Research is a vital skill for a props person. We may be given a vague description of an object or item and be expected to build something that is either historically accurate, or something that looks "correct". For example, we all know what a dog looks like, but when we sit down to sculpt one, our minds become incredibly blank; details like the shape of the head, the proportion of the features, and how parts transition between each other are what will sell the prop. Even when a director or designer provides us with full drawings or draftings, we may still need to do research of our own to fill in the blanks or flesh out the specifics.
You should be fairly well organized before you begin researching. It is very easy to become distracted by the vast amounts of information you find, or to spend a lot of time looking in the wrong places. Thurston James' The What, Where, When of Theater Props is a good book to use as a starting guide. It is like an encyclopedia of the most common objects a props person will be called on to find or build. Besides being a good resource in itself, it is also helpful in determining exactly what terms and phrases you should be looking for. Often, the difference between productive research and unproductive is knowing to search for "Shaker chairs" rather than "antique chairs".
For historical information, a great place to begin is The History of Props: A Timeline of Props and Product Usage. This is a massive list, giving a chronology of when so many common items first appeared. For example, if your play takes place in 1952, should your beer can have a pop-top, or a pull-tab? This page will tell you. While there, be sure to also check out the Dramaturgy Resources. You can find links to more specific timelines and visual resources. My own blog post on the historical timelines of objects include these and other useful links. Information on more specific items can be found on Wikipedia or just by searching. If your show calls for a left-handed smoke-shifter, chances are, there's a group of left-handed smoke-shifter aficianados out there with a website dedicated to their history.
The increasingly social aspect of the internet means that once you find a useful resource, it will probably point to other useful resources. A blog will usually have a "blogroll" along the side, which is a list of links to other blogs the author likes, and are usually devoted to the same subject matter. Del.icio.us is another useful social application for searching the web. It's like your bookmarks (or "favorites") folder, except it's searchable and anyone can see them. By tagging, or keywording, bookmarks, they become easier to find. Additionally, if you find someone who bookmarks an interesting site on button-tufting, chances are, they will have other upholstery-related websites in their list.
Visual research can be a little trickier online, as a search engine cannot recognize the contents of a picture the same way it can read the text of a website. Still, there are some sites which have a wealth of pictures and photographs that are more easily searched through. Flickr is an online photo-sharing site with over a billion images; I've written on how to use Flickr for visual research. Google is working on putting the entire visual archive of Life Magazine online. If you know about Life Magazine, you know what a great source this is. Even with only twenty percent of the archive currently available, it's still an amazing resource. Stock photo sites can be a great place to find images, both contemporary and historical, as they offer much better descriptions and provide more relevant search results. Some sites to check out are Corbis, Getty Images, iStockphoto, and Shutterstock; there are certainly many others out there. EBay is a great place to find images of antiques and vintage objects. EBay encourages its users to provide detailed photographs and clear descriptions. Just be sure to save your images rather than bookmarking, as they disappear once the auction is over.
When looking for images to use as a visual reference, you may need to find several images taken from different angles to get a clear picture. You also want to find pictures that give some idea of the size or scale. If there is a person in the photograph, that can usually be used to determine rough dimensions for your piece. Images which focus on specific details may also be important for what you are making.
Books and Libraries
When you go to the library, search for the terms you are looking for and try and find two or three books in different sections. When you get to these sections, look around the shelves, as similar books will be right next to them. When you find a good book, its bibliography is a great place to find other useful books.
You can also search for books online. Google Book Search has thousands of titles where you can search not just titles, authors, and subjects, but also through the text of the entire book. It's a groundbreaking resource for research. Not only can you easily hone in on the books which will be useful, but you can read through portions of the books online as well. If a book is in the Public Domain, you can read the entire text and even save it to your computer for later use. Project Gutenburg is another site which allows you to search and download the entire contents of public domain books. For example, you can get The Illustrated History of Furniture right now, complete with pictures.
Most of us are familiar with Amazon for buying books, but it can also be a great place to research books as well. Take advantage of their recommendation engine and social networking. For every book you find, it will have a list of other recommended titles, as well as a list of what other customers bought after looking at that book. Customers also contribute lists in the form of ListMania! and So You'd Like To... guides. They have a number of other community features as well which may help you hone in on a helpful book.
You may also find lists of books scattered throughout the rest of the internet. For example, I recently found a list of the top five books for those who take period furniture seriously.
Real World Research
Sometimes, you may be lucky to have access to a real version of the prop you're trying to make. In these cases, you want to be sure to get as many photographs as you can while you have the chance. You want to take pictures from all the relevant angles: don't forget the back! You also want to focus on important details and especially complicated parts. Take along a tape measure or ruler to get as many measurements as you are able. In addition, try to take photos with other objects in the picture to have a reference for scale. A good tip is to hold your ruler or tape measure next to the object as you take your photograph to give you an absolute reference to size.
Museums are a great place to find antiquities and period objects. The larger museums will have great works of art from bygone eras, while smaller, more focused museums may have displays and examples of everyday life during certain periods. Many will allow you to take photographs, though always check first. For contemporary objects, or non-manmade things (trees or animals), your search for a real-life example will become more like a scavenger hunt.
Crowd-Sourcing and Sharing your Research
Many prop masters belong to email lists with other prop masters, or keep an address book of props people they have met or worked with in the past. For particularly hard-to-find research, they may send out a message to everyone asking if anyone has any sources or information they can use. If you're feeling particularly stuck, you can do something similar. We have all done research on any number of items and are usually perfectly willing to share our results. You can also ask the designer and director of your show which sources they have used in their own research.
In Thurston James' The Theatre Props Handbook, he talks about clipping and copying photographs from magazines and books, filing them into boxes, and keeping them available for anyone else to peruse. We can do the same thing nowadays on our computers. Whenever you find useful information or images, whether its for your current project or you just happen across it in your free time, you can save or bookmark it to your own computer. If you find pictures in magazines or books, you can scan these in as well. If you are particularly adept at researching and organizing, you can use a service like Del.icio.us, which I mentioned above. Not only does it allow you to access and organize your bookmarks from any computer, but it allows you to share all your hard work with anyone else who is interested. The sum of human knowledge is a vast thing indeed, and any help in organizing it for props people is very much appreciated.
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