Regina Graves: Decorating the Blockbuster Films
By King Williams, @iamkingwilliams
Department: Set Decorator
Position: Set Decoration
“What is a Set Decorator”? A Set Decorator is the person charged with the ‘dressing’ of movie/television set. The ‘dressing’ can include anything from the furnishings, wallpapers, small items, and any other items not used directly by actors (props).
Also worth noting:
Notable Projects: The Smurfs (2011), Step Up 3D (2010), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), Melinda and Melinda (2004), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Pollock (2000), Coyote Ugly (2000)
For More on Regina: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0336340/
One of the really great things about movies is how much depth and detail is involved in ANY movie you see. From the initial idea to scriptwriting to production and post-production, there are so many aspects of a film that must be fully developed. So before we start, there is something we must go over. We’ll go over briefly the relationship of the Art Department, Property Department and Set Decoration.
The art department on any major motion picture typically has 3 sub-departments:
Art Department: They design the sets, graphics, paint come up with other artistic schemes; etc.
Property Department: They handle of the props, which are items that the actor(s) interact with in the film
Set Decoration: This the group that fills in the blanks of a set after it has been designed, built, painted and props created.
Step Up 3D (2010) Clip: A great example of how all 3 departments work together
It’s the Set Decoration department that is many times the unaccredited hero in crafting some of the most memorable scenes and sequences in film. If you’ve ever seen a movie where something seemed so fluid and immersive to the world of the story, chances are it was a set dresser there to bridge the gap. So with that said, it’s a pleasure to have Regina Graves as the first woman in the Free Film University series.
I met Regina last year when she was the Set Decorator for the upcoming 20th Century Fox film, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)’ starring Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig of Bridesmaids/Saturday Night Live fame. And every time I’ve seen her, she’s been the same fun, easygoing person each time. The great thing about Regina, she’s so approachable and really a people person, considering her job requires so much contact with dozens of people each and every day.
So the opportunity to pick her brain on a few things was a treat.
King Williams: How did you get your start in the industry?
Regina Graves: I went to school for Interior Design at the New York School of Interior Design, hoping to one day have my own design firm. When I graduated, couldn’t find a job in my field and landed a job at Eclectic Encore, which is one of the biggest prop houses in New York that supplies furniture to the entertainment industry.
I loved it there, I met many production designers, art directors and set decorators from everywhere: TV, film, print and theater. I experienced first hand what it was like to do what they do and I realized then that I wanted to become a set decorator. I worked there for about 5 years and I then left and started doing non-union film work. Took my union exam a couple of years later and things started happening from there.
KW: Could you explain what a ‘Set Decorator’ is?
RG: A set decorator is in charge of the set dressing on the movie/television set. Which includes all the furnishings, the light fixtures, the wallpaper, fabrics, art, hardware and all other dressing you will see within the film. We work closely with the production designer and director to make sure the look and aesthetics of the film are portrayed the way it’s envisioned.
We create a “life” or personality for the characters; layering the sets to help bring characters to life. Giving a certain atmosphere or a certain sense of period to a place.
The Smurfs (2011)
KW: How does a person actually get into Set Decoration? The Art Department?
RG: I am going to answer this together…I think there are many ways for people to get into their respected fields. Some start out as production assistants (pa’s) in the art and set decorating departments. Some start out at prop houses, as I did and try to learn the business that way. Some start cold turkey on non-union films and get experience on set.
I would say if you are just coming out of school, look for non-union jobs and production assistant (pa) work. Set decorating is not just about going out and buying pretty things; you have deadlines, budgets. You have to run a crew: be a good organizer, researcher, problem solver as well as a GOOD LISTENER and a TEAM player.
I really advise anyone who wants to go into the set-decorating field to have some background in design and art. Knowing the period styles of furniture, types of rugs, knowledge of artists etc., it will only help your career.
KW: When & how did you transition from Art Department to Set Decoration
RG: Well, I think what you mean by this is how my credits are listed on IMDB. When I first got into the union (Local 52) I was usually hired as a ” set dresser”. Someone who dresses the set under the direction of the leadman, set decorator and production designer. I then became a buyer and eventually an assistant set decorator.
