The set dresser on a movie is responsible for making the location of every scene look convincing. This may sound easy, but in the magical (i.e. fake) world of movies, this can mean turning a dilapidated warehouse into a swinging 1960s nightclub, or a sunny California bungalow into a “snow”-covered French cottage. One of the set dresser’s primary responsibilities is to select the props that will decorate every scene. If it’s a period film, it’s especially important to be historically accurate, often down to the year that any given product came on the market. (Found a great vintage coffee pot that came out in 1965, but your movie takes place in 1964? Dump it–or face the online wrath of eagle-eyed movie-goers everywhere.)
Before any props are purchased, the set dresser will first often do research on the period and location in which the movie takes place. He or she will also confer with the director and others in the art department to understand the visual style and look of the film. It’s important that set dressers have an eye for style and design, as they will be selecting many of the objects that decorate the world of the film. (Because of this, it’s extremely important that the set dresser can keep to the budget.) Once the movie starts shooting, the set dresser will actually “dress” each set, placing the props in the right places. If there are any highly valuable props that have been borrowed, such an antiques or expensive jewelry, the set dresser is responsible for obtaining security to ensure they don’t get snagged.
In an interview with New England Film.com, professional film set dresser Helen Rasmussen discussed her experiences in the business. Rasmussen never attended film school, but instead got a graphic design degree from the Maine College of Art. Like so many in the movie business, she started out as an assistant and gradually worked her way up to set dresser, working on films including Message in a Bottle and The Last Samurai.
Rasmussen’s first job was through a word-of-mouth recommendation, and she emphasizes the importance of networking in the highly insular movie industry. “”Once you have been involved in a production, even as an assistant, stay in touch with the people you directly worked with,” she advises aspiring film professionals.”Find out if they know of upcoming projects and let them know you are interested in more work.”
As Rasmussen is well-aware, becoming a set dresser, like pretty much every other job in the film industry, often comes down to who you know. Those who are patient enough to start at the bottom and work their way up–making and maintaining valuable connections along the way–have the opportunity to build a career and becoming a successful set dresser.