Thursday, September 21, 2023
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Voice Of The Crew - Since 2002

Los Angeles, California

HomeCraftsArt Dept.: Buying/renting/borrowing props

Art Dept.: Buying/renting/borrowing props


Every prop in on a film, TV show or commercial has arrived via a relationship between the production designer, the set decorator, and their extensive knowledge of prop outlets: professional rental houses, retail stores, and private collections.
Production designers, in particular, have a somewhat alchemical task. They must take the ideas of an artist or, in the case of TV commercials, an ad agency art director, and render them in reality—in props and sets—always on a deadline, always on a budget.
“Basically we are making choices,” says production designer David Max, “and the set decorators make choices even before we make choices.”
The first step in the process, says Max, is to come up with a general concept, based on storyboards. For commercials, the boards come from the advertising agency, which has sold the client on the execution of the concept. The boards are then sent to various directors, who make modifications, and from those boards the agency selects a director that’s right for the project. Then the director hires the production designer, who often spends days looking through reference material trying to find examples that match what is in the director’s head.
Max then puts his decorators to work. “I’ll hire a team of decorators, a main decorator, and some auxiliary decorators who specialize in fabrics or furniture—many different things—and we send the decorators out in every direction, to every prop house there is.”
A recent Nissan commercial Max worked on shows a car crashing through a window into a furnished room. The client had specified they wanted a red couch in a white environment. Max put three decorators on the job, who photographed every red couch that was rentable in L.A. Receiving the photographs from the decorator, Max and the director then convened and made choices.
The artistry of production designers is obvious—they are interpreters of a director’s vision, which, though described and rendered graphically, is never realized until the actual settings and props have been selected.
Yet the set decorator’s job also deals with exercising the aesthetic within the project’s limits of time and budget.
Art director and set decorator Patricia Garrity’s extensive database of prop resources reflects her 15 years’ experience working on features, commercials and music videos. “Jobs are different for me in terms of how much I’ll be determining the aesthetic,” she says. “There are times when the agency or designer will have specific pieces of research that are a jumping-off point. My job is to either produce that, which I do by knowing what’s in town, or to feel out what the germ of the idea is, and say okay, outside of the box, what if we went this way, does that capture the essence of what you’re trying to do?”
An important aspect of her work is a good cooperation with the designer. According to Garrity, open communication and the exchange of ideas determines the symbiotic relationship. “If the designer is a really hierarchical person, things won’t go as well as with a more open person with a more cooperative style of working. The interaction between all the people on the crew equals the sum total of what you get. It doesn’t mean that no one is piloting the ship, but it does mean that everybody’s combined energies and experience can really produce something magnificent.”
Though prop houses have begun to list their inventories on the Internet, Garrity maintains that no sort of cataloguing can replace finding props in person. “Decorating a set or designing a set is not a video game. Let’s say you have a coffee table or end table that looks nice with a certain sofa. Well, they might be of really bad proportion to each other, and the end table might be higher than the sofa arm when you get it all to the same place, because you didn’t see it in person and you don’t know.”
Professional rental houses maintain vast collections of vintage pieces and unique one-off prototypes from furniture lines that were never mass-manufactured. Some such houses hold licenses on reproductions of notable historic pieces, and even design and build their own furniture. Garrity has established relationships with all the professional rental houses, yet also has amassed an index of retail stores and private individual collectors whose wares are useful to the prop-hunter. If the relationship between the decorator and the prop renter is close enough and trusting, insurance and even rental fees can be temporarily waived to meet last-minute production needs.
Despite her own resources, she acknowledges the important role of her colleagues from the film community. “The really good decorators and designers know where things are, and if they don’t know, then they have enough connections to find out how to get to them. You check in with your colleagues to find sources for rare things like African textiles. We all network like crazy. So you don’t just have access to your own sources, but the sources of everybody in town! I never understood people who don’t want to share sources. That’s not how I’m wired.”

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