Crafting Editorial Props: A Case Study

comments (13) March 2nd, 2009     

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Jeff_Rudell Jeffery Rudell, contributor
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Creating props for magazines is not about selling an object; its about selling an idea.
Without set dressing, good lighting, and the skills of a good photographer, my prop looks like a Hollywood celebrity caught in the harsh light of day without make-up.
Here, stark lighting provides a possible solution to the camouflaging effect of the allover currency pattern. Its better to explore such matters before getting on set to make sure the prop has visual pop.
Creating props for magazines is not about selling an object; its about selling an idea.

Creating props for magazines is not about selling an object; it's about selling an idea.

Photo: Jeff Rudell

Like all crafters, I love making things, and the thing I love making more than any other is rent! I don't mean to suggest that anything beats a day of meandering play in my studio, but I've found nothing chases away the creative spirit faster than the rat-tat-tatting of a landlord at your door. I know I am not alone in this belief, as evidenced by the vast majority of crafters who moonlight as waiters, secretaries, clerks, assistants, managers, cashiers, lawyers, teachers, and corporate moguls.

I, however, have had the great good fortune of making a vocation out of what, for so many others, is an avocation. How I got here is as much a result of blind luck as ability, but I acknowledge I had a little of each to begin with.

One of the joys of writing for is that I occasionally have an opportunity to step back from offering technical know-how in order to share tactical advice. If I had my druthers, no crafter would ever need to augment his or her income with a secondary career. Today, I will try to answer one of most persistent questions I get from readers: chiefly, how do you actually go about making money from your craft?

Rule #1 for any crafter in business is "whatever works," followed closely by Rule #2, "charge as much as the market will bear." From the contracting employer's point of view, the two related rules are, "demand everything" and "pay as little as possible for it." As a crafter, it is your responsibility to realize no one will look out for your interests for you (which is not to say everyone is trying to take advantage of you, just simply it's not their job to put a value on what you create; it is your job). For today's example, I will focus on an opportunity that came my way unbidden and save ideas on how to solicit work for a later post.

Please feel free to share any comments or suggestions you might have from your own experience working with magazines or building props. I am a firm believer in helping other crafters find their way in the marketplace, and one of the best ways to do this is to pool our collective knowledge and insights.

Case Study: Fabricating a paper prop for an editorial photo shoot (Good Housekeeping magazine)

Some months ago, I received a call from Good Housekeeping magazine thanks to a recommendation from paper genius Matthew Sporzynski at Real Simple (translation: make friends with other people who share your skills. The market is small and if you cannot do a job yourself, you can often pass the work on to a friend and earn the appreciation and gratitude of the client in the process). Their design brief for creating an editorial prop was simple:

A) The story was about ways to save money through home energy conservation.
B) The editor wanted a paper house built—not origami; something with some heft.
C) They pictured the piece incorporating currency into the design (but exactly how, they didn't know).
D) They envisioned a pale blue background (which would be my responsibility to create or obtain).
E) The piece would run in a February issue, so they wanted a "winter scene" (e.g., trees, snowdrifts).

They contacted me on a Monday for a photo shoot scheduled two days later, on Wednesday. A rush job of this sort would usually be classified as "rush" (and earn double the normal fee). But money isn't the only reason for saying yes to a job. I had never worked for Good Housekeeping before—I'd never worked for any Hearst publication, in fact. Saying yes to the job would give me a chance to introduce myself to a new client (under circumstances where I could "come to their rescue" in a bind) and, at the very least, yield an addition to my portfolio.

Their budget was "around $500 dollars. Could you help us out?" I thought about it, about the other jobs I was already busy producing for other clients, and countered that I would take the project on, as a favor to them, but I cautioned them that their budget was not realistic for the work they were asking for. "We have some wiggle room" was all they would offer in return, but that came without a moment's pause, so we proceeded.

The idea

Selling your work is a great approach when dealing with multiples (e.g., boxes you've constructed, pillows you've sewn, jewelry you've made), but when it comes to props, remember that what you're selling is your idea. The stronger and clearer that idea is, the more you can hope to earn from it.

When it comes to props, the first thing that pops into your head is often something you've seen done elsewhere. If it's the first thing you thought of, chances are it will also be the first thing the art director and the end readers think of, too. Dismiss the obvious and move on to something that's not so expected.

In this case, the article that would accompany my prop was about ways to save money through energy conservation in the home. The obvious thought was to create a structure and then decorate it with money (essentially the idea of a house layered under the idea of saving money, both ideas somehow conveying the sense of economy and energy savings; one idea atop another). Doesn't this bring to mind countless stock photos you've seen of little toy houses with dollar signs wafting out of the chimney? 

