Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

On-Set Dresser and Production Design

Here’s why I’m largely silent these days, in spite of being at a point in the fairy tale that I’m rather enjoying, and in spite of continuing to collect what I think are interesting Internet things: I’m super tired. This, in spite of the fact (again! so much spite!) that our hours average between 60-65 now per week. No more of the 96 hour work week, or the 88 hour, or even the 72! We should be coasting! Fact is, we’re also nearly 12 weeks in. Weekends always feel to short and when I can drag myself to write, it’s usually to focus on EGG. What I can focus on easily, however, is what I do.

So here is my job description, along with a bit of the structure of working on set.

The first thing to understand is that the crew is built for speed, not efficiency. That means there is some redundancy and overlap, but when we’re all going all full-tilt, we get serious work done in a ridiculously short time. Think of a car. How often do you use the ignition? Once per session, ideally, but without it, the car doesn’t go. Not all parts of the engine work at once, but they all have a job to do.

The dresser has nothing to do with clothing – that’s wardrobe (although heads up! overlap!). I am the representative for scenery. My departmental boss is the production designer, who comes up with the overall look for what the [show-movie-short] will look like, and who coordinates with the locations department and costume designer for when those locales indicate personality, for example, in someone’s apartment. If a character has a very spiffy wardrobe but lives in a dump, that says something about him/her. Gotta know what that is.

The set decorator is responsible for implementing the production designer’s vision, picking out furniture, artwork, appliances, light fixtures and window treatments (more overlap here – with photography). The “set dec” is the guy who hired me, so he’s my immediate boss, and the production designer is his boss, so I report to her as well.

And yet! In addition to departmental separations (set decoration, camera, grip, electric, props, etc.) there is a second and in some ways more important division, which is off and on set. Our department’s prep work is done by construction (building all the damn stuff) and, prepping just in time for shooting days, by the swing gang. Swing makes sure that the room we’re about to enter is dressed appropriately. Grip and electric both have rigging crews that work in advance of them as well, making sure there’s power where they need it, lighting grids for hanging fixtures if appropriate, and so on.

When we shoot, that’s when I start working. Here’s the breakdown of events for every scene:

The director rehearses the scene with the actors (for performance) and the director of photography (DP) for camera angles, where they determine how many angle they’ll be using. The director is already thinking about how to cut the scene together here in the edit.

The “first team” (actors you see on screen) are released, and the “second team” comes in – stand ins, who share a similar height, weight, skin tone, and clothing choice – so that they can be lit.

The DP works with the camera operators to figure out where they’ll shoot in the first set up. We have two cameras, A and B, each of which has a crew of four (camera operator; focus puller or “assistant camera”; and “second assistant” who runs the slate, keeps paperwork, etc.; and the dolly grip, who is from a different department). The camera dolly will almost certainly need to sit in a place where there is furniture.

I move the furniture. My job – here – is to make sure that the camera crew has comfortable room to work and do what they need. At the same time, I’m making sure that they don’t hurt the set, since I am the set’s representative and caretaker. If it’s a bookshelf or a couch that needs moving, I almost always rely on the props department to help me out, and in fact, my little cart travels on the props trailer when we’re on location. Props and set dec, we’re like cousins.

Once cameras are up and know where they’re pointing and what they’re seeing (i.e. what you’re going to see on your television screen), I work with the camera operators to frame a pretty shot. We make sure that it doesn’t look like that wall sconce is growing out of an actor’s head, or, as earlier this week, that an actor’s crotch is sprouting a fern. That’s a strategic choice, but there are plenty of aesthetic ones as well – sliding a lamp over a few inches so that the camera catches its red base, or turning a plant clockwise until a frond catches the light just so.

Then there are reflections. We don’t want you to see a boom pole hovering in that window, or a camera in that mirror. Everything has to tweak and move and I’m the guy that tweaks and moves. If I can’t take the glass out of the picture frame, I may stick a tape ball behind it to make the reflection point another direction.

