was the only employee of my business:

  • Prop Fabrication
  • Mold Making
  • Casting Resin Prop Copies
  • Attracting Clients and Bidding on Jobs
  • Managing Social Media
  • Tracking Income & Expenses
  • Preparing & Paying Taxes
  • Tracking Inventory & Ordering Supplies
  • Invoicing
  • Packaging & Shipping
  • Shop & Tool Maintenance
  • R&D for new techniques, materials, & business strategies
  • Web Site Maintenance

You also need to pay for shop overhead. What’s that? Mixing cups and popsicle sticks cost money? Damnit. There’s a laundry list of expenses that rear their ugly faces when you run your own business. As a hired gun, your boss or shop owner takes care of these expenses. As your own boss, you’ve got to dig into your own pocket to cover them.

The most difficult aspect of being self employed is doing all of these things when there is nobody else around to light a fire under your ass. You need to convince yourself to make sure all of these tasks are squared away or else you’ll watch your business go all Titanic, split in half, and sink into the icy depths of bankruptcy.

What option did you go with, Bill?
I run my own business, Punished Props, full time. When I quit my day job in 2012, there were many aspects of my life that made the transition possible for me. My wife and I were both employed and we have no children. We run a pretty lean household with no student loan debt, only one car that’s fully paid off, and our rent is very reasonable. We are also both in perfectly good health with no chronic conditions or dental problems, so we have zero extra health expenses. When I extracted myself from my corporate America shackles we could afford to operate on very little overhead for a very long time while I got my act together as a business owner.

I really needed that time to get my bearings, too. Early on, I made a lot of stupid, expensive business mistakes. I imagine these are the kind of mistakes that most new business owners make and having a bit of flexibility with my finances helped out a lot. Otherwise I might have needed to take on a part time job just to keep the business afloat.

When I got started, I didn’t have anything that resembled a business plan. As time went on, I learned what not to do through trial and error. As I crossed things off that list, I slowly learned what I should be doing and this is what eventually turned into the Punished Props business plan! That took about 2-3 years and the specifics of that plan tend to change monthly, so being flexible with my expectations has helped me survive as a small business owner.

That specific plan is what works for me, so it may not be great for you, young padawan. You’re just going to have to feel out what works for you, your goals, and your living situation!

I still only barely know what I'm doing.

I still only barely know what I’m doing.

In Conclusion
There you go. That’s my whole brain dump on the whole idea of turning your hobby into a career. I don’t know if you should be inspired to become a prop and costume making professional or to push the silly idea out of your head and keep your day job. I do hope that now you at least have a reasonable expectation of what you’re up against if you decide turn prop and costume making into a career.

Good luck! =)