Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Set Decorator

“I am sure you’ve seen barren sets on empty sound stages come to life under the set decorator’s touch. Compare it to the architect who has completed a house, but it is the interior decorator who breathes life into the rooms.”

--Henry Grace, longtime set decorator at MGM

They report to a budget minded production designer, take their design cues from the pages of a script, accommodate the needs of a director and cinematographer, juggle a variety of decorating demands and often design a fantasy setting all in a day. Their workspace can be the size of a football field on a backlot or in the middle of nowhere on location. Just think of them as the glamorous cousin of the interior designer -- the set decorator.

Set Decorators are part of a creative design team for a film, television, commercial or video and responsible for the overall design and decoration of the sets. This can include everything from furniture and accessory selection to working with furniture craftsman and scenic artists. Their jobs are as diverse as the medium itself  which can range from decorating a high-end interior for a period film to a high-tech lab for CSI:pick a city.

And while their responsibilities are similar to those of interior designers (budgets, fabric selection, floor plans, demanding clients, etc.), the job differs when fantasy has to overstep reality. Such was the case for the Moroccan meets Park Avenue kitchen in A Perfect Murder (1998)-- look closely and you will see those fabulous travertine floors are actually wallpaper and the lampshades throughout the house are cork paper. While some budgets allow visits to the to-the-trade-only design centers, others require scavenger hunts on ebay and visits to the proverbial prop house. (Design concessions are made on every film so I won't spoil anything else for you.)

The sets are a beautifully decorated mixture of antiques, artwork and contemporary furnishings for the world of a Wall Street titan (Michael Douglas) and his heiress/UN translator wife (Gwyneth Paltrow). The completely convincing Fifth Avenue abode was decorated by Beth Rubino (who also gave us Something's Gotta Give, 2003) and of course, the film's interiors were shot on a soundstage.

For those interested in a career as a Set Decorator, a background in interior design and studies in set decoration, production design and filmmaking in general are strongly advised. While it is not a career for everyone -- many find themselves off on location or living on a studio backlot for months on end --  seeing your work on the silver screen can be pretty rewarding.

For more information on Set Decorators, check out the Set Decorators Society.

Photo credits: Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures

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