Isuppose this blog will go on forever if I keep answering questions I've covered before, but each time I'll do it better! "Which show had the more challenging sets" is an answer worth repeating if for no other reason there are now 30 more followers since the last time I answered the question a few months ago.
The era of the 80's with Magnum was more like the Garden of Eden of Resources. First, I was probably the youngest decorator to be doing a top 10 TV show who wasn't related to a major studio executive. Armed with my M.F.A. degree and some years of stage design behind me, I was ready! 5 episodes into season 4 when my boss, The Decorator, was fired--his former assistant decorator walked into the arena to do battle. It wasn't much of a battle then. I met with the directors alone and the division between decorating and art direction was very distinct. The art director talked skeletal bones and I talked flesh and the look. My position was much more independent and my dealings were with the director more than the art director who I would do the courtesy of showing what I was planning would coordinate with his paint and design. (shocking HERESY today!) I would even dare to speak the truth then: "It's not so much about what you want as what I can get here." OMG, today that would be like saying something so horrible I would be banned from the internet and on my way to Guantanamo. So, the position was much more independent and creative back then and my design input more necessary and appreciated.
The Garden of Resources was amazing. Everybody rented set dressing items then. High end looks came from C.S. Wo, middle and lower end looks from The Consignment Center, Asian (then "Oriental") came from Treasures of the East, "old" from Eurasian Antiques, lighting / lamps from Aurora for Lighting, Hawaiian style from Rattan Art Gallery and a quick stop at Woolworth's and I was done with that episode. If that wasn't easy enough, I even had an assistant, a lead man, and a crew besides my personal driver and 5-ton truck driver (the truck weighed 5-tons). Almost as much care was given where to have lunch as many of the sets. Well, all those sources are long gone and C.S. Wo hasn't rented in 20 years and you can't even "buy off the floor."
Fast forward to the era of TODAY with a show like "LOST" (or any other big show) and it is a changed world. Many "big box" stores that replaced more local companies do not have any rental policy. Smaller local stores don't like their stock being off the floor for a week or more at only 15% rental (some charge 25-50%). So much more has to be purchased today rather than rented at a fraction of the cost and returned. That means $1.25 /sq.ft. / month for a warehouse space to store all the purchases since there are fewer rentals. At least "LOST" repeats many of its sets in flashbacks. Yes, the internet has opened up resources to find, purchase and ship, but it is a double edged sword.
The internet has also made research only a click away. In the "Magnum Era," who knew what a basement of a synagogue in China looked like in 1945? And to a certain extent, who cared? We said it was--so it was. Today it is very hard to fake the look of anything. In fact, the research available is overwhelming: is this synagogue conservative or Orthodox, what part of China?, etc. With digital technology, it is possible to analyze sets, props, and set dressing with extreme detail. Corresponding with this technology, there are people who seem to have an amazing amount of time to look at the wrong dates on x-rays and titles on books and post their findings on endless blogs (present company excluded, of course). So the attention to detail from both the set design / decor / props and those who examine this detail and greatly upped the "need" for accuracy. Thus, the creation of the Production Designer.
The role of the Set Decorator has changed since Magnum. Today it is rare that I ever even meet the director, ride in the same van as the director on a scout, or that the director would even know my name. Many times I have stood next to a director opening a set when he thanked the Production Designer for "his" fabulous set which the P.D. had only seen for the first time seconds before. Many times this "anonymous decorator" says "Thank you" and walks away in his anonymity--disgusted. Although it does vary from project to project, many Set Decorators have been reduced to "Head Shopper / Buyers" more than an independent or even co-creative partner. Having to have Production Designer approval on each item before it can be placed on a set (particularly with fewer choices today) is frustrating if not insulting. Ironically, there have been times when the Production Designer "got it wrong" and the set was rejected with much fanfare by a director or producer in front of the whole crew. I am the first to answer "I was just following orders" before quickly trying to rectify the "problem" I did not cause. My favorite story is that the last project I did when the Production Designer turned in the set dressing budget--before I was even hired! Since he was $20,000 short of reality, I was once again the messenger trying not to be shot when I delivered the bad news to the money producer.
So today, Set Decorators have shopper buyers working to please a Production Designer who has art directors overseeing their set construction and set designers / draftspersons designing with additional accuracy, and sets cost much more. I'm not so sure that all of this "more" has resulted in "better." Truthfully, some of the best "sets" on Magnum were just showing the natural beauty of Hawaii. The rest were designed on paper napkins at lunch.
To that end, here are a few photos I shot a couple of hours ago while riding around east Oahu with my visiting sister. The cliffs above Makapu'u are near the "T.C. Helicopter" exterior, and the islands are offshore of "Robin's Nest." And these sets didn't cost a dime.
Oh wait, what was the question again? Oh yeah, well if I could have done "LOST" then and "Magnum" now, I would have been far less challenged! But then Tom would be in his 60's and no one would be wearing short shorts............