The saga ends, the story lives forever...
We caught Set Decorator Rosemary Brandenburg SDSA just before she embarks on her next exciting film journey, to take us truly behind the scenes of this compelling anchor to the epic space saga!
STAR WARS fans will be thrilled!
Set decorators, other filmmakers and film aficionados will also appreciate the intricate and amazing details, the humongous sets and challenges Rosemary generously shares, all with a bit of a twinkle in her eye!
Thanks go to Brannon Smithwick, Raelyn Tepper and Ken Haber for their assistance on this article and gallery, LucasFilm...and especially, to RB!
There is so much depth here, we know you’ll keep coming back for more.
See you often!
SD: This film series has quite a history. How did you become involved with STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER?
Set Decorator Rosemary Brandenburg SDSA:
Primarily it was my work history with some key collaborators. I served as Set Decorator on AMISTAD and CAST AWAY with Co-Production Designer Rick Carter, and we later served together as Governors at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I worked with Darren Gilford in London in 2016 on KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE, who was Co-Production Designer with Rick on STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS. Darren recommended me to the Producers. I met Co-Production Designer Kevin Jenkins when I came on board.
The other part of the story is that London is a very busy film center, so that Set Decorator and series veteran Lee Sandales [EPISODE VII, ROGUE ONE, and SOLO] was unavailable. Nor was Richard Roberts [STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI].
I am proud to have been first woman as a key Art Department head on any of the ten live action STAR WARS
films. I give Lucasfilm, under Kathy Kennedy’s leadership, a lot of credit for promoting women in key roles under her watch.
SD: The Set Decoration department in the UK is organized differently than in the US. Would you clarify for us, particularly for a film of this magnitude!
Generally, the UK Set Decorator plays a larger role in terms of design, fabrication, and supervision of more project areas. Construction manages the overall structure of a set, provides embellishment such as skirting and cornices, and paint or wood finishes, and usually door and window glass. Set Decoration generally handles the rest of the finishing and furnishing.
A project like STAR WARS throws curveballs into negotiating the who-does-what of it all, but happily our Construction Manager Malcolm Roberts (Construction Coordinator in the US), was easy to work with and incredibly good at his job. Supervising Art Director Paul Inglis was another key player in facilitating the flow of work.
The laundry list of UK Set Decoration responsibilities:
Carpeting, linoleum, tile and non-wood flooring.
Wallpaper, custom panels and surfaces, including spaceship consoles and control panels, wall tile.
Door furniture down to the hinges (hardware).
Shelving and counters such as bars and backbars, whether built-in or not, all kitchen counters and cabinets, appliances.
Signage, street furniture.
Light fittings, drapery and all textile work.
...and of course, furniture and small objects.
Concepting, design, drafting, and fabrication for all Set Decoration elements, and the usual sourcing of items.
SD: How many crew were on your staff?
We had about 175 people in the combined Set Decoration, Props, and Graphics team, including the manufacturing contingent.
A list of our key staff members with their basic job descriptions are at the end of this article. Thank you to all!
Hiring was complicated by how busy it is in London, and by the fact that I don’t have a long track record of working there. Many crews have been together for years. I was so fortunate to have an amazing team, veterans and those with fresh eyes, to support me and the project.
Watching the completed film, for me, was like seeing the tips of a lot of icebergs that we created, by concepting, illustrating, drafting, shopping parts and pieces, and building. Every person who helped out came floating into my mind as I let the images wash over me. It was an amazing group of talented artists.
SD: Please describe the process for Set Decoration during prep...
I started the project in January of 2018, and embarked on a crash course in STAR WARS. I had a lot to learn—while familiar with the series, I was no expert. There were scholars and fans to satisfy, and a canon of imagery and concepts with which to become familiar. Co- Production Designer Kevin Jenkins gave me a simple aesthetic to follow: “This is retro futurism. Look primarily at the ‘70s for inspiration. Things are more analog, less digital and electronic. The Resistance
is rounded, earthly, used, real, echoes of the DUKES OF HAZZARD. In contrast, the First Order
is Brutalist, chamfered, with hard edges.”
By the time we went to camera in early August of 2018, after 7 months of prep, my head was brimming with legacy images, mixed with new concepts, planets, cultures, and settings in this film.
Fortuitously, I was able to bring on veterans like Set Decoration Art Directors Lydia Frye and Ollie Roberts, who had worked on the series before, and knew the shapes and proportions appropriate to the different cultures such as Rebels
vs. First Order
. Assistant Set Decorators Andrew McCarthy, Samantha Redwood and Chloe James, who all had familiarity with the series, were a huge support.
