Understanding the role of the Set Decorator and the Set Decoration positions, responsibilities, and hierarchy on any film or television project is very important before starting in the entertainment industry in the field of Production Design. If you plan on working with ‘Set Dec’ as the department is most commonly referred to or within the Art Department in general, you should familiarise yourself with the flow of this department and how the department collaborates within their team.
What do Set Decorators do?
A Set Decorator visually interprets the personality of a film or television show from script to screen through set decor. Set Decorators carefully decipher the psychology and taste of the characters which allow them to select, procure, fabricate, layer, mix, and match furniture, curtains, carpets, artwork, wallpaper, and other items that may denote character and/or plot while they also factor in the schedule and other practical considerations like stunts and visual effects, for example.
Working above the Set Decorator in the filmmaking hierarchy is the Production Designer who begins collaborating with the Director, and Director of Photography to decide the overall look and vision of a project from the very beginning. Set Decorators then work in very close partnership with the Production Designer to help achieve that vision physically through furnishings and set decor. This does not include the structure or architecture of each set.
While Set Decorators do not function independently it is important to note that the Set Decoration Department as a whole is an independent entity with great creative and pragmatic responsibilities. So what exactly does Set Dec do and how does the Set Decorator filter duties and responsibilities through the Set Decoration Department to fulfill the vision for each set?
The Shape of Water (2017) Academy Award Winners for Best Production Design | From Left to Right: Set Decorator, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Production Designer, Paul D. Austerberry, Set Decorator, Shane Vieau
How does the Set Decoration department function?
Set Decoration is the department that works for and with the Set Decorator. The Set Dec team gets the job done on the ground– sourcing, creating, and procuring furnishings and dressings as well as skillfully placing and arranging them on set amongst many other duties well before the shooting crew arrives. The team seamlessly works together while simultaneously collaborating with many other departments. We’ll go into each position in more detail below, but first we have a few notes.
The job roles and hierarchy listed below are weighted more heavily towards the North American standards found on many union (and sometimes non-union) film and television productions on various budgets from big to small. We will discuss the UK system in a future post which differs from the North American standard Set Decoration Department.
On many music videos, commercials, and low budget independent films there is no separate Set Decoration department. These projects are structured differently with the various Set Dec, Art, Props, Greens, Construction, and Scenic teams folding into one department which is also affectionately known as the Art Department. This distinction often brings about confusion to those entering the industry.
It is of significant note I mention that in this text, as described above and below– the positions, responsibilities, and even hierarchy may differ slightly or greatly by project, budget, region, and/or union. This text is not prescriptive and should not be read as the be all end all of running the Set Decoration Department. Instead we aim to give you a rough idea of how Set Decoration is structured and the various responsibilities that help get each set completed in an orderly fashion.
So with those caveats, here is how it roughly breaks down.Set Decoration Roles, Responsibilities, and Hierarchy in Film & Television Click To Tweet
Set Decoration Department Roles in Film and Television
The Irishman (2019) | Production Designer: Bob Shaw, Set Decorator: Regina Graves
The Set Decorator, as the head of the Set Decoration department, is responsible to the Production Designer, or the Art Director (HOD), the Director, the Producer, and the Production Manager.
This creative is in charge of the decoration, coordination, and realization of the dressing of all decor, the procurement or fabrication of any and all set 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 approved 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 the shooting crew arrives or 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.
Big Little Lies (2017), Int. Celeste’s House Mood Board and Final Set | Production Designer: John Paino, Set Decorator: Amy Wells
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, as well as the Production Designer in some cases, 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 Umbrella Academy (2019) Int. Great Hall- Living Room | Production Designer: Mark Worthington & Mark Steel, Set Decorator: Jim Lambie
The On-Set Dresser is responsible to the Set Decorator, Production Designer, Director, Director of Photography and in some cases, the Property 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
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/s to the Set Decoration Department- the Set Dec Driver. 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. This is not the most popular option.
How would you describe the roles within the Set Decoration Department? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments below so that we can continue to make this post as useful and informative as possible as we continue to edit this post.