I recently watched some episodes of the original seasons of both "Perry Mason" and "Superman." What struck me most was what passed for credible sets back in the 1950's on television. I've seen high school plays with better sets than "Superman" and even "Perry Mason" re-used sets week after week and just changed the sign out in front or the drapes inside. It's what was acceptable back then on the smaller, "snowy" screens with the "rabbit ears" antenna. Just getting decent reception in the days before cable was about all you could hope for. Oh, and maybe an occasional plot.
Before I praise myself about my sets, the 1985 set photos I am showing from this top 10 TV show would get me fired today in 2008! The design with flat, uniform colors, no aging or character from the art department is bad enough, but the set decorating is about as thin as you can get! Compared to what we see today on "E.R." or other shows, this looks pretty amateur--yet it was good enough in 1985 for Magnum. In my defense, L.A. actually now has real hospitals that have closed because of mergers or lack of earthquake upgrades but are available for rent by film and TV production companies. When I worked in L.A., I could "do" a hospital set by doing..........nothing! There is also a company (actually more than 1 now) that rents anything from an MRI machine to 1930's operating tables. In Honolulu it is always a challenge to create a hospital room outside of a real hospital. So this is a "state of the art" hospital set built on the soundstage in 1985.
I guess the moral of this post is that our tastes and standards have gone up considerably as our sophistication, awareness, and size and quality of our TV screens have increased as well.
Side Story Ramblings:
This reminds me of a standard in Hollywood. I was naive enough to think that when I finally got into the Hollywood Set Decorators union, that I was now "available" to do films and television--or anything! Wrong. As has been explained to me: First there are the BIG feature Set Decorators who do "Batman" and "Pirates" and "007." That's all they do. They have no life and live out of hotel rooms in exotic locations. Then there are decorators who do regular films. Even they have to be careful not to do too many of one type or they get pigeonholed as only doing comedies, or slasher films or period movies. Then we make the jump from the big screen to Television. Or as some would have it, the jump from heaven to earth. My favorite Hollywood line was from a decorator I was working for in a more lowly position. She actually said to me when I spoke, "Do I need to know you?" How can you be upset over that?!
Moving on down the line are MOW (Movie of the Week) or mini-series decorators, cable shows, network shows, 3 camera soap operas, video, etc. From the charwoman up through the footman to the head butler for sure. The argument with feature decorators vs. TV is that their screen is so much bigger and the detail is so much more important, etc. I always laugh at that and say if I had your time (often a month for 1 or 2 sets) and your budget (hundreds of thousands and up) and crew (dozens), I could do bigger and more detail, too! The final irony of it all is that film screens have gotten smaller and smaller over the years and television (especially HDTV) has gotten bigger and better. Unfortunately old stereotypes and egos die hard. I've had the opportunity to work with some wonderful, talented decorators who understood that I was there to make us all look good so please don't think that everyone doesn't need to know me! The Hollywood union does not allow you to work in any other capacity than your single craft. By also being a member of the Hawaii union, we are allowed to work in 3 different areas so it is possible for me to be a Production Designer, Set Decorator, or Swing Gang here. I figure you can always learn something from everyone--even if it's how NOT to do something! Ok, go collect your prize at the door and thanks for reading! Aloha