To me, the less obvious idea seemed to be that the article was not really about "saving money" (what house saves money?) but about spending money wisely. No, the article accepted the notion that a house is about spending money and that no matter how you look at it, a house is about "spending" money wisely. A house, I realized, is ALL about money; in my case, it would be a house made of money!

As with many props, I had something very specific to convey: the essence of a "house as an investment." While my preliminary sketches were filled with elaborate Victorian constructions (heavy on gingerbread details and intersecting rooflines), I spent some time paring the idea down to its bare bones: a front door with a welcome mat, two second-story windows to suggest bedrooms/family, and a chimney with smoke to symbolize heat, warmth, and energy.

Building the prop

My first decision: to completely cover the structure with dollar bills (and not artificial dollar bills (which always look artificial) but with real ones (which always look real).

I experimented with laying the bills out in an orderly brick pattern (end-to-end, edge-to-edge) but found this accentuated the small scale of the building and resulted in awkward wrap-arounds where the bills met the corners of the structure. I eventually opted for an "allover" pattern that avoids calling attention to the individual bills but instead called attention to the overall shape of the structure.

I was keenly aware that too much pattern can be visually chaotic. In an effort to help delineate the different parts of the structure, I covered the frame of the house with the darker front-faced bills and used the green back-faced bills for the roof tiles.

Since I was using real money, I was exceedingly frugal when it came to any overlap that would not be visible in the finished work. Here, a view under the roof shows less than an inch of fold-over (and sometimes, far less than that).

A pediment and door frame surround a perfectly centered one dollar bill. I put a great deal of care into positioning the eagle medallion in the hope that it might look like a window in the door. To either side of the door, I placed the words "United States of America" to help reinforce the verticals and draw the viewers' eyes.

Unlike elsewhere on my model, for the doormat I focused on symmetry. Here I wanted the words to draw the viewers' attention to the center of the house, and the bright, orange quarter-rolling sleeves worked wonderfully well.

For the two dormers, I took extra care to position George Washington's face in the center; the bracketing frame around his face formed the window-proper on my model. Above him, a cutout of the all-seeing-eye medallion stands in for architectural gingerbread beneath the protruding eaves.

The chimney was wrapped in paper penny wrappers. I did my best to overlap the lettering on each wrapper in an effort to remove the distracting (and too literal) presence of words on this element.

A detail view of the chimney reveals its foamboard form. I had only a few such wrappers on hand when I built this (and no time to gather more before the project was due), so I had to go to some lengths to stretch my limited resource enough to cover all of the areas of the chimney that might be visible.

I was unsure whether the photographer and art director would want to photograph the house from the front side or from the chimney side, so I made sure to make both sides as interesting as possible. Here, a notch-out in the eave gives a more finished looked to the structure. In the final shot, this detail was not visible.

For the chimney smoke I was determined to avoid using puffs of cotton or poly-fill. Instead, I cut two flat pieces of paper to fit into the top of the chimney (art directors love having choices). They eventually dismissed the model on the left as looking too much like bubbles. The model on the right seemed to come closer to the meandering path of a wisp of real smoke.

Again, not knowing how the piece would be lit or photographed, I made every effort to create a form that would have plenty of angles (great for capturing light and shadows) and strong lines. Here, a trial shot from above gives me a sense of how light might play across the object on set.

The final piece as it looked before leaving my studio.

In truth, I only put a a few dollars worth of foamboard, 57 one-dollar bills, and a few hours of my time into the project. If you're anything like me, it's at this point in a project that I begin talking myself into thinking I may be overcharging for my work—I get a little embarrassed by the money end of it all, in fact. But remember, making a living from your creativity means being able to sell your ideas as well as your time. If an art director could have created this project without me (or someone like me), he would have. He hired me to do what he could not (or would not) do himself. How easy or hard that task was for me, or how long it took for me to make, are not the determining factors in setting compensation. How much my work is worth as a prop is tied to how successfully I met the design brief, how many options I presented to the art director and photographer on set, and how effective the piece was in the editorial space for which it was created.

Let me put it more simply: Fight the urge to undervalue your own work.

The finished piece as it appeared in the February 2008 issue of the magazine.

The background was a large sheet of blue paper (I brought five solids, in different hues, and two patterned papers for the art director to choose from).

The trees are inexpensive die-cut evergreens purchased at a store that supplies props for architectural models.

The snowdrifts (which are nearly invisible in this picture but are quite evident in the actual magazine shot) are nothing more than a few sheets of translucent Japanese rice paper draped and puckered beneath the model.

How I made money / Did I make money?

In total I invoiced $935.62 for this project: $800 as my fee, $65.12 for background papers (blue) and rice papers (white), $57 in dollar bills, and $13.50 for cab fare to transport the piece to their photo studio on the day of the shoot.

Of this, only the $800 counts as actual income and, once Federal, State, and New York City self-employment taxes were paid, only $560 remained.

