Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Set decorating then vs. set decorating now....opinions

This is a good chance for another rant and rave following the last post.  Once again Rubber Chicken has a comment that prompted another post.  These photos are from a set my crew and I did for a TV show.  It is sort of a den / office / lab set.  It was built on a soundstage and all the walls were constructed, painted and the set pieces shopped for with only a few things rented.  (If you can believe it, they changed the script and this set was never filmed)!  Just like in English class when they used to say "compare and contrast" this set with Higgin's den, for example.  We have now arrived at our topic:  Obsession with detail to the point of distraction or simply, "more is more, not better".  Just my opinions...........

Last year I bought one of the seasons I had done of Magnum--not having seen the show in more than a decade (I know, shocking!)  Once I got past the short shorts, the most surprising thing was the absence of set decoration.  I don't mean empty walls or barren back alleys, but the lack of detail, obsession, and quantity of STUFF.  This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but it did start me thinking.

In the previous post I talked about set differences between Magnum and "LOST" which was as much a difference between eras as the shows themselves.  Going back even further when you watch 50's reruns of shows like "Gunsmoke" or "The Honeymooners", there is practically no set dressing at all.  Magnum looks very "modern" compared to that era.  So obviously there is a trend towards more detail and more realism.

Almost 100 years ago, a New York stage director / producer dismantled an actual tenement room and had it reconstructed on the stage where it shocked audiences with its realism.  Prior to that, sets had been more theatrical or suggestive.  This lead to all sorts of "realistic" attempts even including horse racing on a treadmill onstage before audiences were ready for a more balanced look to their theatrical experience--go to a real race track and watch a real horse race.  The trend towards realism in television has gone in the same direction.  Going from not being able to say "pregnant" 50 years ago to having to have parental controls today.  Did you know there are even standards for how much blood you can show at 7:00 p.m. vs. how much blood you can show at 9:00 on network TV?  Do you ever see anyone smoke on network TV today?  So the look, rules, regulations continue to change but they are still with us today.

In the previous post I discussed the availability of accurate research on the internet.  This has also lead to an obsession to recreate this realism on  television.  Ironically with the MTV style of camera / editing today (with 2 and 3 second shots being normal), you actually see much less of the sets.  Murky backgrounds, shadowy lighting, mostly close-ups, and fast shots define many TV shows today at the same time obsession to detail and accuracy is the trend.  Next time you watch any of the top 10 shows today on TV, see what I mean.  This does not include sitcoms that seldom venture out of their living room or kitchen sets--but you will notice much more clutter in and sometimes over-the-top statements to define their character. For example,  "Roseanne" had the picture of the dogs playing poker in their living room and that old afghan on the sofa as a way of saying "lower middle class" even though I never thought it was appropriate for their characters.

While I've always held that the set should say something about the character even before they enter the set, that seems to have gotten a little out of hand.  Yes, the set should tell a story, but it isn't The Story, it is an environment that should support it, not dominate it.  Wow, chisel that on my tombstone!  Last, but not least, my gripe about period sets.  In your living room in 1975, was everything in that room FROM 1975?  Was everything orange and brown, shag carpeting, swag lamps, chrome frames, and macrame?  So often, particularly in features, as a way of "selling the era," they research the period to death and damn well make sure everything is right!  So you wind up with star-burst clocks and flower power for 60's and pink flamingos and chrome dinette sets for 50's, etc.  Sets are crammed with "iconic" looks from the period, the EXACT period, that they are almost distracting.  Didn't you have anything from the 60's in your living room in the 70's or did you throw everything out every decade and buy new?  Sometimes it is more interesting to see what is IN the room than what is going ON in the room.  Of course, I prefer sets over plot anyway so I have a different experience!

Well, my coffee is out and so is your interest about this time, so I'll close for now.  Still waiting for the slides to come back from India.  Ok, so "Slumdog" won, send the pictures already!




N1095A said...

Hi Rick,
it's so great to see you're keeping up with the blog. A rare insider's glimpse of the mechanics of television production. Am I correct in thinking these photos are from the "LOST" set? I admit that I've never seen the show, but the walls look a lot like the interior shots of Omega Station. Anyway, I'm quite sure that in the days of Magnum, people didn't give much thought to every milimeter of tape being studied for an eternity from the DVDs. Muchless having whole websites dedicated to discussing the shows, flubs and all. A classic example of the period sets you mentioned is "That 70's Show" which it seemed had mostly items from the 70s in the sets. They did however slip in some items from current times. Most notably food wrappers, and paint cans etc. Did the advent of DVDs and internet forums change the way set dressing, and continuity in general are addressed?
Thanks again for the blog.
Mike (N1095A)

rubber chicken said...

