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Film Set Dresser
Career Overview: Set Dressers work on film sets to arrange set dressing items such as pictures and furniture before the camera. They may be responsible for the pickup, transport, and all organization of set dressing items to and from set. This job is essential in bringing a set to life.
General Salary Range: $50,000 to $122,000
Become a Film Set Dresser
As a Set Dresser you can anticipate being one of the first people on set. Set Dressers arrange, pick up, and transport all pictures, furniture, and other set items that an Actor does not touch. This is a job for people who like a fast-paced gig and always being on their toes. Set Dresser Alex Gabel says, “your typical day starts a bit before call time, which varies by day and is when the 1st Assistant Director calls everyone “in” and you begin the day’s work. As the saying goes, “if you’re not early, you’re late.”
Gabel also says the job is an interesting mix of both the creative and mundane: “Your job is to maintain the vision of the project as realized by the Art Department and your Set Decoration Team while actual filming is going on. This can range from simply reinstating furniture that had to be moved for a camera or a light, to finding out how something could be made to look better based on how the shot lines up. You will fix things that break, move a lot of lamps and furniture, discuss better options for what winds up in the shot, even source things that didn’t previously exist when the powers that be change their minds.”
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Alex Gabel has been working steadily as a Set Dresser for years, working his way up to larger productions. As per many fields in the business, he agrees there’s not a typical journey to getting to where you want to go: “On Set Dressers are a bit of an odd one out, a bit of a satellite to all the other positions they interact with. There’s no clear “next position” for an On Set, but I think a lot of us wind up in upper positions within the Set Decoration Department, such as Leadmen or Set Decorators. Given the on set nature of the job, Props is another logical step but often we do one or the other depending on the show,” he states.
Education & Training
As with many on set positions, Gabel stresses getting your hands dirty on set as soon as you can. “The amount of terminology and just general sense of timing that goes with being on a working set is best learned by being there.”
Gabel also stresses saying yes to all opportunties and putting yourself out there any way you can: “I would say getting on as many shoots as possible, whatever they may be, is the best start. Craigslist, Mandy.com, whatever: any position you can fill at first. It pays to learn what everyone on set does. Initially, you will be learning what not to do, in a lot of cases, but along with that comes with a sense of ‘now I understand why they do it this way.’ It takes some trial and error, to be sure.”
Experience & Skills
Loving and knowing how to use a wide variety of tools along with great social skills are the best tricks of the trade for being a Set Dresser. Gabel stresses getting to know the crew immediately around you is extremely important: “Doing set dressing with the core crew of Dressers is important, I think. Since you’re there representing theirs and the Art Department’s vision, it’s good to have an appreciation for that job. Because any sort of problem under the sun could arise on set, you have to be creative every day.”
This is also a job where woodshop pays off. In fact, go ahead and invest in that tool belt. Gabel agrees: “Obviously knowing how to use all manner of tools is important, but that goes hand in hand with a knowledge of the space you’re in. You also can’t really learn any technical skills while you’re on set; if there’s any particular skill or task you didn’t come into this career with, you’re generally going to learn it from your fellow Dressers. Anyone can learn every type of fancy tape and hanging device there is, but it’s best to learn it in a way that benefits your job.”
A Set Dresser must undoubtedly love people as you interact with all types every day. Being tactful helps as well. Gabel reiterated these skills are essential: “Since you are the go to for so many departments, you have to be an open, diplomatic person to do well, while enjoying it. If you’re not prepared to hear four wildly different requests at once and be able to set about them it’s going to be a long, hard road.”
Set Dressers work under the supervision of the Set Decorator and Production Designer. As with many other set jobs, twelve hour days are typically the norm for a Set Dresser. Overnight shoots are also the norm. You absolutely have to love set life to love this job. Gabel stresses you often have to plan around shoots: “Just like everything else, a typical week can vary wildly. I would say in television, most commonly you’re beginning around 6 am on Monday, working 12 hour days so that by Friday you’re actually getting done in the early hours of Saturday. This is to make sure there’s enough time between wrap and the next day’s call time for the crew, but also to accommodate shots that have to be done at night. Sometimes you head into work at 6 pm a few days in a row, sometimes you’re off Friday at noon. As such, you don’t end up planning much during the week, but pack in a lot on the weekends. Often the time I deal with most life stuff is during shooting hiatuses or in the breaks between shows.”
Gabel says you have to be ready to start your on set life as a Production Assistant and work your way up. Getting into the Art Department as quickly as possible is key: “I’d say find the Art Department and Set Decoration Team on a show you can get on, express interest, and see if they can bring you on sometime in any capacity. If not them, then the next one. They likely will not be able to either, so then it’s gotta be the next one after that, and so on. Tell your friends in production you’re interested. Tell everyone. It’s a numbers game and all about networking; sometimes the right person just has to remember you exist.”
Gabel states that wages vary widely for Set Dressers but a very good living can be had as you work your way up. “We get paid by the hour, and it changes by project but that’s why being in a union is so important. Your wages and resources change dramatically. Working on a non-union indie film you could be working six days a week, for 14 hours a day, for $150. Hourly wages on a union show get higher as you go into overtime and then past 12, so you’re actually looking at a liveable wage then. I think most Set Dressers who work year-round are pulling in six figures.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Gabel loves his union and says getting involved is an important step for all Set Dressers: “IATSE Local 44. That’s the union for all the Set Dressers, Leadmen, Set Decorators, etc. It’s a very large union, but we recently just had an election and there’s been a renewed sense of activity and participation from the younger base. There are a number of Facebook groups but nothing beats heading to a meeting and seeing everyone face to face.” Gabel says to check out the following groups, especially if you are just starting out: TV/Film Crew Availability and I Need Art Department.
- Be available.
- Oh yeah, be really available.
- Be open and interested and reiterate your interest to all your friends in production.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Being present and willing to learn. You learn something on every show.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“That probably differs greatly person to person, but probably a misconception of how quickly you may get results and the expectation that at a certain point, every job will begin to look similar and function the same.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“How much does your job differ from others and how important are those differences in practice? The answer to both is greatly.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Showing up is 80% of life.”
Alex Gabel grew up in Denver, Colorado, went to school in Boulder and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film in 2009. Since then he has worked on a variety of television, indie and studio films. He lives in Atwater with his wife, enjoys archery, RPGs, the mountains and still loves going to the movies.