The Value Proposition of Craftsmanship

Harrison Krix (Volpin Props) recently tweeted,

which set me to wondering. Not so much about cat condos, as entertaining (and potentially yet slightly disappointingly profitable!) a concept as that may be. But it is distinctly noticeable that the world of propmaking, just like the world of “professional photography” that I also have a foot in, has been becoming increasingly crowded.

Bubbling Up

I think the reasons for these two “bubbles” is both the same and entirely different. Photography has boomed primarily thanks to the democratisation of the hardware. You can pick up a camera that’ll happily compete with the big boys for $500 used (or new, in some cases) and Chinese OEMs have flooded the accessory market with affordable gear- I have three Yongnuo speedlights myself as well as my American-made StudioMax and Einstein strobes. Having the gear is one thing, but it’s the education and sharing that has really accelerated the trend.

With virtually unlimited free online education, almost every possible niche market segment becomes a potential differentiator in the increasing need to free ourselves from corporate drudgery. Social media- and its still-breathing predecessor, forums- allow us to share, teach and remix as we go, not only pushing forward culture but opening up new avenues of possibility to previously unheard-of quantities of people across the globe.

For an example in the world of physical goods, look at the rise of Etsy. From its humble beginnings in 2005, it rapidly accelerated the sales of global “Makerdom” through the millions into the billions of dollars within ten years. Its success isn’t simply due to its viability as an e-commerce platform, but because of its browseability and shareability. Rising in tandem with Twitter and Pinterest, the ability of vast numbers of people to make money doing something personal to them has been proportional to their ability to share their results- and learn from others before them sharing theirs.

So it is in propmaking. The tools and materials are the same price they always were; modelmaking to a high standard is almost always expensive. But with the big boys, the vanguard- like Harrison- learning from forums and SFX magazines, experimenting on their own, and then, critically, sharing their process on social platforms like Facebook and YouTube, they’ve sown the seeds of the explosion themselves.

In democratising and consolidating the education required to progress quickly with minimal expensive mistakes, combined with the aforementioned sharing and e-commerce platforms, they’ve allowed the ability of the hordes (including, admittedly, myself) to jump on board with some degree of likely early success to be massively heightened in the last 3 years alone.

And so it goes. It’s a lesson many corporations learn too little, too late: cannibalise yourself, or someone else will. Being a market leader in the 21st century rarely comes from being able to do one thing consistently well, or even to do something better than someone else, but in being able to constantly push and develop your abilities and creativity to stay ahead of the curve that you’re dragging behind you.

Head Of Foam

All of that said, however, I don’t completely believe that the propmaking bubble will “burst,” as such, probably more “flatten,” thanks to supply-side economics. It may broaden to encompass non-traditional-propmaking-crafts and will almost certainly stratify to a greater extent than it is already, but I think that the democratisation of other media- indie games, YouTube filmmakers, etc.- is creating an insatiable market for created items.

Equally, taking into account the Etsy boom mentioned earlier, I think that handmade physical items as a whole are increasingly valuable. As our world becomes progressively virtually-interconnected and intangible, actually having physical objects in general will be less relevant; making the objects that do exist inherently more valuable, and the ability to create physical objects more so too.

Additionally, we’ve seen over the last ten to twenty years a backlash against mass-production. Whilst we don’t have much of a choice who makes our communications hardware, the rest of our personal effects come under more scrutiny.

Steampunk, a decade before it ironically morphed into its mainstream fashion aesthetic, was one of the early proponents of personalising our environments. Computers were rebuilt by hand in wood and brass cases, and furniture had a neo-Victorian overhaul. People built etching and plating baths with PC power supplies for filigree and other sheet metal art. It was a DIY subculture (maybe still is, somewhere) that you can now buy just about anywhere, and some stores (like Clockwork Couture) are pretty well known.

What does this mean for propmaking? Not all propmakers are going to be hired to make portal guns for Valve, and not all propmakers will be able to sustain more than a self-supporting hobby. But overall I think the market will grow to support a reasonable spread of makers. I think the definition of propmaking will likely blur a little over time, and will grow to include aspects of robotics and traditional artisanal crafts (just like the major studio prop shops) as well as the basic making and CNC skills it largely consists of right now. I suspect that in the long run, commissioned one-offs will be more popular amongst non-companies than they are now, thanks to the improved production capabilities we’ll have making them cheaper with shorter lead times.

What To Do?

I think success will be directly proportional to self-reflection and skill-honing. It is already, of course, but up until now now success could be had simply by being good at the same stuff as other people. Going forward into a crowded marketplace, differentiation will be vital, and the more you can understand what the itch is in the back of your brain that you’re trying to scratch, the better you can work on what abilities you need to pursue and the better you can understand how to market your brand.

In other words, don’t gun for Harrison, it’ll do you no good. You have to be a different Harrison!

~Rob

PS. yes I’m going to get a “BR85 complete and first kit shipped!” post up at some point soon, I’ve been too busy/tired for writing recently!

2 thoughts on “The Value Proposition of Craftsmanship

  1. Funny, I read this the other day and I have to admit that I do occasionally worry that the kind of work I do has become too readily accessible for the amateur (after all, that’s basically how I started out). Nowadays, it seems like any kid who has put together a Pepakura model starts a website and a facebook page offering “professional prop building services.” The result is that it’s a bit tough to differentiate what I do and make it clear to potential customers that I have more to offer than some hobby-level builder tinkering on their kitchen table.

    While a lot of people would argue that writing my how-to articles in my blog and posting step-by-step build logs of completed projects is akin to training my competition, I’m not sure I agree. In short, almost everyone knows how to make a hamburger, but there’s still a market for all sorts of hamburger restaurants. The only challenge that remains is making sure they don’t come to my luxury sit-down restaurant and expect McDonald’s pricing.

    1. Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of that- too little experience, or too limited a skill set, and trying to appear as a skilled professional. I generally think those types of “pop-up pros” are quite obvious in any trade from their portfolios, so it seems unlikely that the real jobs are getting taken by them. If they get to make enough here and there to make their hobby self-supporting, good for them.

      As you allude to in your analogy, the mark of a pro is the service, ultimately. If you’re getting paid to do something, you get it done- to spec- regardless of if something goes wrong. I plan on building a basic 3-axis CNC table router soon, but I can go into projects knowing from this scratch-built BR85 project that if it goes down and I can’t fix it quickly, I can still complete a high-accuracy project manually. Pros also provide communication and documentation, assess client branding needs, deliver reliably, all that stuff. Ironically, it’s everything that ISN’T the actual technical ability of a particular trade that defines a pro. It’s problem solving- even the problems the client didn’t necessarily know they had.

      For someone who doesn’t understand the value of the service, it can sometimes be difficult to convey the importance, but the wedding photographers have a saying along the lines of “hiring a cheap photographer is an expensive mistake”. Just because you’re paying, doesn’t mean you’re paying for what you WANT- only what someone can afford to provide given their other commitments.

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