I'm currently working on an ambitious and visually complex short film.
With only 5 minutes of prospective runtime and almost no audience, it would seem nonsensical to invest lots of my time and money building props that few people will see or care about. From machined plexiglass computer monitors to moulded foam armour, this short has singlehandedly doubled the number of props I own and cost several months worth of coffee.
I think most people could understand doing this on a personal level, as we all want to make great things that we can be proud of. But I also think there is some sound reasoning behind this decision that will pay off in the long run (I do someday want to live off this kind of work, and not lose money making shorts).
Great props are worth the work, here's why:
Each prop adds value to future productions. If you create one stunningly crafted computer monitor, every future short that needs a similar monitor will have a stunningly crafted one. Having properly crafted props that last will serve you well, especially when they can be altered for different purposes.
The skills learned are as valuable as the props. So far for this production I've learned how to mould plastics, properly cut plexiglass, shape foam with a wire cutter and now have a good mental estimate of how long these tasks take and how much it will all cost. Going into future productions, that's a ton of things that are no longer guesswork.
Communication gets much easier. The people who make props full time are very skilled at what they do and unless you are aiming to study full time, you're unlikely to ever match their skill level. However, knowing your shit when talking to specialists is always a good thing. When you're not the one making the props you'll be able to get better results, communicate your ideas better and know the constraints that others are working with. So next time someone says it'll take several days to coat foam armour in spray paint, you'll know why.
New tools can create new creative options. For the armour in this production, we needed to cut intricate shapes that neither a saw or knife could manage. So without the money or time to buy a specialised tool I built one out of plywood and a strip of nichrome wire from a hair dryer. Now that tool has been used for several other props and will undoubtedly be used many more times. Expanding your creative capabilities will help you think of more creative ideas and know what it will take to make them happen.
Props should serve your story, regardless of budget. When you invest the time and/or money in your own original props, it gives you the chance to make them exactly the way you envisioned them when conceiving your story. In the case of this production, we wanted the 'computer screen of the future' not a bulky plastic one. With the ability to create your own props, you lose the restriction of having to use real-world objects and technology and often get something that would cost much less than the real thing (we spent £60 on the materials for three monitors).
Originality is just kinda sweet. Having props that you know are unique and as well built as the props used in big-budget blockbusters can't help but make you a little proud.
I don't think this just applies to props either, you can apply almost identical logic to any area of filmmaking, from sound design to music to visual effects.
Here's roughly what one of the three monitors will be displaying, I'll update this with test footage once it's finished in a few weeks.