How did you approach custom set dressing elements?
We researched, gathered ideas, made illustrations, prepared digital and physical presentations, assembled samples, and presented to the Director and Production Designers in both formal and informal reviews. When concepts and elements were approved, we made detailed drawings and went into production, using our in-house manufacturing capabilities, down to paint finishes and aging, and when the time came, dressed the sets.
SD: Was the Rebel Base Control Center on the planet Ajani Kloss constructed on a stage?
Yes. A huge Pinewood soundstage held giant cave walls, ground support equipment, jungle plants and an enormous section of the Blockade Runner
, the Tantive IV
. The ship was the Rebel
headquarters, after the events of EPISODE VIII reduced resources dramatically for the Resistanc
e. With Rebel
strength seriously diminished, they had to make do with less.
Besides ground communication and control equipment, and the power plant, we built and dressed out caves within the same area for Rey’s Workshop
, where she also sleeps, and Leia’s Quarters
, as well as communication and control workstations throughout the set.
We combined a mix of new elements that we designed and built, and adaptations of stock from previous films, designed by Set Decorators Lee Sandales and Richard Roberts from EPISODES VII and VIII.
SD: How did you construct the jungle that surrounds the Rebel base?
An English wood near Pinewood, called Black Park, was the setting for the spaceship-landing zone and Rey’s Jedi training ground
. Turning it into a jungle took a lot of doing. Greens Team, with whom I’d worked previously on KINGSMAN 2, had the capacity to capably handle such a huge job. Several areas were dressed with masses of tropical plants imported from southern Europe and Holland’s vast greenhouses. Our Set Decoration/ Prop Workshop built an anti-aircraft gun that we designed. We dressed in Rebel
ground equipment, radar units, and huge custom-made camo nets to hide the camp from enemy surveillance, made by the Set Decoration Drapery crew led by Jesse Jones.
Where did the small ships come from that are dressed around the Rebel base? Are they assets from previous installments? Fabricated for the film?
Our Action Vehicles Department, headed by Art Director Oliver van der Vijver and Action Vehicles Supervisor Warren Stickley, provided a variety of small spacecraft, which we partially or entirely covered in tarps and camo. Some of the ships had been in storage from previous films but required revamping, and others were made specifically for this film. One of the ships is actually a painted cutout: this is a nod to the first films, which used this technique to expand resources with a limited budget.
Ajan Kloss seems like a very big planet. Where does the decorated set end and CGI begin? How did you prep with the VFX team for expansive locations like this and the expansive desert on Pasaana?
Audiences might be surprised at how much we built and dressed “for real” in this film. Director JJ Abrams likes to shoot the actors within actual scenery as much as possible, and we gave it to him! And then, we gave him some more!
The Blockade Runner
that was built onstage was huge, and not too much of it was extended by the VFX team, ably headed by Roger Guyett. Their work is quite subtle, they often enhance what is physically there, and the blend is seamless. In the cave, they augmented shots straight up, and out the mouth of the cave. But in person, that wide, tall stage, was completely full of beautifully finished set and set dressing.
The Pasaana Festival
was greatly extended, since there were meant to be tens of thousands of celebrants. On the shoot days, there were about a thousand Jordanian extras dressed in masks in their beautiful colorful tunics. These were then multiplied by VFX. We had planned to erect a giant deity
physically in the desert, but it became impractical, mostly due to wind and for reasons of conservation, so those elements were added later as well. On location at Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, Set Decoration and Props physically dressed half a kilometer square full of tents, water towers...or Vaporators
as SW fans know them...fountains, speeders and vehicles fully kitted out with cargo.
Another gargantuan set was the hull of the Star Destroyer
where the big Act 3 fight unfolds, pitting the Resistance
against the New Order
, led by Finn
and their troops
s, horse-like creatures from the Moon of Endor
where the Death Star wreckage landed. It was built at Cardington, a retired blimp factory north of London, the only space large enough to hold this huge set where the stunt horses could run at full speed and not reach the end before the set ran out.
Regarding the Control Station set up: In the UK, is the lighting department responsible for powering set dressing elements like this one, or does that fall within the Set Dec department?
We work hand in hand with our colleagues the Rigging Electricians, a.k.a. Practical Sparks, who handle all electrical wiring for practicals, and fit LED’s into the odd spaces of built set dressing pieces. Our Prop Making team cuts the panels, installs the small lights or lit buttons. They also create the Perspex (Plexiglas) screens scribed with patterns, so that LED light tape installed by the Sparks, hidden within the edges of the cases, can illuminate it and be controlled from the Electricians’ control desk offstage, to change color and intensity.
