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Set Decorator/Assistant Set Decorator

Set Decorators provide anything that furnishes a film set, excluding structural elements. They may have to provide a range of items, from lumps of sugar and tea spoons, to newspapers, furniture and drapes, to cars, carriages, or even cats and dogs. There are two types of props: action props, or all props that are described in the shooting script; and dressing props, or items that help to bring characters to life or to give a certain atmosphere and sense of period to a place.

Small details often tell the audience the most about characters in feature films: the pictures hanging on the walls of their homes; the contents of their fridge or bathroom cabinet; their books; the treasured objects kept in a box hidden in the desk drawer. All of these details are created by the imagination and creative flair of Set Decorators, who research, prepare and oversee the dressing of every set and adapted location on a feature film. Many Set Decorators work on commercials, where they are known as Stylists, as well as on films. They work on a freelance basis with a number of Set Designers who usually specifically request them. The hours are long and the job can involve long periods working away from home.

What is the job?
Once Set Decorators have met with the Production Designer to discuss the agreed aesthetic of the film, they visit numerous Prop Houses, where they carefully select the bigger props and book them for the shoot. In the Art Department office, Set Decorators prepare a detailed prop breakdown, marking the script up and listing requirements for action props, animals, vehicles, dressing props and any graphics items (letters, newspapers, posters, books etc). Production Buyers and Graphic Artists also prepare their own lists which are compared to check for any missing items. These lists are combined to make the definitive list from which Set Decorators work. The required items are then located, purchased or hired, and where necessary model-makers are commissioned, arrangements are made for furniture to be re-upholstered, etc. When the Final Schedule is delivered (detailing the precise shooting order of scenes in the film), definitive lists of all props and set decoration are prepared according to daily requirements.

Set Decorators may also work on product placement arrangements, or on acquiring copyright clearances for branded items. Close to the beginning of the shoot, Set Decorators photograph all items, taking careful measurements where necessary, and allocate the appropriate props to each set. The day before shooting begins Set Decorators and their teams arrive in the early hours to begin dressing the set. After the Set Designer has checked over the dressed set and made any last minute changes or additions, and the Director and the Director of Photography have given their final approvals, Set Decorators begin work on the next scene detailed on the schedule. Because locations and prop hire can be very expensive, striking (dismantling) each set and returning all the props must be completed as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Typical career route
Most Set Decorators start their careers in more junior roles within the Art Department (as Runners or Trainees) before becoming Assistant Set Decorators (ASDs). ASDs are usually only employed on big budget films and are responsible for researching and sourcing dressing props. Some Set Decorators may also give ASDs responsibility for action props and product placements. Depending on the size of the films they have worked on, and the levels of experience acquired, ASDs may work in this role for several years before becoming Set Decorators.

Essential knowledge and skills
A wide knowledge of the history of design and decoration is important. Set Decorators must also have contacts with a range of Prop Hire companies. Basic computer skills and a full clean driving license are also required.
Key Skills include:

  • good eye for decoration and precise attention to detail;

  • enthusiasm for dressing objects and for decoration;

  • good sense of colour and form;

  • a methodical approach to work;

  • creative flair;

  • ability to see the broader picture and to co-ordinate effectively;

  • ability to work as part of a team;

  • knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.


  • Training and qualifications
    Set Decorators are usually graduates of Art (Painting, Textiles), Interior or 3D Design courses. Some may also complete a specialist course in Film and/or Theatre Production Design at a higher level. After completing their training, they must acquire on the job experience of how Art departments work. 

    Individual course accreditation in certain subject areas is currently being piloted. As part of Creative Skillset's and the UK Film Council's Film Skills Strategy, A Bigger Future, a network of Screen Academies and a Film Business Academy have been approved as centres of excellence in education and training for film.

    Where to go for more information
    Creative Skillset is the Creative Industries' Sector Skills Council. The first sources of information for all jobs in the industry are the National Occupational Standards. Browse Creative Skillset's website for links to our network of training partners, information about training and access to the comprehensive Creative Skillset/BFI course database. Finally, Creative Skillset Careers is UK's creative careers advice service; for detailed careers information and advice, visit www.creativeskillset.org/careers.


    Websites
    - British Film Designers Guild


    - American Cinematographer has regular features on film design and digital production techniques.

    Publications
    - Ken Adam: The Art of Production Design (Faber and Faber) by Christopher Frayling

    - Production Design and Art Direction (Focal Press) by Peter Ettedgui

    - By Design: Interviews with Film Production Designers (Greenwood Press) by Vincent LoBrutto

    - Film Architecture: From Metropolis to Blade Runner (Prestel Publishing Ltd). Edited by D. Neumann 2001

    - Filming the Future (Aurum Press Ltd) by Piers Bizony

    - The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matt Painting (Chronicle Books) by M. Cotta Vaz and C. Barron

    - Interior book series published by Tashen; www.taschen.com

    Download:
    Adobe Acrobat DocumentSet Decorator/ Assistant Set Decorator


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