Posted 22 February 2024
Interview by Nicole Fan
Mention Heather Jo Carby

Heather Jo Carby on combining her love for art, design and movies through prop making

What would Star Wars be without lightsabers, or Harry Potter without its sorting hat? While they often blend into the background, intricate props and impressive sets are what bring your favourite films to life – and Heather Jo Carby has a hand in creating them as a prop maker and set dresser. With a passion for art and a love for movies, she’s had experience working on a wide range of movie props and film sets at Aardman Animations, Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures, among others. However, this has also exposed her to the inequalities within the industry, including its high barriers to entry and its gender-based discriminations. Here, she shares how she navigated her way through these challenges, what helped her land jobs without a CV, and why your attitude can make or break your next job interview.

Heather Jo Carby

Heather Jo Carby

Job Title

Prop Maker and Set Dresser


Bristol and South Wales

Previous Employment

Set Dresser and Prop Maker, Aardman Animations, 2021-2024
Trainee Prop Maker, The Walt Disney Studio, 2021
Trainee Prop Maker, Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2020
Junior Modeller, Netflix, 2019
Trainee Model Maker, Marvel Studios, 2019
Trainee Model Maker, Universal Pictures, 2018–2019

Place of Study

BA Model Design, University of Hertfordshire, 2015-2018


Social Media


What I do

How would you describe what you do?
With regards to prop making, I use a variety of different skills, methods and materials to create props that fit into the style of the world they are being designed for. I’m both familiar with and trained in using a variety of hand tools for manipulating items, such as wood, fabric, paint and resin. During my time at Aardman Animations, I also worked as a set dresser – a job which involves creating the foundations of a set and arranging props before the camera.

Every job I’ve had has been different, but generally, I start my day by catching up with the head of the department to see what I’m working on and whether it’s progressing correctly. Typically, I will follow the information provided by art directors or designers, using reference images and scale-drawings they provide to create props that fulfil the given brief.

Heather’s personal workspace, kitted with a large desk and space to house tools and belongings

Priorities can change very fast in this line of work, so I might be bouncing around between different tasks or areas a few times a day. Some days, I might be more focused on painting props; other days, I do assembling, moulding and casting. We get technical drawings and designs to follow, as well as a workshop with all sorts of equipment for woodworking, metalworking, painting, chemical work and more.

A big part of my day is chatting with colleagues about what I’m working on, sharing tips, as well as learning new tricks and skills from others if I find them doing something differently from how I would. The workshop is large enough to have a communal workspace, and everyone is keen to share their knowledge and experience to help each other grow.

“I realised that I could combine my love for art and design with my love for movies in a career.”

What are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I’ve been a huge fan of fantasy movies like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter since I was in primary school. Sometime during my early teenage years, I watched the behind-the-scenes footage of The Lord of the Rings and was amazed by the incredible work that goes into making movies. So, when I realised that I could combine my love for art and design with my love for movies in a career, I became determined to find a way to work in the industry. My biggest inspirations now are my co-workers and industry friends, who each have a different skillset to my own and are eager to share their own interests as well as methods when discussing what they do.

Would you say you need any specific training for what you do?
Definitely – studying at university was fundamental to my career because I’d never really tried any form of 3D art or modelmaking before that. During my studies, I got to learn and practise a variety of skills, such as sculpting and carving, woodworking, working with plastics, technical drawing, as well as painting on objects rather than just on canvas or paper. While I believe I could have picked up a lot of skills online through YouTube tutorials, my course provided the opportunity to practise with dangerous hand tools and heavy workshop machinery in a safe and professional environment. However, a fair amount of training has been done on the job too, with team leads and colleagues being happy to demonstrate methods of work when needed.

“Creating a wide range of props for different sets and environments kept the job feeling fresh.”

What’s been your favourite project to work on from the past year, and why?
I thoroughly enjoyed my time working at Aardman Animations on Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget. I adored the original film in my early childhood, so helping to create the sequel with a team of people – including staff who worked on the much-loved classic and newer additions like myself – was an exciting experience from start to finish. Plus, being able to interact with the puppets was like meeting real-life celebrities!

It was my first time working on a project set at a smaller scale and it was charming to create small prop versions of lifesize items. The array of sets and in-film destinations meant creating a wide range of props for different environments, and that kept the job feeling fresh and new over the two-year contract I had. For example, when working on the ‘Chicken Village’ sets, I made natural items such as trees, bushes and floral arrangements, along with chicken huts that were personalised with their own curtains, blinds and doors. These sets also required dozens of DIY objects – such as ladders, benches and plant pots – made from items the characters were supposed to have scavenged.

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Small-scale chicken huts which each had their own individual embellishments

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Hand-woven cot and it’s bespoke stand

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A small-scale version of a larger prop bridge

How I got here

What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
Definitely overwhelming and very competitive. I didn’t have many contacts in the industry when I graduated, and the process of sending out my CV and portfolio to companies and department heads who I personally hadn’t met with felt like shouting into the void at times. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I didn’t receive responses to the first dozen or so applications I sent out – not even acknowledgements that my emails had been received or considered. It was very disheartening and left me not knowing where I stood with many companies. However, this lack of response seemed to be the disappointing norm when discussing job hunts with my friends and classmates who were left in similar positions.

