Understanding the set decoration roles and hierarchy led by the set decorator on any film or television project is very important before starting in the film industry if you plan on working with or within the art department or set decoration department, more commonly referred to as ‘set dec.’
What do set decorators do?
Set decorators help interpret the script in collaboration with the production designer, director of photography, and director who work above them within the hierarchy. Set decorators do not function independently. However, the set decoration department is an independent entity.
How does the set decoration department function?
The job roles and hierarchy listed below are the North American standards that you will find in most union (and sometimes non-union) production offices and film sets on small, medium, and large scale budgets.
However, on many music videos, commercials, and micro-budget independent films, there is no separate set decoration department. On these projects, the various set dec, art, props, greens, construction, and scenic teams fold into one department- the art department. This distinction often brings about confusion to those entering the industry. We will discuss this at length in a future post as well as the various structures of the art department and set decoration roles within the UK and Europe.
The roles described at length below may differ slightly by project, budget, region and union, but it should give you a rough idea of how the set dec department is structured and the various set decoration responsibilities.
Set Decoration Department Roles in Film and Television
The set decorator, as the head of the department, is responsible to the production designer, the art director, the producer, and the production manager.
They are in charge of the coordination and realization of the dressing of all decor, the procurement of all dressings, as well as the storage, movement, preparation and placement of all dressings within all studio and location sets. The maintenance, replacement and listing of all dressing inventory are also under their purview.
The set decorator also monitors the dispersal of the assigned set decorating budget, delegates work to the set decoration team as necessary for the efficient operation of the department and completes each decorated set, camera ready, before and as required of the production schedule.
ASSISTANT SET DECORATOR
The assistant set decorator is responsible to the set decorator and may, in the absence of the set decorator, assume all responsibilities of that position.
According to the instructions of the set decorator, the assistant is required to assist the set decorator in the research, purchase, rental, leasing, and acquisition of all items and materials used as set decor.
They also assist in the organization and delegation of the run sheets and wrap binder, the storage, movement, placement, and preparation of all dressings within all studio and location sets, in addition to the maintenance, replacement, and listing of set dressing inventory.
Note: Not all film and television production centres in North America function with this role. It is largely at the discretion of the set decorator whether they require an assistant set decorator.
SET DEC BUYER
The set dec buyer is responsible to the set decorator first and foremost, as well as the assistant set decorator when it applies. Under supervision and approvals of the set decorator, the set dec buyer purchases, rents or acquires items to use as decor for each studio and location set. They may also be responsible for the organization and delegation of the run sheets and wrap binder in the absence of an assistant set decorator.
The set dec buyer is a critical position that requires vast knowledge of furniture and dressings throughout history and geography. The set dec buyer is also expected to know the landscape of the city they work in and to create working relationships with their stores, vendors, and appropriate rental houses.
The set dec buyer must also liaise with the lead dresser/s to make sure all items are picked up and transported to set for each set dress.
On most shows with multiple set dec buyers, the set decorator divvies up the sets and assigns each buyer a specific set. Each set then becomes the responsibility of one buyer which keeps things organized.
When multiple buyers are procuring for the same set, the set decorator often assigns each buyer a specific item/s or area of the set to alleviate any overlap. However, the overlap may still occur so the set dec buyers must stay in contact and communicate with one another so that there is less potential for this to happen.
The lead dresser is responsible to the set decorator or in the absence of the set decorator, the assistant set decorator or set dec buyer.
The duties of the lead dresser are to oversee and maintain the standards of the set decoration department in the dressing and wrapping of sets and to carry out tasks as assigned by the decorator or their assistant set decorator or set dec buyer.
The lead dresser is an experienced and well-trained dresser who helps dress the set while supervising and delegating the workflow to the set dressers and daily set dressers to accommodate scheduling. They also ensure the proper tools and materials are available to the set dressing crew to complete their assigned tasks.
On many shows with multiple lead dressers, the set decorator divvies up the sets and assigns each lead dresser a certain number of sets. Each set is the sole responsibility of one lead dresser which helps keep things organized.
The on-set dresser is responsible to the set decorator and props master for on-set continuity of set dressing and the placement and replacement of all set dressing on set.
Duties include but are not limited to:
- Set decoration and dressing continuity.
- Care, safety and cleaning of all set dressing pieces.
- Cleaning or dirtying of on-camera surfaces (in many cases).
- Placement and replacement of all set dressing as per the set decorator, property master,
script supervisor and camera department.
- Clear knowledge of camera lenses so that they can anticipate the shot before camera is ready to shoot.
- Policing of the set to prevent damage and continuity gaffes to all set dressing.
- Care and watering of all indoor plants and floral arrangements.
The on-set dresser is also responsible for a full tool and hardware kit, flat dolly, truck dolly, furniture moving blankets, packing material, cleaning kit, ladders, smartphone, and photo camera.
The set dresser is responsible to the set decorator, but their superior is more aptly the lead dresser. In the absence of the set decorator or lead dresser, or if otherwise required, the set dresser is responsible to the assistant set decorator or set dec buyer.
According to their instructions, the set dresser may assist in: the safe and efficient pick-up and return of all items and materials used as set decor; the storage, movement, placement and preparation of all dressings within each studio or location set assigned as well as the maintenance, replacement, and listing of inventory. The set dresser should be able to perform these tasks without direct supervision once instructions are given.
SET DEC DRIVER
It is important to note that in most film unions the transportation department (teamsters) are in charge of picking up and transporting set dressings to and from the set, not the set decoration department.
They do so with an allocated driver to the department- the set dec driver. However, a set dresser is usually required to function as a ‘swamper‘ to help load and unload the truck as well as fill out the run sheets correctly and drop them back off with the set decoration department in the production office.
In unions where the transportation department does not provide a set dec driver or another driver, the set decoration department employs set dressers to drive the set dec trucks.
I hope you found this useful. How would you describe the roles within the set decoration department? Am I missing anything? This post is a continuous work in progress and will be updated frequently.
I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below so that we can continue to make this post as informative as possible.