- Michael Saccio has worked as a prop master on award-winning TV show and film sets for 34 years.
- The New York native has been a prop master for NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” for the past 18 seasons.
- He developed a weapons-safety class that’s now mandatory. Here’s his story, as told to Jenny Powers.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Michael Saccio, a 52-year-old prop master from New York, about his job in TV and film. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When I was three years old my dad, Thomas Saccio, a prop master, brought me onto a film set where he was working. It was there I watched a scene involving a car explosion. After witnessing such a spectacle up close, I was completely transfixed.
From that day forward, I knew I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps.
I’ve been the prop master for “Law & Order: SVU” on NBC for the past 18 seasons, so dealing with weapons on set is a frequent occurrence for me.
After graduating high school in 1988, my dad took me under his wing and began training me as his apprentice
Working alongside him on major motion pictures gave me the opportunity to really learn the ins and outs of the prop-master business.
After meeting the necessary industry requirements, I joined the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 52, the union representing seven different crafts that perform different functions on a production including property, grip, electric, shop craft, sound, video, and medic.
In the most basic terms, a prop master is in charge of procuring anything an actor or stunt performer comes into contact with on set
That can be a salt shaker, a bowl of chicken soup, a Rolex, a Ferrari, a horse, or a firearm – ensuring they’re available on time and in working condition with any required clearances and within budgetary requirements.
The bulk of our work is intuitive since we aren’t given an exact list of specific items to procure. Instead, we’re handed a script to read and it’s our job to break down that script and determine every single item needed for each scene based on a variety of factors, including the production’s time period to ensure continuity.
While on set, safety is typically the responsibility of the first assistant director (AD) and grip
When weapons are going to be fired on set, that responsibility falls to the prop master – and in more recent times, often an weapons specialist known as an armorer, whom we bring in as an additional precautionary measure.
Seven years ago while hiring props people to handle weapons, I realized I knew more about weapons than they did and in truth, I didn’t know a lot, so I was concerned.
I called Local 52 and said I thought there was a real need to teach people in the field about weapons safety. They agreed, so I reached out to the weapons specialist I rented all my weapons from and together we developed a class and taught it through the union.
Today, Local 52 requires everyone in the property field to pass this class as part of their certification process to be admitted into the union, which is an important first step in weapons-safety protocol.
NBC has protocol in place for whenever a weapon fires on one of their shows
There must be an armorer present to ensure they’re being used safely and properly by actors and stunt performers – and it’s my responsibility to ensure that happens. We also have members of the NYPD film and TV unit onsite whenever weapons are on the set who review our paperwork and confirm the serial numbers match the weapons on hand.
Until then, all weapons are kept in a secure location. When they’re taken out, a crew announcement is made so everyone is aware of their presence on the set. From there, the first AD conducts a safety meeting.
When it’s time for the weapon to be used in a scene, the prop master or armorer releases the weapons to the actors who will be using them.
The first rule of safety protocol is never to aim a weapon directly at anyone
When you see a TV show or film where someone is pointing a gun directly at someone, that’s what we like to call movie magic because in reality, the person is either pointing the weapon at a different angle or toward a camera that doesn’t have anyone behind it.
There’s no reason to ever have live ammo on a set
Over the years there have been a variety of ways to make weapons safe for prop use, ranging from using a non-gun that fires electronic charges, simulating the sound and flash of a live firearm, to a solid plug, which means the barrel of the weapon is closed at the end so nothing will come out of it. It’s during the post-production process that editors can add any effects they need to make the shot more authentic.
In 1989, my dad and I worked on the film “Black Rain” together and we had tons of fully-automatic weapons going off on location in New York’s Meatpacking District. It was deafeningly loud back then because we didn’t yet have the ability to cycle down the weapons the way we do now, but we’ve come a long way since then.
Weapons aren’t the only on-set risks a prop master has to deal with
Vehicles can also pose on-set risks, so to avoid any type of explosion from occurring, all vehicles are required to have less than one gallon of gas in them.
We also need to disconnect the car’s battery, which can be challenging with some car models.
In 34 years on the job, I haven’t had any accidents on set
That’s not luck or a coincidence, though. It’s because we adhere to the strictest safety protocols and make them our top priority to avoid any unfortunate circumstances from happening.
At times, our safety checks and protocol may seem redundant, but you can never be too safe.
The best prop masters are solutions-oriented people
Take for example, if a scene calls for a premature baby and we’re using a fake baby. To make that baby look real, it’s got to appear to be breathing, so we implant an air bubble in the stomach of the baby and off camera, a crew member blows air through a tube to make the doll’s stomach move up and down to simulate breathing.
When it comes to safety, we are proactive so we aren’t forced to react in a bad situation.
The way I see it, in order to successfully operate, we have to keep one foot in yesterday and the other foot in tomorrow while still remaining present today.
Being a prop master is a lot of fun, but sometimes after a 12-hour day when it seems like I’m juggling 14,000 things once, it can be exhausting.
What can I say, it’s a living!