What about the classic STAR WARS sets, like the Millennium Falcon? Is that a standing set?
This beloved set shot first in the schedule, so it served as a shakedown cruise for me. Its last outing was on SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. For that film, Set Decorator Lee Sandales renovated the old ship so that surfaces and tech were freshly minted, and seating was upholstered in Lando Calrissian’s
signature mustard- yellow. Propmaster Jamie Wilkinson, who has been in charge of the Hand Props crew, Weapons team, and Set Dressers for the STAR WARS series since EPISODE VII, led the restoration of the ship to its disheveled state for EPISODE IX. The parts and pieces for the older version, made for Episode VII, also decorated by Sandales, had been carefully archived under the care of Storeman Quentin Davies, and his team.
There were still plenty of bits needing to be restored. A few small changes were made for our EPISODE IX: in the script, the ship gets damaged, so a few panels were detailed out so they could be opened for on-screen “inspection and repair”. We also fulfilled a request from Director JJ Abrams that cockpit controls be even more interactive, giving actors the ability to better manipulate switches on the control panels and flight console without having to mime the action.
Many hands were required to refresh and renew the vessel. Prop Making workshop head Mark Rocca had an entire subset of control panel experts. They worked hand-in-hand with the Graphics team, headed by Dan Burke, and the Practical Electricians, headed by Nick Woollard. Chargehand Dressing Prop man Nathan Holt saw to the reassembly of the dressing as Construction finished their work. Assistant Set Decorator Sam Redwood checked and rechecked that everything matched the former films. Another veteran of the series, having been an Assistant Art Director on EPISODE VII, she made sure that the Easter Egg Lego piece on the landing ramp was replaced, since it had disappeared.
What about your research process for the Pasaana Festival of the Ancestors—traditions of the ancestors, history of the planet, inspirations, concepts, etc—that lend to the Bohemian style of the festival’s decoration?
As Co-Production Designer Rick Carter said, “Who knew this would be so hard, to create a god?”
This one was really complex and took ages to get the design right, since the script was still evolving as we were coming up with concepts. The locals are a peaceable people, whose spirituality is based in reverence for the ancestors. The brief was for this to be a very colorful, joyous celebration. We looked at festivals around the world, that had bright pageantry, like those in different areas of India, Thailand, various cultures in Africa, Indonesia, and the list goes on. We went on a buying trip to India where we sourced textiles and decorative elements, but manufactured a large amount of dressing and props as well.
What were the architectural influences for this city?
The Art Department looked at Japanese hill towns, and combined these Asian influences with old Italian medieval hill cities built on cliffs above the sea.
It was a beautiful set, built at the Pinewood back lot, with winding staircases, cobblestone ramps, buildings made of huge blocks of stone, gorgeous roof lines, and opportunities to move the action from place to place without repeating where we were.
Special Effects added the snow- it was mostly rock salt.
What did you bring to Kijimi City?
Since the scenes were all to be at night, we designed many lighting fixtures and found some that we could adapt. We also installed many meters of “Equator Band”—linear dressing that accents a plain surface—into all the eaves. Our set dressing designs were extensive, including lit control entry panels, storage jars, benches, sleds with cargo, street heaters, Spice dispensers, and fish drying racks. It’s a city of traders, so trade goods were a big theme.
Kef Bir, a moon of Endor, site of the Death Star wreckage...
Were you involved in the discussion of what interior areas to replicate for the movie?
The second Death Star
, first seen in STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI was, of course, massive. Co-Production Designer Kevin Jenkins, who astounded me with the breadth of his knowledge of the history and backstory of STAR WARS, worked with Director JJ Abrams and Writer Chris Terrio to select those parts of the Death Star
that would telegraph clearly to the audience, even in their ruined state, and serve the scripted journey as the characters traverse the wreck. Kevin made wonderful pencil sketches to start the design process, always keeping to simple, iconic shapes and dramatic angles. Rey
and Kylo Ren’s
journeys through the ship were storyboarded and illustrated, and once the script settled in, each department started design on their area of concern.
JJ Abrams conceived Kef Bir
as a stormy, watery planet, and huge waves endlessly crash on the wreck. The multiple sets for the Death Star wreckage
were built over different sound stages and back lot areas, with varying degrees of moisture, depending how far they were from the sea. In wetter areas, we used a meticulously molded mosaic of crusty barnacles and mollusks to clad surfaces. Each set had particular types of wreckage to assemble, build, and age, dependent on the original design from EPISODE VI.