This is not a great deal of money for a rush job, when weighed against exorbitant New York rents. However, I did introduce myself to a new client; I did so under conditions that made me a hero of sorts (coming to their aid with a great idea despite having little time and a limited budget); and added another major magazine to my portfolio. Sometimes these other factors make it worthwhile to do a job (when you're already swamped with other work) for less money than you'd care to. Keep in mind, though, once you've given someone a break, added a prestigious name to your portfolio, or introduced yourself and your work to someone new, there are VERY few reasons to continue working for them without full and fair compensation: meaning, don't make a habit of always being the person who works twice as hard for half as much pay.

Best of all, I have gotten repeat work from this job (and never again have I had to compromise on timeline, rush fees, or expenses). They now know what they can expect from me and that information alone has increased my value to them.

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Comments (13)

Natasha16 writes: A nice article, Jeff. I like the honesty you wrote it with.
Posted: 5:37 am on January 17th
Jeff_Rudell writes: Dear Sweat Meats, et al: Thank you all for your really wonderful words of encouragement. I can't tell you how satisfying it is to know that anything I say here might be of some help to members. I'm not certain but I suspect the fine print in my contract prevents me from accepting gifts but it would delight me no end if you would post pictures of your projects here on the site, so all the members can benefit from, and be inspired by, your creativity.
Posted: 12:55 pm on March 13th
crochet_art_n_motion writes: Thanks sooo much for this article. I have a tendency to undercharge for the same reasons you stated above. Your time in giving us this information is really apreciated and boy, we got it for free! I need to refer to it every time I shoot a wedding, crochet or sew for someone.
Posted: 11:13 am on March 13th
Sweet_Meats writes: This article (and several of your other related articles) have seriously changed my life. Thank you so much for making me optimistic about craft again. I have shared this with every creative person I know. I would like to send you a little something in return for this incredible gift. Can I mail it to Craft Stylish or another address? Thank you.
Posted: 5:20 pm on March 12th
TheArtfulDogger writes: Thank you for such a detailed and honest article! It is very helpful, and inspiring, to me. Please keep sharing!
Posted: 12:45 am on March 6th
Jen_W writes: Thanks Jeffrey. I feel like you are like Dr. Seuss's Lorax and instead of speaking for the trees, you're speaking for the crafters. I am always telling my friends to value their work and take into account their time and their imagination and talent but I often have a hard time asking for what I'm worth when the time comes. This is a terrific article, because it's so frank about the entire process.
Posted: 3:26 am on March 3rd
MichaelaMurphy writes: When I was in college(theater) one of my teachers told me a great formula for trying to figure out what jobs to accept in order to best create a career that is artistically thrilling and can sustain you. I had to learn the hard way the wisdom of his words, but today I use them all of the time so I can do what I love and have it sustain me. They are:
To accept a job it must be at least one of these three things:
1. It is an artistic challenge
2. It will advance your career
3. It will make you money
It has taken me a long time to realize how uncomfortable I was with the third one. I used to think that making money doing something that I loved meant that I was selling out. In fact, it was when I began treating my work as something valuable (and own that it was to me) that I was able to make a living at it. I know, duh..but that really changed my life.
Thanks for this.
Posted: 11:56 pm on March 2nd
hemidemisemiquaver writes: This advice is excellent (as well as the project itself.) It is of extreme importance if you are self-employed to never under value what you do. As an opera singer and professional paper crafter myself, I have learned that just because you are doing what you love and think is meaningful and quite frankly fun, doesn't mean you should in any way be underpayed for what you do. Just because something you enjoy happens to be your gift and passion certainly doesn't mean you should be taken advantage of financially. It is also important though to strike the right balance with a new potential employer as well. Perfect advice. I live by exactly what you wrote about. Thanks for taking the time to share.
Posted: 11:42 pm on March 2nd
TerrieTalisman writes: Thanks for the information and also the how-to step by step on the building! Intriguing correlations to our daily crafting habits.
Posted: 4:47 pm on March 2nd
JenniferStern writes: As a rule, I don't work with paper unless I'm trying to figure out how to sew something in fabric. Still, I always check out your posts, and I always find them inspiring--I especially like this one, thanks for sharing your experience.
Posted: 12:44 pm on March 2nd
mariegrace writes: Great article! Its good to be reminded occasionally not to undervalue our work or our opportunities. This is a topic often overlooked.

Posted: 11:26 am on March 2nd
LAURAMCHUGH writes: Another great project Jeff. You have such a wonderful style with your art work as well as your writings and dircetions. You make everything look so easy. Thanks for sharing. You are a true professional. xoxoxox
Posted: 9:31 am on March 2nd
DudeCraft writes: Jeffery,

Great article. Really useful. I appreciate how much time and detail you put into your articles.


Posted: 7:38 am on March 2nd
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