Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job as a set decorator

The two-time Emmy-winning HBO series Silicon Valley follows a group of fellow programmers who work together to start a company called Pied Piper.

For the last two seasons of the series, Brandi Kalish was hired as the show’s set designer and tasked with bringing character to the Pied Piper staff’s workspace.

“We had to sit at each desk and create a personality — this person is super into toys or LEGOs, this person is super organized or this desk just has a water bottle,” said Kalish.

To get inspiration for decorating the hundreds of desks she and her team had to decorate for the show, Kalish went to San Francisco and toured several engineering offices. As she visited these workspaces, she snapped reference photos to share with her team.

Kalish said it felt like putting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together on set.

A set decorator takes a script and creates a list of items — furniture, lighting, and artwork, for example — for each set or setting that will be filmed. The decorator also receives direction and a budget from the project’s showrunner, director, and sometimes cinematographer.

The Times interviewed Kalish and three other set decorators – Andrew Baseman (Crazy Rich Asians and Severance), Rae Deslich (Promising Young Woman and the reboot of Supermarket Sweep), and Rosemary Brandenburg (Spider-Man : No Way Home” and “CastAway”) – to learn what it takes to become a set designer and how to break into the industry.

Who becomes a stage designer?

Having grown up in the Midwest, Kalish said she “got ideas all the time about how I could transform my room.”

She went through a Southwestern phase that was all about desert colors and asking her father to sandblast cacti on her windows — and then an all-black phase that included black window treatments and a black bedspread. Her love for textiles, furniture and art led her to attend art school for design.

For the record:

10:03 am Aug 17, 2022A previous version of the article said Brandi Kalish was dating a member of the band Korn. She dated a member of the band’s touring team. It was also stated that the band’s production designer needed a set designer; it was the band’s manager.

In 1999, she was dating a member of Korn’s touring crew, and the band’s manager needed a set designer to help redesign the stage to look like a Gothic church.

Kalish looked up Prophouse under “p” in the phone book and went there with Korn’s credit card. She rented ornate candelabra, carpets, chandeliers and church kneelers.

All of the professionals The Times spoke to agree that a passion for art and the world around you is a necessity.

Deslich said you need a love for physical objects — and arts and crafts.

When they were teenagers, Deslich loved going to the Renaissance market, but didn’t have much money to buy costumes. They realized that chain mail could be made with wire and a lot of patience.

“There’s a connection between someone looking at something and saying, ‘I think I can see how this is done’ and someone looking at a space and seeing that a space is just a combination of all of its elements.” , Deslich said.

It’s about understanding that the world is moving, they said. You can pick up this piece of furniture and rearrange it or remove it from a room altogether if you don’t like it.

Set designers need to be organized too, because whether you’re working on a movie or a TV series, you’ll be juggling multiple sets. Baseman has physical files of each of his sets. The files contain parts lists, reference photos and other documents.

It is also important to be curious and flexible.

The stage set for Crazy Rich Asians took Baseman to Malaysia to learn about Peranakan culture. It was also an opportunity for him to work with a brand new local crew of buyers and assistants instead of his usual prop houses and shops.

“I really relied on them and they found amazing pieces and showed me the lay of the land,” he said.

how do you start

Baseman’s parents were antique dealers, so he was raised with an appreciation for found objects and history. At Carnegie Mellon University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in set and costume design, he began arranging and creating sets, which led to his career on Broadway.

Many of the professionals The Times spoke to went to school — Kalish went to art school and Deslich went to film school because they thought they wanted to be a director, writer or producer — which helped, but they say there are many different ones There are ways, and most importantly, fill in any gaps you may have.

If you haven’t attended film school, read books on film theory, Deslich suggested.

Brandenburg studied acting at Kenyon College in Ohio, but she says it was her real-world experience — exploring museums and historic sites in Europe as a child, traveling with her family on work trips — that influenced much of her early theater stage decoration.

A good resource for learning more about set designers is the Set Decorators Society of America. The guild provides resources, educational opportunities, and networking opportunities with professionals in the field.

What career paths are there?

All of the set designers The Times spoke to said there are many different ways to get into the industry, but the most common involve working as a production assistant, progressing to assistant set editor (and then leading actor being the main editor ) or such a buyer. Either path can lead to becoming an assistant set decorator before you get a chance to lead the team.