In the story, Rey
leaves dry land in the skiff, crosses huge waves, boards the wreck, and climbs giant wrecked cylinders to move from one area to the next. Scaling the heights and leaping across huge gulfs echoes her first appearance in EPISODE VII, during her scavenger days on Jakku
. She picks her way through hallways scattered with dead Stormtroopers
, to the Throne Room
, to secret scary rooms, and then moves out to the wrecked outer hull.
The Throne Room’s
dramatically damaged window was a fitting background for a confrontation between Rey
and Kylo Ren
. Our Set Decoration design team started by drawing and reconstructing the throne. At first, we weren’t certain as to how exactly we would show its destruction, so we built the entire chair, upholstery and all. Once we were clearer about camera angles and its position against the window, we set about artfully destroying it.
For flotsam and jetsam in the ship, we followed the idea that has been behind STAR WARS spaceship style from the beginning: it’s a period film, not futurism. The guts of the ship are anything but minimal...there are large quantities of cable, ducting, and connectors. On a practical level, Set Decoration teams on STAR WARS have always made liberal use of industrial salvage.
The fight between Ren
continues on the surface of the ruined Death Star
, structured as ribs extending into the wild sea. We designed and built the huge gun on the circular chassis and supplied surface detail, wreckage, more barnacles, and seaweed imported from Ireland.
Where was your mechanical set dressing sourced?
We started with a good base from the former films in our workshops, both raw materials and a stock of previously used designed and built items. There were gears, cables, metal shapes, control panels, exhaust mechanisms, aeronautical salvage, lighting, backs of molded industrial shells, knobs, valves, pipe, connectors, and textural surfacing material. The raw parts stash was sorted by the Storemen as to size, shape and type. As the needs for each project became clearer, we made buying trips to industrial and military salvage sources, including a Polish military salvage dealer, or “breaker” as they say in British. As novices to the series, Production Buyer Corina Floyd Burrough and I at first made the error of investing in fabulous old military objects that were extremely heavy! We learned that a key to a successful salvage run is to make sure the item can be lifted easily, since recombination and collage techniques are used so frequently.
Plastic molded fluids containers in myriad shapes and sizes are used as a base for all kinds of STAR WARS props and dressing. If a particular part was in short supply, we would mold it to create multiples. Buyer Helen Player was particularly adept at finding the best switches, flaps, and doohickeys for this arena.
As for film prop and dressing vendors, an indispensable source in London is the amazing Bob’s Bits, with supply streams from odd and wonderful industries, as well as manufacturing capabilities.
Key Set Decoration staff members:
• Propmaster: Jamie Wilkinson
Serves as the equivalent to the US Set Decorator’s Lead, hiring and managing crew, including multiple Chargehand Dressing Prop persons (a role similar to US Gang Boss but doesn’t do pickups, just set dressing), and organizing craftsmen for in-house building shops that almost every British film uses.
The Propmaster also controls the hand props and weapons. Traditionally the UK Set Decorator has a role in their selection and design. Both Propmasters I worked with in the UK followed the “American System” where they had a larger role in designing and selecting the hand props, but we still worked together closely on the look of key props, especially when they flowed from the environment as opposed to being personal props.
• Production Buyer: Corina Floyd Burrough
Runs the budget for the Set Decorator, responsible for keeping the department on track financially, including tracking labor, as well as running a team and locating dressing and props. Corina traveled to India and Poland on buying trips.
• Location Set Decorator: Andrew McCarthy
Under creative control of the Set Decorator, handled Jordan location. Also managed several other sets in London.
• Assistant Set Decorators: Chloe James and Samantha Redwood
Manage specifically assigned sets, including research, break down drawings to determine parts required, suggest set dressing options to the Set Decorator, make requests to the Buyers for supplies needed, works with Chargehand Dressers to complete the dressing of the set.
• Buyers: Helen Player and Lucie Bourgeau
Fulfill requests from the Set Decorator and Assistant Set Decorators for goods found in Prop Hire houses or in the open marketplace, whether new or salvaged, in the UK and internationally. Helped Corina with extensive budget tracking.
• Petty Cash Buyer: Chloe Taylor
Handles smaller purchases, on the road making runs for dressing props and materials. We also used Chloe for in-house dying of textiles when she had time!
• Lead Graphic Designer: Dan Burke, with assistants Hannah Kons, Dominic Sikking and Josie Kealy
Design and production for all graphics for Set Decoration, the Art Department, Props and Costumes.