You could say that I worked my way up in the business. It took a couple of years and I made the transition pretty quickly. I think starting at the bottom and working all aspects in my field helped me in becoming the decorator I am today. I understand what it’s like to dress a set, I know what its like to “shop” and to “assist” decorators. I still enjoy dressing sets and shopping for other decorators and do it when I’m not decorating my own jobs.
Step Up 3D (2010)
KW: In doing “Step Up 3D” or “The Smurfs” did you have any particular challenges you had with designing a 3D film?
RG: “Step Up 3D (2010)’” was the first 3D film shot in New York City, so it was very exciting. Especially exciting to see the different cameras on set and watching the monitors through our 3D glasses. For “Step Up 3D”, I remember the designer wanted to build up a sense of ‘reveal’ and ‘things coming at you’ into most of our sets.
We would make sure we built depth into most of our spaces, placing furniture and interesting objects in the foreground, most of the time this was done ‘to camera’.
As far as “The Smurfs (2011)”, the only challenge we had was that we had to be careful using the color blue… for obvious reasons.
KW: What was your experience on ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ like?
Well, I was only on the New York end of it. They only shot here for 2 1/2 weeks but we prepped for 3 weeks before that. Working with the late J. Michael Riva for that short time will be something I’ll always remember as well as working with David Klassen, the L.A. art director.
We only did the exterior New York shots here, which included lots of garbage, smoke stacks, lighting and debris but it was an “amazing” experience nonetheless, being part of such a big production.
Legendary Director Woody Allen
KW: What has your experience been like working on a few Woody Allen films? Which one was your favorite to work on?
RG: Working on Woody Allen films for me is like working with family and I’ve worked on so many now it’s like second nature. I really enjoy working with Santo Loquasto, knowing what he and Woody like in terms of color palettes, styles of furniture, lighting, etc; what works and doesn’t work for them…I was so happy that Woody finally came back to New York to do part of his last film “Blue Jasmine” here this past summer.
Woody Allen & actress Kate Blanchette on the set of ‘Blue Jasmine (2013)’
KW: Which one was your favorite Woody Allen film to work on?
RG: My favorite one to work on was probably "Hollywood Ending". It was my first Woody Allen film as head set decorator. It was pretty cool because it was a contemporary film with period elements built into it.
Hollywood Ending (2002) Trailer
KW: Well on that note, what’s been the work that’s given you the most pride seeing?
RG: The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (2009)…as one of my good friends said to me, “It’s babies first blockbuster”. It was my first big studio job, it was a very challenging job; I learned so much on that film. It was hard as hell but puts a smile on my face every time I see it or think about it.
The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (2009) Trailer
I also am very proud of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)". It is a very “stylized” film; it has a certain look and was unlike anything I have ever worked on. It was a fun challenge and great experience overall to work with someone so talented and “FULL of ideas” like production designer Jeff Mann. The look he wanted was achieved and everyone was very happy in the end, including myself and I’m very excited to see the finished product.
KW: Is there any project or director/actor that you’ve wanted to but haven’t done or worked with yet?
I’ve been very lucky so far working with great directors but I would LOVE to work with Tim Burton and Pedro Almodovar. As far as actors, I don’t get star struck but I would love to work with Johnny Depp and Daniel Day Lewis.
KW: What advice do you have for those indie filmmakers or college students designing sets?
I would advise them to stick to their guns. Perseverance goes a long way in the movie industry. Reach out to others in their field.
KW: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into the industry and do what you do?
RG: My best advice is to make sure you love doing what you do, it’s a tough job, but it has many rewards. Hands on experiences are always best, make sure you do the best job you can do, taking everything in you learn and network. In our business doing a great job goes a long way. People will always remember you and recommend you to other people in our field.
Learn all aspects of our industry, not just what we do in the art and set decorating departments. Make sure you know what everyone else does on a film crew. From the producer all the way to the craft service department.
Regina & her father
King Williams @iamkingwilliams, is a filmmaker, writer and generally cool guy to know. His first documentary film The Atlanta Way:A Documentary on Gentrification and novel of the same name will be released this fall. In addition to this blog he also is a contributing writer for Mixtape Magazine and is re-launching his review blog the ‘140 Character Movie Review’ this spring.