A Day in the Life of an Assistant Set Decorator

Below, former Canadian assistant set decorator/lead man Michael Franklin takes us through a typical day in this movie industry role! He has worked on many Hollywood films including Chicago and Cinderella Man.

Before launching into a normal day (normal in the film industry would be insane in most other businesses) I’d like to take a few lines to describe the narcotic known as movie making or, ‘The Biz’. This love hate addiction can best be summed up like this: “for everyone who wants out, 100 want in.” There’s no business like show business. As a ‘lifer’ in the industry, from TV director/producer to assistant set decorator on Hollywood movies, I’ve been there, done that and actually got many, many ‘T’ shirts – and lots of stories to tell!

With most ’normal’ jobs, say a chef, policeman, dentist, landscaper, most of us have a concept of what that person does professionally. In the business of movie making, unless you are part of the 16 departments that are behind-the-lens members of the crew, few know what a swamper, grip, gaffer, 2nd AD, Key Scenic and many more really do. Even the language we use is generic to The Biz. Commands like, “’86’ that”, “Day for Night”, “Roundy-Roundy”, “Crossing” and hundreds more are all part of on set language that one needs to master in order to survive.

[perfectpullquote align=”full”]After six months in The Biz, you no longer have blood in your veins. You have coffee and lots of it[/perfectpullquote]

So, what does an assistant set decorator/lead man, my job for many years, actually do?  As described, they assist the set decorator, manage the set up and striking of sets, buy or rent set pieces, provide the necessary tools for ‘set dressers’ to perform their tasks, co-ordinate with other departments like transportation to provide a truck and a driver for pick up and return of rental set pieces, review and approve all time sheets, order additional manpower from the union (yes we are unionized), ensure set dressers have proper certification for running large equipment, and most important, provide coffee and lunches for the set dec (set decoration) crew.

After six months in The Biz, you no longer have blood in your veins. You have coffee and lots of it.

A day in the life   

Set dec crew calls normally start at 7am with ‘dressers’ (set dressing manpower) meeting in my office for instructions on what needs to be accomplished on the day. My paperwork needs usually start an hour before that. As an alternate meeting area, our department has what we call a ‘lock up’ best described as a warehouse storage area for set decoration pieces, some tools, installation hardware and a work bench. On large productions like Cinderella Man and Academy Award winner Chicago, we would hire a ‘dresser’ to ‘manage’ the extensive inventory of the set dec lock up. 

Once the crew has their instructions and disperse to the various sets that need decorating, I would return to my office in the main production complex, meet with the set decorator, sets buyer and sometimes the production designer to discuss upcoming requirements and co-ordinate our needs with other departments.

There are 16 creative/technical departments on a normal movie shoot. At any given time in the production schedule, I would need to talk to department heads (known as keys) to co-ordinate set dressing requirements with them. We can’t properly dress a set until after the painters have finished their job and the electricians have rigged the set for lighting. Some of our rentals are quite expensive and need to be handled with care. Instructions given to the pick up crew of driver and set dresser have to be coordinated with the sets buyer, set decorator and myself. On occasion an additional buyer would be needed and I would order that person through the union and then speak with the transportation key asking for a vehicle, usually a minivan, to be provided.

Once all my crew were up and running, the production designer, set decorator and lead man, me, would ‘open’ the set for the director, cinematographer and other shooting keys. Opening the set is a ritual performed mainly for the director in case he wants a change in decoration or because, for the first shot and camera position, some of the set pieces might be in the way of the camera set up. As part of the crew, we have an ‘on set dresser’ whose function is to facilitate needs of the shooting crew, should they require set up changes to be made.

An anecdote featuring Richard Attenborough

As an anecdote, and one of the reasons this business is so addictive, there is a great community of interesting people around you at all times. On the movie, Closing the Ring, the director was Lord Richard Attenborough.  Opening a set one day, all the keys would line up to greet him when he arrived. In my group, the production designer, then the set decorator and then me waited in line to greet this famous man. Shaking everyone’s hand, Richard moved down the line one person at a time. When he came to the set decorator, a lady, Richard gave her a kiss on the cheek. I was next. When Richard feigned kissing me, and being the comedian I am, I said to all the assembled, “I have always thought that someday I would be Kissed by ‘The Lord’ but didn’t expect it would happen so soon.”  The whole crew, including Richard, broke up. Laughter all around. Mission accomplished. That one moment helped make all the 14 hour days, sometimes six days a week, for three months, working with a family of professionals, worth it.

Personally, for me, after that incident, everyone knew I was the sets guy kissed by The Lord. Maybe that was my 15 minutes of fame.

This image, and the image in the header of this page, are from a 1930s period movie, ‘Kit Kitteredge, All American Girl’. Set pics say more than words.
Everything you see is set decoration and set dressing. The linoleum in the kitchen is original. I found it in the USA. Looking at the set pieces, readers will better understand the need for safe pickup and return of all rentals. Check out the practical lights as well. Finding this stuff is part of the exercise.

Page last updated: 09 March 2019

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