Hollywood Jobs
10:05 pm
Wed February 20, 2013

For Film Set Decorators, Tiny Details Count

Originally published on Thu February 21, 2013 1:07 pm

Picture Rick's smoky cafe in Casablanca, Lincoln's office at the White House of the 1860s, or the Mos Eisley cantina on the desert planet of Tatooine: A production designer came up with the overall look of those movie sets. But the booze on Rick's bar or the pens on Lincoln's desk — it took a set decorator and a crew to make them look authentic and believable.

On a recent chilly winter day in the backyard of a pretty picket-fenced house in Los Angeles, one set decorator is making rosebushes bloom again. Karen O'Hara, along with one of her set dressers, is wiring in white and yellow silk roses to add color to the barren flora. It will only be seen behind an actress when filming begins on location the next day. It's for the movie Walk of Shame, starring James Marsden and Elizabeth Banks. (Don't worry, no bushes were harmed in the making of this movie.)

This is nothing, says O'Hara. Once, a cast and crew went on location in Burlington, Vt., traveling to capture the glorious New England fall foliage. But autumn didn't arrive on schedule.

"So what did we do?" O'Hara says. "We flew in fall leaves, and people were way up and wiring those leaves into the trees."

Leaves, roses? Piece of cake! (Sometimes cake's a part of the set, too). Set decorators have many ways to find the objects that make their movies feel real. In particular, they rely on rental facilities like the Warner Brothers Prop House in Burbank, Calif. It has four floors — each the size of a football field. It's like walking through the furniture department of the biggest department store you've ever seen.

There's hospital and medical equipment (and dummy dead bodies) in the basement. On the upper floors there's contemporary furniture, antiques, chandeliers, draperies, flags, artwork, statues, kitchen and bath stuff — you name it, they have it.

"Everything you see on TV and film," says manager and former set decorator Robert Greenfield, "we have at least one of them."

Tagging And Dragging, To Build A Sense Of Identity

Lauri Gaffin is the set decorator for an upcoming film about artificial intelligence starring Johnny Depp. She's scouting today for an iron bed, a big flag, a couch and other items on her list. She has to fill 85 sets for this film, including rooms in a house.

"Each piece in the house represents who [the characters] are," says Gaffin. "What do they collect, what kind of food do they eat? That's not all written in the script; we create that. So you have to interpret it by communicating with the director and production designer, what their vision is."

Gaffin spies her favorite chair.

"I've used this chair in every movie I've ever done," she says. She lists some of them — the first two Iron Man films, The Pursuit of Happyness. It's an easily recognizable Eames lounge chair with brown leather cushions and molded plywood.

"People see it and they understand what it is — a comfortable, lived in, loved chair," Gaffin says. She slaps a claim tag on it before someone else does. In the business, this ritual is called "Tag and Drag."

Gaffin has brought part of her team with her, including the lead man, Anthony Carlino. He's not the star of the film; the "lead man" works under the set decorator and hires set dressers, the folks who schlep and put together all the stuff on the set. The lead man also figures out the logistics of getting everything onto the set.

Say a decorator picks out a huge desk, but the elevator on location in an old building is only 4 feet wide. "A lot of times," says Carlino, "we'll rent cranes or big lifts that we can actually bring it from outside and put it through a window."

But what if the characters are Nordic gods and you have to create a banquet scene with a 30-foot-long table? Gaffin met that challenge in the 2011 film Thor. She and fellow set decorator Florence Fellman (who's also working with Gaffin on this latest film) were looking for carving utensils for the gods.

They had to be big and shaped like reindeer bones. It was Christmastime, and Target was offering just what they needed at very inexpensive prices: foot-long faux carving sets.

"So we bought that for all our gods and goddesses," Fellman says. The banquet scene was very brief, and the audience would certainly be unaware of all the detail that went into the set. But according to Fellman, "Our job on the movie is creating a history that the audience can perceive in just a few seconds."

Sometimes, objects have to be made for a film by Hollywood's many artisans. Some of these pieces are housed and protected at the Paramount Studios Archives in Hollywood. There's a faux Russian nuclear launch device and a telephone from Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, along with various items from the Transformers films, including an 8-inch cube made to look metallic — it's really a wooden box — and patterned with wavy lines and mysterious symbols. It's called the AllSpark Cube, introduced in Transformers (2007) as the key to the robot alien civilization.

