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SET DECORATOR: Cherish Magennis Hale

Cherish Magennis Hale has worked in film and TV for over fifteen years, on projects ranging from feature films to well-recognized television series such as "The Affair", "Blood Ties", "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints" and "Believe".

I think the key to a good collaboration between a PD and the decorator is communication. Nothing is going to look 100% if you do not talk. It is very important to have a close bond with the designer you are working with. Having good chemistry is essential. There is either a spark or there isn’t. That spark determines if you will be able to work seamlessly together or not. There is definitely a symbiotic element to the PD and decorator relationship. There is a certain romance that comes with working in this industry. It is vital to develop closeness with the people you work long hours with. You have to know that your partner will have your back and, more than anything, a relationship between a PD and his or her decorator is a partnership. You have to be able to shoot things at each other and problem solve. Often you have to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan together. It has to be a collaboration all the way through. Sometimes a couple of hours together on a shopping trip or thrift store hunting is enough to start a dialogue about a certain set and to get inside designer’s head.


Trust level is something that is very important as well, especially when you are working in the fast paced world of television. Most of the time you are left making the decisions without the PD being physically present and the communication is done via phone and emails. Having access to modern technology has been helpful but it depends on the designer you are working with. A lot of designers still prefer to have tangible things in front of them to make their selections. The designer has to know that he or she can be fully confident that the final product will be delivered accordingly. You also have to have each other’s back and be in each other’s corner in case things do not go according to plan. I always fight my own battles as far as asking production for my crew needs, etc., however if you have a good trusting relationship with your PD they will support you in your demands and help you get what you need to get the job done.  


I would say that an unreasonable demand that can’t be satisfied is the ultimate demise of the relationship between a PD and the decorator.  You have to be clear and be on the same page of what you are trying to achieve from the start of any production. 


Decorators are the unsung heroes of the filmmaking and don’t always get the credit they deserve. It is nice when the designers respect their decorators and give credit where it is due.  It has always bothered me when people say that it is the designer’s vision. At the end it is not just the PD vision that comes to life on screen but a collaborative vision between PD, the decorator, the director and the DP. 

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Diana White has worked as a set decorator in film and TV for over 30 years, on such projects as “Spin City”, “Ugly Betty”, “Clarissa Explains It all” and “Swim Fan”. She was also the president of the East Coast chapter of the Set Decorators Society.

In my opinion the best part about collaborating with a production designer is achieving a positive end result, one that represents the many discussions, presentations & script changes which occurred during the process. Just like a love relationship, at the end of the day the goal is to create something beautiful together in harmony and to find out if you want to continue the partnership to the next project or many more to come. Clarity is the key. But as a decorator you have to determine what that clarity is and that it was achieved during the project. The best that can happen is that the project is a great experience for both the PD and the decorator. The worst that can happen is an unsatisfactory end result. In order to avoid it, the most valuable thing during the collaboration is the time spent together with the designer, something that’s not always easy to achieve given time constraints (especially on low budget productions). You have to be persistent in getting your PD’s attention in order to gain his or her trust. Otherwise you will start butting heads and conflicts will arise. Having a dialog is essential. Everybody’s egos are at a different level. You have to assure the designer that you are providing options without altering their vision.


The best projects happen when you are working with an understanding and sympathetic PD –– a PD who is open to ideas, discussion, and willing to look at alternativ suggestions. You have to be clear with each other from the get-go and emphasize not only what you want to see but also what you feel you should not introduce into the design. 


A presentation that demonstrates your grasp of the PD’s vision while also offering ideas that enhance what they want to achieve is 

always a good start. Sometimes it is double work but is often necessary to achieve the best results. I always enjoyed tossing around ideas as well as questioning the PD about his or her vision, script and character interpretation. Hopefully, the PD is open to reviewing your ideas. I find demonstrating your understanding of said vision through show & tell and including your ideas very helpful. The more visual tools you use the better. Sometimes you literally have to “kill them with pictures” to get your point across.


Shopping with a designer can open many new ideas and discussions. However, it can also add time to the process.  Since they can’t shop with you a whole lot of the time, you will still spend most of your effort interpreting their ideas on your own. I would never turn down an opportunity to spend a day with the PD.  


The kind of budget you are working with also plays a factor in the communication process between PD and the decorator. In low-budget productions there can either be a lack of vision or unrealistic expectations interpreting said vision. These situations often take more time and energy and require alterations that need to be carefully explained and demonstrated.  Often there is no time for backups or options.  You have to be quick on your feet as well as flexible. With the right budget the sky is your limit.

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JoAnne Ling is a New York based Set Decorator and erstwhile Puppeteer who trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, London. Projects include "The Book of Henry", "Freeheld", "The Dinner", and soon to be released "The Seagull".

The beginning of the collaborative process is two people who speak different languages finding themselves on an island. To get anything done, they have to build something new between them, a common tongue. This requires finding things that resonate with both, and through these weaving together a parlance that has a life of its own, something that feels natural and inevitable, and can then be translated into images. 

Things will always get lost in translation. I had a design professor that made everyone draw a giraffe on the first day of class. The truth is, it’s awfully hard to draw a giraffe. The second part of the exercise was revealing our sad attempts, and then breaking into small groups to refine our work and come up with less ridiculous creatures. At this point, it was easier-we were working in groups,so we could pick out the best elements of each drawing and combine them into something less embarrassing. The point was, although we all figure we know what a giraffe looks like, for god sakes, rendering it is a different matter. It would be more accurate to say we know for sure what a giraffe doesn’t look like. Through the somewhat backward process of eliminating the most illogical things and continually winnowing the best bits of our shared work we achieved far better results than anyone’s solo effort.

Given the interdependent nature of our work, it is important to have enough trust in each other to be allowed to get things wrong. Good relationships between decorators and designers allow for a degree of unselfconscious experimentation.  I’ll surely offer some things that are off base. I hope this happens early on, since sometimes these “off’ things lead to new ideas we might not have got to otherwise.The best thing designers can do is welcome these occasions and keep talking.  

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