• Computer Graphics: Andrew Booth and Helen Baker and team
Design for motion graphics on live screens
• Concept Artists (Illustrators in the US): Chris Rosewarne and Chris Caldow
Work with the Set Decorator to envision fabricated elements.
...with occasional help from the Art Department Illustrators when they had time. Props had their own Concept Artist.
• Art Directors for Set Decoration and Props: Lydia Frye (prep) and Oliver Roberts (Shoot).
Assistant Art Director: Clara Gomez del Moral.
Art Director Daniel Nussbaumer for Ochi’s Spaceship
Translated concepts and ideas into drawings, engineered and followed through on designs, issued plans to our manufacturing shops, troubleshooting from start to finish.
• Draughtspersons (Set Designers in the US): Anita Rajkumar, Kate Pickthall, Helen Dawson, Andy Proctor, and Junior Draughtsperson Hannah Wiessler Leas
• Set Decoration Coordinator: Eleanor Bailey
Managed the office, the department calendar, assisted with loading and navigating digital assets on Atris, the secure server system.
Turned in paperwork and time sheets to accounting, monitored the Set Decoration Drawing Log, office setup/maintenance, the point person for Production to chase things up for Set Decoration.
• Researcher: Nicola Barnes
• Drapesmaster Jesse Jones, with Alex Lewry, Daniel O’Brien & team
• Supervising Painter: Carl Wildman and team.
James Wickison was Location Chargehand painter in Jordan
• Chargehand Carpenter, a.k.a. “Chippies”: Duncan McNeil and team
• Prop Making HOD (Head of Department): Mark Rocca
A large shop, similar to a fully kitted out US Propshop, but separate from the Special Effects workshop. Makes set dressing and handprops as drawn in the Set Dec Art Department or from cocktail napkin sketches! Machine tools, molding, electronics panels, metal work, plastics, sculpting.
• Props Workshop Supervisor: Martyn Doust and team, including Advanced Prop Modeler Faye Ruddick
A smaller scale shop primarily designed to make hand props but also effecting large quantities of craft-oriented set dressing makes. Examples: Festival greebles strings, robot parts, festival toys
• Storemen: Quentin Davies, with assistants Kelvin Cook, Colin Merchant, and Jonathan Wallace
Manage the inventory in the storage buildings, moving from workshop to stage or location, loading into containers for shipment to Jordan, truck (lorry) pickups, make inventory reports, work with the Assets department for record keeping and storage.
• Greens: Peter Hooper for Greens Team,
I managed Greens on KINGSMAN but on EPISODE IX, I asked that each set’s Art Director deal with Greens Team themselves.
They did amazing work.
• Playback: Mark Jordan and Sam Jones
• Assistant Propmasters:
John Fox headed up the Dressing and Hand props team in Jordan, Jack Garwood managed the Dressing Props team in London.
Simon Wilkinson specialized in Weapons and Hand Props.
• Chargehand Dressing Propmen
Similar to Gang Bosses in LA, but they only dress the sets, don’t generally go out on the truck. Great technical knowledge and rigging skills
• Dressing Propmen: Each of the above would have a crew of 2-6 crew working under him, dependent on the scale of the set at hand
• Standby Props: Sonny Merchant and team
Combined job of the US On-Set Dresser and On-Set Props
• Standby Art Director, Peter James,
Hired by the Art Department, encompasses some of the function of the US On-Set Dresser, working with the camera, having a capable eye to composition, coordinating the standby team for the shooting crew such as the carpenter, painter, practical sparks.
• Set Dec Assistants/ Runners: Hannah Gautrey and Joseph Sanchez.
Make runs, help keep the department organized, help prepare presentations, get tea. Joseph ended up as a trainee in one of our workshops toward the end. Hannah took loads of progress photos of the set dressing being finished and dressed in.
• Action Vehicles: Art Director Oliver van der Vijver and Action Vehicles Supervisor Warren Stickley
Traditionally run by Set Decoration but in the case of both my UK films this department was run by an Art Director
A final word…
STAR WARS to me is about optimism: if we pull together and give it our best, we can overcome great obstacles. As I write this, the entire world is in the midst of huge challenges. There’s a reason this franchise has such great appeal—its message is so on point right now.
No matter where I’ve worked throughout the world, I’ve found that the key to managing complexity is to empower the artists and technicians who join my team to bring their best game to the task. Including them in the creative process results in all of us being able to offer more to the project. This brings me great satisfaction. I consider myself very fortunate to work with people of this caliber.
--Rosemary Brandenburg SDSA