"Some people call it the MacGuffin of the movie, which means the thing that drives the plot," says Rosemary Brandenburg, the set decorator on that film, who is now returning to work on the new Transformers, starring Mark Wahlberg.

A little movie factoid: The AllSpark Cube was technically a prop in the first Transformers, because an actor actually touched and even ran with it. Brandenburg thinks the cube might make a reappearance in Transformers 4 as set decoration. It's too early to tell. But archivist Randall Thropp says that unfortunately, she can't take the AllSpark and use it in the film.

"That is the only cube we have, right here," Thropp says. It resides in a glass showcase.

Brandenburg can borrow the cube and make copies, though. "A movie set is a pretty dangerous place for things," she says. "We have to repair things constantly. Our special-effects brothers and sisters are running around blowing things up, and our stunt brothers and sisters, too."

Brandenburg often has to make multiple copies of items because of all those blowups.

On Set With The Swing Gang, Getting Ready For 'Action'

Once the sets are complete and shooting begins, the set decorator keeps a watchful eye. In between takes, things might need adjustment.

On the set of a small indie film in a house in North Hollywood, the set decorating crew springs into action. A picture needs hanging, items need to be switched around.

These set dressers are also known as the swing gang. The term comes from the old days when filming schedules were much shorter. The only time to change sets over or prepare them would be on the opposite shift, or swing shift. But the job remains the same — they're the heavy lifters, riggers and gaffers.

This film, The Paper Boat, follows various characters making their way through Hollywood. It has a set decorating budget of a mere $25,000, compared with Rosemary Brandenburg's budget of over $1 million.

But some of the same tricks apply. Jeffrey Sun, lead man on this film, describes how a simple ashtray was prepared as set decoration — something that will barely be seen on camera.

"We sprinkle a little ash on top and put the cigarette butts in, and then we crumple them up a little at the tip so they look like they were just put out," Sun says.

Set decorated just so, director, writer and producer Los Angeles Barea (yes, that's her real name; she's from Spain) is ready to roll: "Ac-sion!"

The audio guy hovers over his control board. The cameraman peers through his lens. Set decorator and crew back off into corners. And the action begins. This basic sequence has been the backbone of moviemaking since the beginning. And the goal of the set decorator, always, is to have the movie star (and her audience) really believe it when she walks into a room.

"The truth is, a lot of what we do is creating surround for the actors," Brandenburg says. "I take that very seriously — making sure the actors feel like they can help build their characters out of what I provide."

The 'Hollywood Jobs' series is produced by Cindy Carpien and the NPR Multimedia team.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Think of some famous movie backdrops, like Rick's smoky cafe in "Casablanca" or "Lincoln"'s cluttered White House office. A production designer came up with the overall look of those movie sets. But the details, like the booze on Rick's bar or the ink well on Lincoln's desk, required a set decorator to make them look just right.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg begins her annual series at Oscar time on Hollywood jobs.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In the backyard of a pretty picket-fenced house in Los Angeles one chilly winter day, barren rose bushes start bursting with blooms.

KAREN O'HARA: White and yellow.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This will work.

O'HARA: Perfect.

STAMBERG: Set decorator Karen O'Hara and a helper wire silk roses onto the thorny branches.

O'HARA: Give me just one more, huh?

STAMBERG: This miracle in gardening is for the romantic comedy "Walk of Shame," with James Marsden and Elizabeth Banks. They'll shoot at this house the next day and everything has to be snip-shape.

As a set decorator carrying out the designer's vision, O'Hara can change the seasons at the whim of a script. One autumn, on location in Vermont to capture the glorious foliage, fall was late in coming.

O'HARA: So guess what? We flew in fall leaves and people were way up and wiring those leaves to the trees.

STAMBERG: Leaves, roses - piece of cake. Sometimes that's part of the set too. Set decorators usually start off at one of the big L.A. rental facilities, like the property department at Warner Brothers. It's vast.

(SOUNDBITE OF A PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM)

STAMBERG: This is like walking through the furniture department of the biggest department store you ever saw and a lot of it has been really used.

Almost a quarter-million square feet, four floors. The dead bodies are in the basement with other medical stuff - gurneys, operating tables. There are miles of chandeliers, bedspreads, drapes, flags, everything you'd need to fill a movie set.

LAURI GAFFIN: So for the main character I think we have to look for the iron bed.

STAMBERG: Decorator Lauri Gaffin has to create 85 different sets for an upcoming film about artificial intelligence. Johnny Depp will star. Lauri's budget: $1.4 million. With her at Warner's today, Anthony Carlino, her lead man.