How did you go about landing your first few jobs?
My first few jobs were secured entirely through word of mouth – from friends and, in time, previous employers. The first role I landed was recommended by a friend who had been on the job already: they put my name forward when the head of department mentioned needing an extra pair of hands to help meet upcoming deadlines. I ended up staying on this project for five months, during which I became close with a whole new team of people. They were then able to recommend me to other bosses when they were approached for recommendations for staff.

The industry quickly proved to be more about who you know rather than what you know. During my first two years of work, I didn’t have to send any CV or portfolio as department heads entirely trusted whomever they were asking to only recommend reliable workers. Having a good work attitude was vital in receiving these recommendations. When peers have relatively even skill sets, you could be selected for your next role solely depending on how well you got along and gelled with the team you worked with – so developing real, friendly connections with coworkers is essential.

Vintage-style decorative hot air balloon props made with crafting supplies

“People tend to hire people they have worked with before, or rely on trusted recommendations.”

What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Finding out about available roles is definitely a challenge as there are rarely any job listings for prop makers on live action film sets. People tend to hire people they have worked with before, or rely on trusted recommendations from their current staff and friends. This means breaking into new teams can be hard if the contacts you have are currently fully staffed or aren’t themselves aware of new vacancies.

A different challenge faced during the start of my career in the live action film industry was becoming aware of the uneven ratio of male-to-female employees, especially at the more senior levels. There were many entry-level females working alongside me, but it was uncommon to see many at higher positions within the prop making teams I was a part of – and certainly not at the same ratio to male employees. While working at these London studios, there were a handful of times when I both witnessed and was subject to discriminatory remarks based on outdated stereotypes and beliefs from male colleagues and staff on site, which I found both discouraging and unsettling. It wasn’t until I joined teams where this ratio of male-to-female workers evened out and I had the chance to work under female leads that I felt I had real opportunities to grow and progress in my career, which in turn provided me with a good deal of determination for the future.

Have there been any courses, programmes, initiatives, access schemes or job boards you’ve found helpful or would recommend to get into your sector?
I recommend joining relevant Facebook groups for the industry sectors you'd like to work in. I’m a member of various film and TV ones that post job listings, but there are lots of other useful groups. Some are even dedicated to renting out spare rooms to fellow industry workers, something that can be fundamental during short contracts as you need to move around and find places to live.

Smaller social media groups can be helpful too: students from my university course set up a Facebook group for alumni, where people post job listings when they find them along with useful links and content. I think all university students and their courses should create and utilise a page like that – it’s much less competitive than applying via a link posted in nationwide groups and you’re more likely to have a person you know on the job already.

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Life-size foam melons to be used as stunt props

How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
I believe using a social media page dedicated solely to your career can be a great tool for securing more work and expanding your own skill set. Sharing updates of jobs and projects keeps you in the minds of employers and colleagues, which means you’ll be more likely to get recommended and considered by others in the future. For me, creating a LinkedIn profile and keeping in touch with people I personally know or have worked with has been a good way to stay professionally connected. Plus, it’s likely that you may come across job vacancies or find out more about the work done by employers you’re interested in working for, giving you a heads up for future interviews or conversations if they arise.

Following people within the industry also inspires you with what others have accomplished while educating you about materials and processes. YouTube and TikTok are particularly useful for finding ‘how-to’ videos to develop your skills and enhance your industry knowledge. I’m currently not very active on social media and I browse more than I post, but I intend to spend more time on my online presence when my timetable allows.

What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Being able to budget effectively is crucial. As industry work tends to be made up of short fixed-term contracts, you can find yourself with gaps larger than you’d like between jobs. I always put a decent sum of money straight into savings when paid, being sure to have a safety net to cover around four months worth of rent or mortgage. On top of this, I recommended utilising government support systems such as the Job Seekers Allowance when in between contracts. I wasn't aware of this support until my third year in the industry, but the small payments they make can help during quieter times in the industry, provided that you can give evidence that you've been making efforts to secure a new role.

Giant, soft food props created from various foams and rubbers
Lightweight prop trees that have been textured and painted

My advice

What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
You should have a job you enjoy enough to be waking up each morning and feeling positive about the day ahead. Although every job will have its pressure points and stresses, you shouldn’t be waking up with a sense of boredom or dread. Aim to find a career you thrive in and are motivated to succeed at.

Also, a head of department once told me that when they interview new candidates, they aren’t necessarily looking for the person with the best skill set, but someone with a personality they think will harmonise with others within their teams. They went on to say that applicants aren’t expected to know everything – they are expected to have room to grow and learn, so hiring someone with a positive attitude towards work and friendly energy is fundamental in their decision.

What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
The internet can provide so much research material and tutorials for the basics of prop making. There are always budget-friendly ways to make things, using supplies that can be bought from most hobby stores. In general, my job can be described as just doing professional ‘arts and crafts’ projects. Skills that my colleagues and I use on a daily basis include painting, sewing, papercraft, sculpting or carving and basic woodworking – which can all be improved and learnt at a desk at home.

Interview by Nicole Fan
Mention Heather Jo Carby