The Set Decoration Department
October 22nd, 2020
WHAT IS A SET DECORATOR?
Imagine a Persian palace, or a turn-of-the-century London flat, a post-apocalyptic highway strewn with derelict vehicles and the remnants of civilization gone awry, an army base with endless rows of tents and military gear, or the interior of a luminous spacecraft with luxury appointments. This is the domain of the Set Decorator.
Those of us who gravitate to Set Decoration often have a love of visual storytelling. We are tasked with curating the environment through objects to tell the story of the characters. We enjoy travel and exploration and have a curiosity about all cultures and their histories. We think about the objects pioneers placed on their fireplace mantels, what a 1950s accountant keeps in their desk drawers, what kind of plates and cups people eat and drink from in some future fantasy world.
We hone our craft through years of apprenticeship with incredible craftspersons who came before us. We collaborate with Production Designers, Directors, and Directors of Photography to determine the vision and look, and search the script for clues to build the character's world. We occupy our own unique place on the production team.
Now that you know what a Set Decorator does, the question becomes, how is that vision achieved? There are many jobs within the department that keep things operating like a well-oiled machine. Under the I.A.T.S.E. Union Contracts, different Locals have jurisdiction over a variety of craft-specific tasks. Local 44 (Los Angeles), for example, generally provides all the furnishings, window treatments, practical lighting, and other elements that aren't architectural for interior and exterior sets. Other Set Dec Departments, nationally and internationally, provide a wide variety of services such as window glass installation, building signage installation, picture cars, even air conditioning! The breakdown that follows offers a brief description of jobs within the Set Decoration Department and their titles.
SET DECORATION CREW POSITIONS
Lead Ron Shulem working on a Prison set
If the Set Decorator is the Composer of a symphony, the Leadperson is the Conductor.
The Leadperson wrangles the complex network of scheduling set dressing pickups and drop-offs at the prop houses, arranges the labor to make things happen, all while making sure everything gets to the right place at the right time. They staff the department with skilled Set Dressers, and often oversee the bulk of an installation in preparation for the Set Decorator. This is the only job in the Set Decoration Department that works in the past, present, and future. They are always prepping the next set, are required to attend all production meetings, logistical meetings, attend tech scouts, they oversee wrapped sets, and often they’re opening set with the Set Decorator before turning the set over to the Director and the on-set dresser. They oversee the inventory of the department assets and handle all loss and damage of rented set dressing items. Extreme organizational and problem-solving skills are paramount requirements for this position.
Assistant Set Decorator Sean Haines working on HBO show CRASHING- Season 2, Ep 7
ASSISTANT SET DECORATOR/ BUYER
In a world of ever-accelerating production schedules, Assistant Decorators and Buyers perform the important function of being the eyes of the Set Decorator by procuring options for virtually anything one might see on set. They nurture and maintain relationships with vendors, and figure out ways to expedite shipping so everything arrives in a timely manner. Depending on the Set Decorator’s needs, their Assistant Set Decorators are often handed over groupings of sets for which they assume secondary responsibility for packaging and installing looks with the Decorator’s approval. During prep the Assistant Set Decorator and/or Buyer often assist the Set Decorator in research and assist in creating style boards to present to the Production Designer and Director. They run the gamut from having to visit design showrooms to digging through salvage yards to find just the right thing. They tend to have a special mix of determination, perseverance, grit, and they love the challenge of finding the impossible. They become the primary sounding board for the Set Decorator and their contributions to curating sets are invaluable.
Set Dresser Christina Giavacchini gets a hand with her work on INSIDIOUS 4
The Gang Boss presides over a team of Set Dressers in facilitating and dressing the sets for which they’re given responsibility. Gang Bosses coordinate with the Leadperson to ensure the timely delivery of goods. They’re often charged with carrying a complete set of construction drawings and furniture plans, and they’re trusted guardians of fulfilling the Set Decorator’s vision. This is another job that requires great organizational skills, meticulous attention to detail, with comprehensive understanding of rigging and dressing techniques that can be passed on to the set dressers while dressing a set.
SET DRESSER/ SWING PERSON
Set Dressers are skilled craftspeople who implement and enhance the vision of the Set Decorator. Many come from art, theater, construction, even automotive backgrounds. They’re the people the Decorator instructs to hang a series of portraits in perfect alignment with perfect spacing on a wall. They transport furniture to-and-from set. They do pickups from vendors in coordination with the Transportation department, then wrap it all up and safely return it following the shoot. Make no mistake: Set Dressers are not just glorified furniture movers. Each has unique skills that enables them to fulfill a vital and rewarding function in the creation of every set. Some are very good at character-building — give them a box of dressing in an office setting and watch them create a unique identity for each desk. Many are rigging specialists who intuitively know how to hang a massive chandelier or a 19th Century gilded-framed mirror. They are artists who can make a complex network of pipes and conduit look like a sublime industrial sculpture in a warehouse set. They’re the backbone of labor who bring their ideas and expertise to the table, and who swell with pride at the successful completion of a beautiful set.
