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.