Does that mean you're the star of the film?

ANTHONY CARLINO: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CARLINO: I work underneath the decorator and I hire all the set dressers.

STAMBERG: The dressers have a nifty title too: Swing Gang . They're the heavy lifters - riggers, gaffers, who physically put the set together. As lead man, Anthony Carlino also figures out how to get everything onto the set. Say a decorator picks out a huge desk but the elevator on location is too small.

CARLINO: So a lot of times, you know, we'll rent cranes or big lifts that we actually have to bring it from outside and put it through a window.

STAMBERG: This is Anthony Carlino's lucky day. Lauri picks a fairly portable lounge chair and slaps a claim tag on it before someone else does.

Wherever a movie scene is set - "Iron Man"'s sleek house, some honeymooner's fixer-upper - Lauri has to, well, set the scene.

GAFFIN: Each piece that's in the house would be something that represents who they are. What do they collect? What kind of food do they eat? That's not all written in the script. We create that.

STAMBERG: OK. But what if you have to create sets for Nordic gods. Lauri Gaffin and her assistant, Florence Fellman, met that challenge in the 2011 film "Thor."

GAFFIN: We had to do this giant banquet. Now, do these guys eat and what do they eat? They're big guys, you know. Is it like a leg of lamb or...

FLORENCE FELLMAN: The table was...

CARLINO: Thirty feet long.

GAFFIN: So how do you dress a banquet for a 30-foot-long table of Nordic gods. So we were looking for silverware - not silverware, but like...

FELLMAN: Carving pieces.

GAFFIN: Carving pieces.

FELLMAN: Reindeer handles, a big carving knife, and a big carving fork. It was Christmastime and we found out that Target was offering faux carving sets at a very inexpensive price. So we bought that for all our gods and goddesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THOR")

STAMBERG: Sometimes set decorators need to have objects made for a film by Hollywood's many artisans. At the Paramount Studios Archives, set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg came in to see one such item.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Right there in front of you in a little glass showcase.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMBERG: It's one of those sacred movie objects created for the first "Transformers" film.

ROSEMARY BRANDENBURG: The Allspark Cube.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

STAMBERG: It's gorgeous, beautiful. It's a fabulous sculpture. An eight-inch lightweight cube, patterned with wavy lines and mysterious symbols, it was the treasure the good alien robots were hunting for to destroy the enemy and save the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRANSFORMERS")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The code. The code on these glasses indicates the Allspark is 230 miles from here.

STAMBERG: The Allspark Cube was technically a prop in "Transformers 1." An actor actually touched it. Rosemary thinks the cube might make a re-appearance in "Transformers 4" as just set decoration. It's too soon to tell. But Paramount archivist Randall Thropp says she can't use this one in the new film.

RANDALL THROPP: That's the only cube we have, is that cube right here.

STAMBERG: So Rosemary will borrow it and make copies. She'll have a million-or-so dollar budget, so could make lots of copies.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, guys. So we're ready to roll...

STAMBERG: New location, new set decorating crew. They're working on an indie called "The Paper Boat." The decoration budget here is 25,000 bucks. "Paper Boat" is shooting this day in a small house in North Hollywood, not the chicest section of Tinsel Town.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, can you guys move a little bit this couch, please?

STAMBERG: The swing gang, or set dressers - a few semi-brawny young fellows - inch the couch over a bit. They hang a mirror, place an ashtray. Lead man Jeffrey Sun says it's been staged for the shoot.

JEFFREY SUN: These cigarettes in the ashtray - we sprinkle a little ash on top, put the cigarette butts in. And then we kind of crumple them up a little at the tip so it looks like they were just put out.

STAMBERG: Everything just so. Director, writer and producer Los Angeles Barea - yes, that's her real name - is ready to roll.

LOS ANGELES BAREA: Action.

STAMBERG: Set decorator and crew back off into corners. The audio guy hovers over his control board. The cameraman peers through his lens. This basic sequence has been the backbone of movie-making since the beginning. And the goal of the set decorator, always, is to have the movie star, maybe Bette Davis, delivering her most famous line, really believe it, when she walks into a room and declares...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEYOND THE FOREST")

BETTE DAVIS: (as Rosa Moline) What a dump.

STAMBERG: In Movieland, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Love that music. You can tour the Warner Brothers' prop house at NPR.org. The series continues tomorrow with a publicist who's been working with Steven Spielberg.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.