Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What is a Set Decorator?

This always puzzles people.  Sometimes I'm called a "Set Director."  That sounds more important, I guess, but the title really is Set Decorator.  Back then, it was pretty much just a Set Decorator and an Art Director who designed and created the look all of the sets.  I used to describe it as "flesh and bones."  The basic location, construction, set walls, paint, architectural detail (molding, trim, doors, etc.) or "bones" were the domain of the Art Director.  The furnishings from garbage bags, crates, boxes as well as furniture, lighting fixtures, books, rugs, drapes, personal items not touched by the actors were the "flesh" and the domain of the Set Decorator.  Of course we would discuss the style and look, but I was considered a department head and I would personally meet with the director and discuss the possibilities of what it was the director wanted.  Because Hawaii doesn't have any prop rental places, it was my responsibility to find all of these items (preferably rented) for each episode. Sometimes this included trying to talk the Director or Art Director out of what they had asked for because I knew it didn't exist here.   There was seldom the time or the money to bring something in from Los Angeles.  

 Because there were no breaks between the episodes, I was constantly prepping the next episode while dressing and shooting the current one and wrapping the previous one.  I was allowed an assistant. I had what was called a Lead Man who coordinated pick-ups and returns and ran the crew who are called Swing Gang.  These people were not listed in the credits (although they are in feature films).  A funny item was that most of the Magnum sets were designed on a paper napkin at lunch or maybe just a piece of paper when Lou Montejano was the Art Director.  Kenny Sato, construction coordinator, was so used to those drawings that he could build a whole set from them.  Later, Archie Bacon did actual drawings and included more detail, but certainly nothing like the pages and pages of floorplans and elevations that are used today.

Most of the directors really knew what they were doing, what they wanted, and stuck to it.  We had one director who was always changing his mind or rejecting things.  In those days the director seldom saw the set we had prepared before he walked in to shoot it.  I would be there to "open the set" and show him around.  I can say "him" since I don't think we ever had a woman director.  This problem director would complain about something like a bedspread and say he couldn't possibly shoot that scene and then go back to his trailer to rest.  It was later explained to me that he had a hangover and needed to rest.  I eventually got wise to him and when he would reject something, I would have 2 or 3 more waiting.  I always doubled my budget when he directed.  One of the best ever directors was the famous child actor Jackie Cooper--what a pro!  His episodes were always wonderful to work on.  Each director would do usually 3 episodes per season.  I think we still did 22 or 23 new episodes each season.  Another favorite director was Russ Mayberry.  You could trust him on a scout when he said "I will only see from here to there" and meant it.  When most directors said "from here to there" you had to do it all or they would complain that we hadn't done our job.  In this business it is rare for someone to say "Thanks, you did a great set."  Mostly the only thanks you get is that you weren't fired that day!

Well, that's what my job was and how it worked back then.  Tom, even when he became an Executive Producer, seldom interfered with us or the sets.  He trusted us to do our job as he did his own.  Aloha

1 comment:

Judy said...

Rick, I am so thrilled to have found this blog. I have always been interested in set design, especially Magnum PI, and specifically the guesthouse. I would love to hear details down to the last nail! I would love to hear about construction, furnishings, everything!
I would also like to know how the real guest house looked inside and how you modified it for the transition scenes where the characters entered or exited the guesthouse. How was the "porch" constructed on the set as you would catch glimpses of the "outside" as a character left the inside of the guesthouse? How did you simulate daylight outside the windows? If you are able to post I will have more questions I'm sure. And so you know where I am coming from, my profession is architecture.
Hope you have pictures to post. I am so excited because I have been trying to locate someone like you for years, you would not believe all of the avenues I have tried.
Thanks in advance!