How can my friend get in touch with a movie set designer?
July 21, 2012 3:22 PM   Subscribe

I have a friend who's a mid-career interior designer but is interested in exploring set design for films. He doesn't have a contact, and it's been suggested he get in touch with (via email, presumably) a few set designers he likes, and see if they might advise him as to how they did it and how he might proceed. I looked and saw you can see who did the set design for a given film on IMDB, but as I know very little about the film industry I'm at something of a loss as to how he'd be able to reach those people. Does anyone have any practical advice for how he could find contact info for these people?
posted by supercoollady to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
He could join SDSA.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:51 PM on July 21, 2012

Film and TV designers belong to a few unions, United Scenic Artists Local 829 and/or Art Director's Guild Local 800. They both publish an annual list of members with contact information. Technically, this information is for members' use only but I had a few established designers let be borrow it when I was first starting out after they met me and knew that I would be cool and not spammy about contacting people.

I'm assuming he lives in NY or LA, so one way to meet people is to find them via web site searches. Lots of designers keep their own websites with reels, resumes and contact information. Find movies that shot in his city and start googling names from IMDB. Production designers can be very busy so it might be easier to get an email returned from an Art Director, Set Decorator, Set Designer (a totally different role from what it is in theatre and not quite what it sounds like), Set Dresser, or even Art Department Coordinator. Many of them are aspiring Production Designers and are on their way up.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 3:59 PM on July 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

First things first.

There are two different job titles here. A set designer and a set decorator are two very different things. I'm not sure about Los Angeles, but on the East Coast they are in two separate unions, and there is little or no crossover between the two career paths.

Set Designer is a synonym for Art Director. The art director designs the sets themselves, and oversees things like drafting, construction, scenic artists (AKA set painting and other design effects), and also sometimes concept design and graphics. She is responsible for turning the Production Designer's ideas into concrete reality through physically creating the space of the set.

Set Decorator is a lot more like an interior decorator, though there are quirks involved. The set decorator collaborates with the art director to furnish the sets and add elements like fixtures, appliances, equipment, and the like which will be "dressed" into the set. (Anything not "dressed" but instead carried into the scene by actors is a prop and handled by the prop master.) She also oversees the set dressing department, who are the technicians who physically install all of these design elements into the set.

There's an entire hierarchy of entry and mid-level job titles that one has to progress through in order to become a Set Decorator. It can take decades. It's not something you just "decide to branch out into". There's also a lot of crossover with the prop department, so your friend would have to be prepared to also do props and take the chance that her career might lean more towards props and away from decorating.

Also, though there are some exceptions, this is a full time career that exists totally independently of a life as an interior designer. I've never met anyone in the world of Set Decorating who had a serious interior design business on the side. I've never even met anyone who had formal training/certification as an interior designer -- most people come to it post-college having studied art, design, theatre, art history, or the like.

If your friend doesn't have a contact, it might be really really hard to do this. Especially if "mid-career" means we're talking about someone in their 40's who isn't equipped to quit everything to start over at zero with an art department internship (which is usually the first step here). Maybe if they have a relative in one of the Set Dec unions, it might be worth asking that person to put them in touch with people just because having a union connection will grease the wheels to getting into this line of work. But if they literally don't know a soul in the film industry? They should just keep doing what they're doing, in the career they already have.

I'd say someone who was 28 and had a few acquaintances in the business could reasonably make the transition. Forty-five and really 100% honest to god zero contact with the entertainment industry? Not realistic.
posted by Sara C. at 4:23 PM on July 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

One idea -- if this person does not live in either NY or LA, but does live in a place where films are sometimes made, it's possible that they could call the local Film Office and arrange to shadow someone. Especially if your friend has contacts to local vendors.
posted by Sara C. at 4:30 PM on July 21, 2012

Does anyone have any practical advice for how he could find contact info for these people?

I occasionally rent items from my collections, or create art that can be licensed for a friend who is a Set Decoration Buyer (if the items end up becoming props, then the Property Master gets in touch with me.) To answer the above question, what I would do if I were your friend is to find a movie that's currently filming in his city. In Toronto, for example, we have the Toronto Film and Television Office and on our city's website, it's published. So, say, Robocop is filming here soon and they're in pre-production now. The production office's number is listed. You could then go on IMDB, and find the movie, which would then lead you to various set designers. Then he could ask the production office for the specific person's email contact. Or, looking them up by name would lead to other bios and profiles, like, say, on LinkedIn.

