Desk ornaments, family photos, and other knickknacks are not haphazardly strewn about a set; a crew of artists carefully designs the atmosphere of each space an actor occupies on screen before filming begins. The on-set dresser is charged with implementing that design during filming, and is supervised by the set decorator and lead dresser.
On film and television productions, the on-set dresser is responsible for the continuity of placement of props and set decoration—everything from tableware to tricorders. With that job comes the task of cleaning and maintaining these pieces, and of policing the set to ensure that props are not lost or damaged and don’t walk away in the pocket of a entrepreneurial production assistant looking to subsidize his salary on eBay. Watering plants and floral arrangements is also required; but only on set, not in the talent’s trailer. This person is also responsible for the department’s tools and hardware, as well as properly packing items for travel.
Continuity is a major concern for the on-set dresser. Working with the script supervisor, this person takes digital photos (or Polaroids) of each set to ensure that the decor stays the same from one scene to the next and resets props as needed after each shot. Detailed logs are kept listing every item used, its position, and any notes on distressing and movement that should occur through the progression of the shots. Depending on the production, the inventory of props and dressings may number in the hundreds or thousands. It takes a highly organized individual to keep track of it all and perfectly replicate a design plot to the smallest detail.
Skills & Education
No particular educational background is required, but studying art, film/TV production, or theater is helpful. Knowledge of interior design is a boon, whether you gain it through coursework or glean it from magazines and online; when the decorator tells you to set the table with the Franciscan Starburst, not the Fiestaware, you’d better know which is which. Attention to detail, the ability to think fast on your feet, and creative problem-solving are crucial. You should be handy with a drill and be able to exploit all 7,000 ways to defy gravity with gaff tape and fishing line. Experience in stagecraft, carpentry, and sewing are also valuable. You are expected to understand light, color, and how these elements affect different camera lenses, so courses in photography are encouraged. Most important is following directions and being reliable.
What to Expect
On production sets, shots rarely go exactly as planned. You could show up one morning prepared for an interior shot in the kitchen, then find out the director wants to move outside for the pool scene—that’s life. You’ve got to be flexible and organized enough to quickly pack up and make the switch. On location, weather and environment play a huge role in a dresser’s job. Photographing day for night, winter for autumn, and in artificially created (or real) rain provide unique challenges; the best advice is to be resourceful and prepared for anything. Work as a production assistant or in any area of the art department will position you in the right place with the right people to land a future gig as an on-set dresser. If you can prove you are diligent and trustworthy, you may find opportunities to progress to roles as a lead dresser, set buyer, or assistant set decorator.
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