Set Decorator Jason Howard SDSA gave us a quick peek of a set for the 2015 Grammys, and now opens a wider view with his perspective on the unique challenges for the wildly popular DANCING WITH THE STARS…
Being a Set Decorator is a little like living your entire life in the film GROUNDHOG DAY. The one twist is all the days may feel the same, but they are also all different. You will often hear a Set Decorator say something akin to "Same Day, Different Set!" We always have to work at a high rate of speed. There is always a treasure hunt going on, and we always need to find not only the right thing, but it has to be had for the right price at the right time.
Taking on a new genre in our business can be a challenge, but I have always looked at is as more of an opportunity. Having done one-hour single camera shows for about 7 years, 3-camera sitcoms for 6, and filling the gaps with everything from features to commercials, I have realized that the nuts and bolts skills needed for each job are the same. The things that change are venues, some terminology, a few union rules, and focus. Like many colleagues, at times I have had to fight typecasting as much as actors. People want to see us as a "Feature Decorator" or "Commercial Decorator" or "Sitcom Decorator." I did lose a few gigs along the way where my resume was summed up with the feedback, "He did Nickelodeon shows? This show is not about children, bright colors, and toys!" Believe it. The fact is, Set Decorators are nothing if not versatile.
DWTS is the kind of show which requires that versatility. It demands every skill I have, and has also made me adapt and develop a few new ones. The main shift from other shows has been adjusting speed and realizing that a smaller volume of items does not mean an easier gig.
You can fill a room with a 5-ton truck full of furniture, and have everything including the tattered doily and choice of pen on a table somehow work out to hit the right tone. It is a matter of all the disparate parts playing off of each other and with each other to form a kind of visual symphony. But if you have a dance number, and all you need is a throne and a scepter, you better be certain that those two pieces are perfect. They have to say everything that needs to be said. They also must be safe for the dancers, fit on the stage, be flame-proofed at times, and in the case of DWTS, be items I can source in as little as 4 hours.
Our creative meetings are Wednesday morning at 10. Often, the dancers need to start rehearsing that afternoon. If they are building a dance around a prop, they need it ASAP. It is not only a matter of safety and efficiency. The piece can dramatically affect the choreography. The dancers, like the art department, camera operators, director, costume designer and all members of the team, are ultimately creating something akin to a painting. Without the proper tools and time, the work can be impacted. So that throne, that table, or that Venetian Gondola has to be sourced quickly and carefully. I have never had to use my mental resource inventory this fast. That explains to some of you out there why you might get a text from me at 11:30 am on a Wednesday saying, "Hey. Is there a half of a pirate ship in this town anywhere? I need to paint it gold and put it on a 3' high platform. BTW have you ever seen the shell of a mid century Buick or Chrysler? Something with really big fins. How about a 12' high inflatable parrot?" Ask Ron Franco [Set Decorator of TRUE BLOOD and former president of the SDSA]. He has been the recipient of some of these bizarre text messages.
A case in point is a recent Bellman's Trolley. I needed it for a Patti LaBelle number. Simple enough, right? It just carries luggage. It is never that simple when one is Dancing With Stars. Once Patti and her partner Artem Chigvintsev had the trolley, Artem decided it was to be more than a luggage carrier. It was destined to be a Patti carrier. However, it wasn't tall enough for her to stand in. Those things are pretty standard in design and height. Readily available options did not offer both the proper height and classic birdcage shape. So, the trolley was transported to the CBS Scene Shop. Production Designer James Yarnell consulted with the shop, and voilà. A trolley base was built using the existing metal top structure, but attached to an elevated base with the original wheels bolted on. This happened in a very short amount of time. Let's hope it all goes back together and CP Valley [A division of Omega Cinema Props] deems it not damaged in any way, when we return it in its “original” form!
The new base, this being the sparkly-mirror-ball-plated world of DWTS, became gloss black. Yes, I dreamed of a flittered base, but you try standing on that in heels. At 70. While being spun around by 4 guys on a dance floor. Safety rules these choices. The trolley worked perfectly, but the final result wasn't reached without me sweating on the floor of the rehearsal studio with a socket set, realizing that we needed to involve welders, saws and steel to get the piece right.
You might be wondering what in the world "flittered" means. Flittering is a magical process that involves glitter, some kind of adhesive, and blowing. I don't know the details. I don't want to. All I really want to do is bask in the shiny, shimmery wondrous glow of it. What has been flittered, you may ask? Too many things and not enough. Flitter has transformed tables, chairs, podiums, helmets, entire platforms, step units, jail bars, a jack o' lantern, and even a surfboard. If it exists we want to flitter it. And we want to flitter it NOW. If it can't be flittered you can probably bet I am going to want to glue gems on it. Executive Producer Ashley Edens-Shaffer dreams up many of these specialty props, and loves all things flitter, so I have no shortage of fun items to customize every week.
On the flitter-free Patti prop front, we had the CBS Graphics Department create a customized Patti LaBelle version of the Louis Vuitton luggage logo and print it on adhesive paper. Those geniuses also applied it to 7 pieces of LV luggage rented from ISS. Kudos to Richard Sedivy! That was done in about a day and a half. A stock bar was painted pink.
Palm trees were rented from Green Set, and the bar/ lobby desk was dressed with the proper smalls from Omega Cinema Props. Just like that, you have a Patti-themed hotel lobby fit for a Diva in the spangled sparkly ballroom I call home two seasons a year. Time elapsed from creative meeting to live on air? 5 days and 7 hours. Two of those days were a weekend, where nothing is open. So technically, it was 3 ½ days.
Ultimately this is not a scenario that any Set Decorator would find unlikely. We all pull off things like this. We love it, and nothing else would fulfill us creatively. With DWTS, I get these kind of thrill ride projects for as many as 12 dances a week, for 11 weeks, twice a year. The incomparable bonus for me is the performance. We have a live band, 600 screaming audience members, performers sometimes weeping tears of joy, and the next day I get to see that 14 million or more people watched it and loved it.
The skills needed here are not dramatically different from the rest of my career. I have merely needed to reframe them, and allow myself to adapt to the ever-changing needs from week to week. It is the same as some of my other film and television projects, but different. That difference is thrilling, encourages me to evolve, and makes every week memorable.
I never thought I would find myself in a trailer on the CBS Television City lot, frantically gluing plastic gems to a cast iron pig or a hotel key with 30 minutes left to show time. But really, God is in the details. Especially on DANCING WITH THE STARS. My mind reels with possibilities with each new cast. Suzanne Somers? THREE'S COMPANY? Seriously? Be still, my quickly beating and now mirror-plated heart. I picture that living room, and find myself wondering if wicker can be flittered.
If anyone had told me how much fun I would be having with this, my career fantasies would have included doing this exact job.
Flitter monkeys fly, fly, FLY! Flitter everything in your path!