Deslich has worked as a production designer but said they found their niche as set designers. “Most of the time I just want to decorate bigger and weirder projects,” Deslich said.

Set designers can also work in different media.

After working with Korn on tour, Kalish began interning with production designer Michael Whetstone (“Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Abbot Elementary”) at Whetstone Designs. She began decorating stages for Britney Spears, Ice Cube and Eminem. Working with the bands led to music videos, which led to commercials and then television and film.

Much like Kalish, after working on Broadway, Baseman received calls to decorate commercial sets and then moved on to television and film sets.

How do you make money?

It’s common to start out as a set designer for non-union productions on microbudgets and work for little or no pay, Deslich said.

Once you gain more experience you can start working on the requirements to join the Affiliated Property Craftspersons IATSE Local 44 union.

To join, Baseman said, the ideal would be to have experience as a production assistant and take courses offered by the union specifically for set designers. You must also take a test.

He said once you make the jump into the union, you’ll get pension and healthcare benefits, and a wage rate negotiated by the union.

Baseman acknowledges that getting into the union takes time, but he encourages newcomers to hang in there.

“Once you’re in, you’re fine, and you’ll keep working,” he said.

Once you gain enough experience, you can negotiate higher salaries than those set in the collective bargaining agreement, Brandenburg said.

How is this career different from 10 or 25 years ago?

High-definition television has changed the way set designers design a scene because viewers can now see every detail, Baseman said.

“I’ve heard stories [about] Soap operas when they were recorded in the ’60s and ’70s, where the resolution was so low that instead of having carpets on the floor, they just painted the floor to look like a carpet,” he said.

That would save the project money. Now you can see “every fiber in the carpet,” Baseman said.

Stage designers also need to consider lighting when creating a specific scene or environment.

Brandenburg said that because digital cameras are very sensitive to light, modern productions have increased the use of “hands-on lighting” techniques. Rather than using a film light from above or off camera, set decorators find desk lamps or hanging fixtures to illuminate the scene.

Set decorators work with the cinematographer and gaffer to ensure they provide the correct light source, Baseman said. Does it have to be a hard lampshade? Is an incandescent lamp or a fluorescent tube better?

Smartphones have also changed the way set designers can research on location. Kalish said she used to carry art books with her, but now she can easily find reference photos online. She can also send photos to a showrunner for feedback.

What advice do professionals hear who are wrong?

When young people start out as production assistants on set, there’s often a misconception that they’re getting to know the actors and becoming friends, says Baseman. That’s not the case.

Baseman never met the stars of “Hocus Pocus 2,” a project he worked on last year.

When the cast arrived to film their scenes, the set was already decorated and Baseman was already working on the next set.

“I’m always focused on the work and I’m always two steps ahead of them,” he said.

Additionally, as newcomers begin working on sets, they will listen to “Just do everything” to gain experience. But always try to work on something close to your goal, Deslich said.

When you’re on set, don’t let yourself be taken advantage of, they said. For example, don’t let a production keep you working 20 hours straight without feeding you or taking care of you.

Don’t be afraid to walk away, they said.

“There’s this perception of, ‘Oh, it’s a small town and you don’t want to burn bridges,'” Deslich said. “But no, it’s actually a very big city.”

What is good advice?

Never stop researching: When she’s not arranging a set, Kalish says she’s always “on a project with herself” — reading books, flipping through magazines, or browsing Tumblr, Instagram, and Pinterest for research.

Kalish will “go to buildings and travel to see places I’ve never seen before, or [revisit] Places because it’s just constant input that I’m collecting in my brain,” she said.

Use references from your own life experience: Baseman said he received a call for a project set in the 1980s. He was a young adult at the time and was able to recall certain items and pieces from those years for his decorative design.

Understand that your view of the world may not be the same as someone else’s: Brandenburg remembers doing a set walk-through through a middle-class house with a director. They had two different ideas of what middle class should be like, and she needed to upgrade the set to match the director’s vision. You have to have an open mind when collaborating with others to create a set, she said.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2022-08-17/explaining-hollywood-how-to-get-a-job-as-a-set-decorator Explaining Hollywood: How to get a job as a set decorator

Sarah Ridley

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