I take exhaustive pictures of the set ups and off of the monitors – generally about 50-60 per day, so that my department has its own record of physical continuity and can dress the next day’s sets appropriately. Depending on the action, I may have to do re-sets between each time we shoot, say, re-setting a clock, or cleaning up broken glass. Depending on accidents, I may have to do sudden repairs of broken furniture.

I’m a bit of a janitor and a bit of a handyman. I am not a painter (different department – paint!), nor do mess with trees (greens). I might drill a hole in a wall in order to hang a picture, but anything more means a carpenter comes in. I move doors and windows, but grips move walls (in other parts of the country, grips do doors and windows as well). I adjust blinds for the camera department when they want particular shadows created by the set. Some of this is job specific and some is crew specific – this is how we’ve grown together. And we’re a pretty good crew. Minimal sniping. Lots of mutual support.

It’s a good job.

Got questions?

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18 responses

  1. Sean

    Why on earth is ithe standard to have a single on set dresser when we have multi million dollar shows that’s have three+ camera set ups? It’s not sustainable for long runs energy wise.

    February 16, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    • I was on a two-camera set-up. My guess is that, between management and the union, they’ve worked out what they think the least-bad compromise is.

      February 18, 2017 at 9:29 am

  2. adam

    I was wondering if you had a good idea of what an On-set Dresser would need to have in their set cart?

    July 9, 2016 at 9:07 am

    • I categorized my kit by location and swapped out accordingly. For interior, can’t beat window cleaner, squeegee, and newspaper print; s-hooks and/or zip ties to raise hanging lights out of the way; a good multi-tool. On stand-by, floor-cleaning (mop, dust mop, broom); plenty of paper towels. For exterior, change out those tools for shovels or rakes. I carried several sets of tape on string loops, a vinyl kit for greeking out labels, and because we shot in city streets, I started holding on to original spraypaint and artwork stencils from our DP that I could use as graffiti to help cover up more things. Dulling spray but not spray paint (different dept); adhesives; picture hanging gear. Portable baby steamer for curtains. Mini-vac. You can’t enough or enough kinds of tape.

      Set dressers are pretty low set priority. G&E will be closest to set with carts, you’ll be farthest. I kept a bunch of stuff in a large tool bag that I could carry from my cart to set and then kept a certain amount of stuff on my person – all to minimize any running back for missing gear.

      July 10, 2016 at 9:19 am

      • Dustin

        What kind of tool kit did you have? What kind of dolly did you use? And did you get use out of a 4-wheel dolly much?

        February 18, 2017 at 10:08 pm

        • My large kit was a reinforced two-decker Rubbermaid cart to which I added a lower shelf for flat goods and a slotted side bar for tall tools (brooms, swiffers, rakes, etc.). The upper and lower decks held cases for specific purposes (e.g. adhesives or cleaners, toolboxes). My go-to was a bag that had some tape, window cleaner and paper towels, mini-squeeze clamps and s-hooks, and a handful of other things.

          Our show was 90% indoor with lots of windows. Whenever we shot exteriors, I’d re-pack accordingly.

          The cart was 4-wheel and I hung a 4-step ladder off of one end. I also swapped out the rigid tires for pneumatics – this was a major, major improvement in mobility. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

          On other smaller shoots, I used a hand truck that could be converted between two or four wheels. Less useful than having two shelves overall, but does the job in a pinch.

          February 18, 2017 at 10:20 pm

  3. we are haunted

    As someone who eventually wants to go into the industry and set department, this is great to know! I’ve learned a few things I would otherwise not have know. What are the periods between each episode like, do you get a breather at all or is it still go, go, go? And would you say you learn more by being on set and gaining that experience first hand rather than learning bits here and there through university? Is it a hard industry to break in to? I have a few connections via relatives in set painting and was just wondering if that helps at all? Thanks so much!