But I'll second Sara C.'s advice above - it is a tough industry, and a tight one. It takes years to move up and through the ranks. Once someone asked my friend if she could shadow for a day to learn about being a buyer, and it wasn't well-received. As it was explained, it's a talent, and it's long, hard work, and it's years of sweat equity and building good relationships and having a great reputation. If you give away your secrets and contacts and tricks, you're not as valuable when it comes time to be hired. Often the designer has preferred people they work with on a team, and assembles them based on previous working relationships and referrals, not purely skill. So the Set Designer may have a preferred Set Decorator, and the Set Decorator has a preferred Buyer, and so on. And, you work on contracts for the length of a movie or series, so if you don't learn how to jump from one to another as they wrap, and do so without judging gaps, you can end up with long periods of unemployment.

This might be helpful in deciding if he's cut out for it:
What kind of training or education prepared you for Set Design?

I have a BA in Theatrical Design and Technical Production. I studied at Lester Polokov’s Studio and Forum of Stage Design in Manhattan after graduation. After completing formal studies, I apprenticed and assisted other established designers.

What a Set Designer's main responsibilities? (sic)

We conceive ideas and solutions to client problems, illustrate these ideas and create budgets After approvals, we oversee the execution of the finished designs and their installation.
What qualities does a person need to have to be successful as a Set Designer?

Here is a quote by Robert Edmund Jones.

A Stage Designer is, in a very real sense, a jack-of-all-trades. He can make blueprints and murals and patterns and light-plots. He can design fireplaces and bodices and bridges and wigs. He understands architecture, but is not an architect: can paint a portrait, but is not a painter: creates costumes, but is not a courturier. Although he is able to call upon any or all of these varied gifts at will, he is not concerned with any one of them to the exclusion of the others, nor is he interested in any one of them for its own sake. These talents are only the tools of his trade. His real calling is something quite different. He is an artist of occasions.

from The Dramatic Imagination

That would be the appropriate answer to this question and highly recommended reading for anyone interested in this profession.

In addition to some general business savvy.
posted by peagood at 5:06 PM on July 21, 2012

Keep in mind, again, that a "set designer" is NOT A DECORATOR and doesn't do anything at all with the usual interior design skill set. At all. It's a totally different set of abilities. (They usually go to grad school for theatrical design, which actually makes it easier to "break in" because it's a specialized skill set and everyone seems to come out of the same few programs.)

Also, set designer is not the usual term in the US (maybe in Canada or Britain?). In the US it's an art director. If your friend decides to make any phone calls to pursue their interest, it's important to get that right.

A big way that film industry folks gate-keep is by listening for the terms people use and what people ask for. When someone calls my office and asks "how to apply for a job", I know they're not serious and disengage as quickly as possible. When someone calls my office and asks me to give them a job as a department head (which, btw, is what you'd be doing if you called a production office and asked to become their set decorator, not that your friend would do that, of course.), I know they're not serious, disengage, and try to wait till I've hung up the phone to start laughing.

Film Offices are probably your friend here more than production offices, however. A lot of jurisdictions have programs to get locals trained and hired on as skilled crew members. They might have specific resources, or at least be willing to make a few calls on your friend's behalf. Which is infinitely preferable to cold calling.

Production offices are in the business of getting their movie made, and that's all. A large proportion of my time in the production office during pre-production is getting rid of cold callers, job applicants, and random wannabes. Don't be one of those people, and you have a better than average chance of at least meeting a few people and finding out how it works.
posted by Sara C. at 5:36 PM on July 21, 2012

Just a quick aside that Robert Edmund Jones's The Dramatic Imagination is a must read if your friend is at all seriously interested in design for theatre or film.

Agreeing with Sara C.: in theatre (I can't speak to film, but I have a bunch of friends in tech theatre), it's all about sweat equity and years of paying your dues doing whatever needs done, well, and quickly without complaint.
posted by smirkette at 5:54 PM on July 21, 2012

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