Nice post Rick, lots of good things said.

The "MTV style of camera / editing" etc. you mentioned is one reason I don't watch much television anymore. I feel that it controls the way a viewer can experience a show - it's almost aggressive - and it makes me wonder if they're afraid I'd be bored if they didn't use their whole bag of tricks in the attempt to put me into a trance. It could be called the Dictator style of television making.

It's interesting about the real life tenement building being used on stage, that was original thinking. This is somewhat related... just by coincidence, today I saw a Turner Classic Movies documentary called "Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood". Leonard Maltin made the comment that after the Production Code was enforced in 1934, slums for instance were cleaner slums. They weren't nearly as realistic as before 1934. The people in charge of the code didn't want movie-goers to be rolling around in the gutters. Or perhaps thought movie-goers themselves didn't want that, although it had worked pretty well up to that time. Either way, maybe there were set decorators back then complaining that they couldn't make sets the way they wanted to!

Magnum Decorator said...

I guess to some degree what we are somewhat manipulated by what we see, when we see it, and how we see it. I'm not a media conspiracy theorist, but popular trends do dictate much of television. "Popular" as in what the masses do watch which then translates into advertising dollars which ultimately IS commercial television. I know I've said this before, but TV shows really are the filler between commercials. Popularity determines the show's ratings. Ratings determine what the show can charge for commercial advertising time. Advertising income (combined with syndication plus seasonal DVD sales) is why we have television, what we watch and how long the show is runs--13 episodes or 13 years. Just another fact of life.

As far as moral and violence ratings, American television is more violent than European and theirs more "liberal" than American. As the world becomes smaller with our communication abilities, these differences become smaller as well. Historically, attempts to regulate morality, content, or taste, ultimately seem to fail. I don't think it's the end of civilization, it's just that times do change. There is a quote (I can't remember who or exactly what it said) but it was basically about the decline of morality in our children "today." The "today" was something like 400 B.C. in Greece and we are still here and still declining in some opinions. Ok, let's not start going in THAT direction with this blog!

It's a beautiful day here in paradise...........

Aloha, Rick

P.S. Thanks again for the positive comments!

Private Investigator! said...


I've posted once as anonymous but was too lazy to register, until now.

I appreciate your efforts and I also think that more people read this blog than you know. Besides that, people will come to this blog over time, even if you stop posting. So, post to your hearts content and know that it is work that others cherish. At least until you really have reasons of your own to stop.

Until then, please continue to share with so many grasshoppers!

Marco said...

One more thing I love about this blog is the very fine level of detail you go into about the history of your job and which things drive specific decisions in the set dressing etc.

I guess one factor is the better picture quality of today's TV sets for example. Where in first reruns of "Bonanza" for example never noticed the fake walls etc. on the old, smaller TV sets today with digital TV sources and larger screens are very obvious. I think the same is true for "modern" shows where they require a higher level of detail due to the fact we can just "see more" these days.

But Magnum never looks "old" or "cheap" in comparison to other 80s shows IMHO

Magnum Decorator said...

I have to agree. Magnum was a quality show and, while it may be a bit "naive" by today's standards, it does still holdup.

As to the quality of the picture on TV today, I always have to laugh at "feature" decorators who look down on "TV" decorators. Film screens have gotten smaller and TV screens have gotten much bigger.

Wow, thanks Private Investigator for your wonderful comments! (Mom, is that you??)

Anonymous said...

Hi Rick -

In an earlier post, you mentioned that you're going to be selling some Magnum items on Ebay.

Can you please post your Ebay username so I can have Ebay alert me to when you put items up for auction? I'm very interested in your Magnum items.


Magnum Decorator said...

Yes,I do have some things related to the show I hope to list on ebay. Tomorrow is the 10th month anniversary of unemployment so I will be listing soon! What better place to advertise than here on this blog? At least mine will be legitimate and not some monkey pod nut dish that claims to be.

Steven said...

I have to agree with you. No home has all items from just one year or one decade. Homes, real homes, even office buildings, all have items that were made and bought in different years or decades.

It's a shame that set and all the work put into it was not used on the television show. It looks great!