    April 2, 2014 at 7:25 am

    • Re: being a hard industry – it can be. That depends greatly on how good you are, how hard you work (a super-hard worker who is only pretty good but has a great attitude is probably more valuable than a seasoned pro who’s an asshole), what kind of network and connections you’ve got, how many jobs are available, etc. Crew heads tend to call people they know and like. I got this call because the city was incredibly busy and I got into the union because I’m a hard worker who’s not an asshole (most of the time) at a time when there was a lot of work coming up. It was great timing – but I’d missed several parallel instances of great timing/opportunity in the past. This was simply the first time I was able to take advantage. Also, my experience is particular to A) the US and B) Chicago. I don’t have any clue how everything works in the UK. I would guess that all of my generalities apply, and that’s the same reason I’m not going into many specifics.

      good luck!

      April 2, 2014 at 5:29 pm

  4. we are haunted

    This is really interesting to know! As someone (a 21 year old Briton) who wants to eventually work in the industry as a Set Dresser/in the Set department, this is great. I’ve learned a few things I wouldn’t have otherwise known. What are the periods like between episodes? Is there any chance for a breather or is it all go, go, go? And would you say you learn more working on set rather than going to university? Thanks!

    April 2, 2014 at 7:12 am

    • Quick responses for now!
      1) Our work week was 5 days (M-F) and an episode shoot was 8 days. If we hit Day 8/8 on a Wed, we’d roll into 1/8 on Thurs. The only days off we had besides weekends all autumn were Labor Day Monday (beginning Sept) and the Friday after Thanksgiving (end Nov). So – go go go!

      2) You learn different things in those two environments. I’m limited in how far I can advance right now because of a lack of education. I don’t have the training in drawing to become an art director and I don’t have the background in design and history to become a production designer. For what I’m doing now, my work experience has been great training. For where I want to go, my lack of formal education is a real problem. There are ways to address this lack, but they’re all tricky, especially now that I’m actively in the field.

      April 2, 2014 at 5:25 pm

  5. megan

    Boy oh boy, the dresser for Cheers probably had it much easier, right? Two, three sets, tops.

    November 10, 2013 at 8:49 am

    • 1-2 camera sit-coms I imagine must be radically different experiences. The sets that I’ve seen for HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER are reminiscent of CHEERS in that regard. Lots, lots easier than the realism we’re striving for.

      Take “realism” with a grain of salt here.

      November 10, 2013 at 5:53 pm

  6. graysea

    Yikes. Just yikes. If the team exists in a culture of “that’s not MY job” cranky territory, that would be my personal hell. 12 hour days of alert waiting? YIKES.
    But I bet you’re really good at this!

    October 28, 2013 at 2:26 pm

  7. Despite it all, this sounds like fun.

    …….dhole

    October 24, 2013 at 12:38 am

  8. clickerbug

    When do you have time to write a post like this? It sounds like you’re constantly on alert.

    This sounds utterly fascinating. Oh how I’d love to be a fly on the wall (although you’d probably have me swatted).

    October 23, 2013 at 10:10 am

    • We generally work 12 hour days, and this week we started with a 7am crew call for Mon and Tues. Today we move into “splits,” which is day/night (a “reverse split” is shooting night/day with a midnight-ish call), so we don’t start today until 1pm. I’ve got the morning, though I’m leaving soon to buy stuff for my kit. Gotta grab the time when I can.

      October 23, 2013 at 10:24 am

  9. I’ve been wondering what exactly you do, and that sounds both really interesting, and also a bit tedious. I can’t tell if it’d be something I’d enjoy, or something that drove me bonkers ;)

    October 23, 2013 at 9:32 am

    • There are periods of great intensity punctuated with slowness. Also, occasional crises – like when an actor breaks a chair and I have to make it camera-ready. Those involve lots and lots of running. Or when another department tries to help out and knocks over a whole sideboard with a granite top and glasses on the top of it. That involves lots of stress management.

      But yes. Interesting and tedious at the same time. Also diplomacy, given the number and variety of bosses to whom I report.

      October 23, 2013 at 9:46 am

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