Setting is an important element of storytelling, especially in a visual medium like film. From an apocalyptic landscape in the distant future to a swingin’ diner in the recent past, setting has the power to draw the viewer in. Setting a good scene requires major attention to detail and a keen eye for balance and composition. Meagan Skerchock graduated from the Film program in 2011. Since then, she’s worked as a Production Assistant and Set Decoration Coordinator on several films, including Lone Survivor, Jersey Boys, Oblivion, and the mini-series Bonnie & Clyde. We caught up with Meagan and asked her a few questions about life in the Set Dressing department.
Full Sail: How did you find yourself working in set decoration?
Meagan Skerchock: For me, getting into set decorating was essentially a happy accident. I started out as an art department PA on Oblivion. After a few months they decided to bring the Los Angeles team out, and I was informed that an Art PA from that team would replace me. Luckily the Lead Decorator, Ron Reiss, was looking for a PA for the Set Dressing department. The Art department coordinator was kind enough to give me a great reference, and I was moved into Set Decoration. I’ve done four productions with Ron and his crew and have worked on two others thanks to his recommendations.
FS: What type of person would be good at this job?
MS: The necessary skill set for set dressing can differ depending on the nature of the job, as well as what position you occupy within the department. For example, as a Set Decoration Coordinator I was more of an office person. I utilized programs like Excel and worked closely with the accounting department to accurately track our budget. Working as a set dresser is a much more hands-on job. It helps immensely if your are mechanically inclined, as a lot of times you’ll be doing things like hanging fixtures or pipe, loading and unloading trucks and moving furniture in or out of sets. Sometimes the decorator will allow the swing gang to “pre-dress” a set, and then he/she will come in and tweak things, essentially fine tuning the work. In this case, creativity and imagination also come into play. Overall, and I think this is true of any job in the film industry, eagerness, a willingness to learn, and personality are the most important skills you can have.
FS: You’ve worked on a few period pieces (Jersey Boys and Bonnie and Clyde) as well as a futuristic action movie (Oblivion). What are some of the challenges you face when dressing a set for a genre film?
MS: I’ve never worked as a Set Decoration Buyer, so I’ve never had the opportunity to buy for a set. However, I have helped source things and look for certain set dressing pieces. It can be challenging to find certain period items, but there are prop houses that specialize in that sort of thing. For example, a lot of our set dressing on Jersey Boys came from a prop house called History for Hire. The people that run this particular prop house have an immense knowledge of their stock, and are always extremely helpful.
As for Oblivion, a lot of the futuristic set dressing was manufactured. This is usually more expensive than renting or buying a pre-existing item. For example, the coffee pot in Jack’s home cost $8529.25. We had a few samples made and ultimately the designer chose his preference. The items that weren’t manufactured were mostly purchased from stores that sell contemporary furniture and décor.
FS: How do you source pieces for set?
MS: For large scale productions such as Jersey Boys, the buyer and decorator will usually make a package deal with a prop house. There’s a lot of haggling that goes on before reaching a dollar amount that includes all the props needed for production. For Bonnie & Clyde, we didn’t have the budget to make a deal like that with any Los Angeles area prop houses, and renting individual items can get pricey, so we purchased a lot of the items. Buying a new product and aging it is cheaper than renting something vintage.
FS: What advice would you give someone looking to break into set decorating?
MS: Being computer savvy is always a good thing, as many of the people I’ve worked with have been in the business for years and are less technologically inclined. Educating yourself about different time periods and furniture styles is always an excellent way to impress any decorator. Finally, reach out to alumni and classmates fro Full Sail—we’re always willing to help and are probably one of the best assets you could have coming straight out of college.
Check out some more of Meagan’s work below.