On Set Dresser Christina Giavacchini works on the set of STRANGE ANGEL, for Set Decorator Maria Nay
The On-Set Dresser is the only position within the Set Dec Department whose job it is to be on production’s time schedule with a daily call time dictated by the Assistant Director. The On-Set Dresser serves as the custodian of the set. They have a working familiarity of the details of the set, generally obtained via a start of the shoot day walk-through with the Set Decorator and Leadman. They serve as the eyes and ears of the Set Decorator and Production Designer — routinely checking the camera frame for correct composition of the set dressing and adjusting as necessary, guarding the integrity of the set, keeping its continuity throughout shooting and coordinating with the Grip and Property Departments when a massive overhaul is called for. They’re familiar with the important events of each set and make it their mission to feature them if the coverage becomes suddenly limited and threatens the event’s omission. On-Set Dressers are good relationship builders by nature. They become trusted allies of Directors and Directors of Photography and call to confer with the Production Designer and Set Decorator when an unexpected change is requested. This position calls for a special skill set, which includes: a good eye, attention to detail, a friendly, cooperative personality who can also stand up for the Set Dec Department when called upon, strong rigging skills, matched with the mind of someone who anticipates sudden changes, and can read a situation.
Draper Brad Curry adjusts a spaceship seat belt manufactured in-house for Set Decorator Leslie Pope on AVENGERS INFINITY WAR
DRAPERY/ UPHOLSTERY FOREMAN
For jobs that require and can accommodate, the Draper or Upholsterer is a life saver for the Set Decorator. Window treatment fabrications (curtains, blinds, shades, etc) are a critical aspect of Set Decoration. In the age of digital photography, the demands placed on the Set Decoration Department to function as the primary source of lighting is unprecedented. A good Draper is a useful collaborator for the Decorator in conversations with the Director of Photography about the quality of light they hope to achieve on set. The Draper oversees the full-time job of fabric procurement, curtain and shade fabrication, hardware purchases, and installation of it all. They have a comprehensive knowledge of the details of drapery systems, both antiquated and contemporary, and come up with solutions for installations that enable the Director of Photography to make adjustments on-the-fly when needed.
An Upholstery Foreman oversees the fabrication of upholstered goods. They manage the process, devise quick fix-it solutions, and coordinate with Dyers and Painters for the aging of new pieces to make them look used. Drapers and Upholsterers enhance the beauty and success of many sets, and their project management affords the Set Decorator the luxury of focusing on everything else.
As the scope of entertainment expands into unexplored corners of the universe and alternate realities, Set Decorators are tasked with overseeing the design, fabrication, painting, and installation of specialty set-pieces which often serve an important function within a scene. Fabrication units can consist of a couple Set Dec Prop-makers with a simple shop set-up, to a large team of 3-D Model Designers, a Fabrication Foreman, a team of highly skilled Specialty Fabricators, Metal Workers, Plasterers, Staff Shoppers, and Painters. They modify derelict electronic housings to become touch-screen spaceship consoles. They use 5-axis and water-jet routers to sculpt blocks of foam into robots, which are then coated in fiberglass and finished with gleaming, metallic automotive paint. They create multi-plane objects with mechanized parts which have been grown in 3-D printers. In the age of superhero blockbusters, the role of skilled fabricators has exploded with career potential. They’re like engineers who make art, and increasingly are in high demand.
Set Decorator Hernan Camacho (right) with Set Decoration Assistant Jocelyn Wu (left)
SET DECORATION COORDINATOR and SET DECORATION ASSISTANT
The Set Dec Coordinator is an office position which employs a variety of skills. The Coordinator keeps track of the schedule of the Set Decorator. The job requires a working knowledge of basic accounting. They track the budget for rentals and purchases and remind the Buyers and Gang Bosses to submit all backup invoices. Coordinators assist with research, sourcing hard-to-find goods, and keep the office well-stocked with supplies. They submit cost reports to the Decorator and Leadperson, and reconcile the Set Dec Department’s numbers with the Production Accounting Department. This position is often an important stepping stone to becoming a Buyer or a Set Decorator.
The Set Decoration Assistant is an entry level position, who does everything from organizing and picking up the department lunches, assist with research and create presentation boards. Assistants who show up with a positive attitude, are resourceful, have a problem-solving mind, and a willingness to take on the variety of odd tasks to which they are assigned, often find themselves primed for promotions, having acquired a unique set of skills at this level.