How to Become a Set Dresser

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Photo Source: “Elvis” Courtesy Warner Bros.

Whether it’s the decorative rug in “The Big Lebowski” or the stained glass peacock panels in “Elvis,” set dressings are a vital part of movie magic. Here’s everything you need to know about what being a set dresser entails, its place in the crew hierarchy, and how to get started in the field.

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What is a set dresser?

The set dresser is responsible for arranging the decor of a film set—which includes furniture, pictures, and props the actors do not touch—to produce the right tone and visual environment. They create a “lived-in” quality for every scene by preparing, gathering, and transporting an assortment of props, items, materials, and furniture for the set, all in accordance with the visions of the production designer and set decorator

For example, veteran set dresser Monica Martin Bell and the rest of the art department created the carpeting, wallpaper, and furniture that gave horror film “Malignant” its creepy gothic vibe. The set dresser helps make the world of the film feel convincing to the audience and can adjust the look of a location to suit the tone of the project. 

“Usually we come into a room that we empty out, and then we start to put in the carpeting, the paintings, the sofas, the ashtrays, the cigarette butts, the newspapers, and everything else that makes it look like what it’s supposed to be,” explained John Lister (“13 Reasons Why,” “The Matrix”). “I like it because you have more input into the movie—you’re actually doing something that usually shows up on the screen.”

What does a set dresser do?

Poor Things

“Poor Things” Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures

Research: Working under the supervision of the production designer and set decorator, the set dresser is responsible for reading the script, conducting extensive research on all the settings and locations, and conversing often with the director and others in the art department to lock down desired visuals.

Select and track decor: The set dresser assesses the appropriate items within the confines of the budget. They’re in charge of storing and placing dressings, performing maintenance and repairs, and keeping track of the inventory.

Set up and supervise set dressing: After handling the placement of everything before the cameras roll, it’s the job of the set dresser to supervise the props and decorations during principal photography, moving them around to accommodate the lighting and camera crews, making sure they’re in their proper locations according to the script, and keeping track of continuity. 

Take down the set: At the end of shooting, the set dresser helps return any rented props and performs inventory cleanup and organization.

Where does the set dresser fit within the crew?

The set dresser is a part of the art department that reports directly to the set decorator, production designer, and/or lead dresser but is also guided by members of the art, set decoration, and prop teams. The set dresser’s No. 1 mission is to help bring the director’s vision to the screen, and they accomplish this one table, chair, and lamp at a time.

Set dressers vs. set decorators

The set decorator heads the set decoration department and is in charge of creating the set design. Under the set decorator’s guidance, the set dresser helps bring that vision to life by locating and shopping for materials; storing and placing materials; and helping supervise the rest of the department. Depending on project size and scope, the set decoration department might consist of one person, or it can consist of set decorators and their assistants; the on-set dresser; and multiple other set dressers, assistants, and drivers.

How much does a set dresser make?

Like many in the entertainment industry, set dressers get paid per project, meaning their earnings can vary greatly. According to ZipRecruiter, the average set dresser salary is just under $44,000 per year.

Set dressers are represented by IATSE 44, which sets standard wages on union productions. According to the 2023–24 rate sheet, set dressers on union productions must make at least $25.86/hour and can make up to $35.25/hour, depending on rank and tier.

Requirements to become a set dresser

Set dresser hanging shelves

pundapanda/Shutterstock

Attention to detail: A set dresser must have strong attention to detail and a great visual eye. The work of a set dresser is often overlooked—and yet if the audience doesn’t see anything that sticks out in the background of a scene, it’s generally a good thing because it means they’re fully immersed in the world that the set dresser helped create.

Research skills: A knack for research, history, and different settings is vital to creating authentic set design. Set dressers “do an enormous amount of visual research,” according to set dresser-designer Rachel Hauck. “Even if we’re going to fully abstract it, I want to know exactly what it is I’m abstracting.”

Flexibility: The job can consist of long days, overnight shoots, and changing goalposts. “Nothing is ever the same,” set decorator Brandi Kalish (“Dead to Me”) said of decorating and dressing sets. “And I think people get drawn to the set decoration department because of that. All of my crew, they’re all artists in some way, shape, or form, and they’re all creative and just such kind, hard-working people. It’s a really special place if you love furniture, decor, and art and want to be in film.” 

Industry knowledge: It’s helpful to have a list of thrift stores, antique shops, and prop houses at the ready, as well as the ability to track things down, multitask, work quickly, and collaborate with a variety of people (and departments). As with any on-set job, knowledge of the production process is extremely helpful.

How to get set dresser jobs

1. Study: A formal education isn’t required, but those with degrees in film production, theatrical design, interior design, or a related field will be at an advantage once they start working.

2. Start as a PA: Most set dressers start as production assistants and work their way up.

3. Take on art/props roles: Many set dressers take various roles within the art and props department (as an art department assistant, for instance). “I can’t say [that I had] an immediate inspiration to dress sets,” said film set dresser Helen Rasmussen (“The Last Samurai”). “There was a progression from work in theater and commercial photography. Finding the perfect rug or lamp, or making a flower arrangement for a shot, my expansion of practical and creative skills, and [the knowledge] of the tools needed to make something look a certain way for the camera: all of this got me more interested in how that happens in film.”

4. Start dressing sets: “You must work to get yourself hired for each project,” says Rasmussen. My first job was a word-of-mouth recommendation. In my experience, the film business progresses in this way: You begin as an assistant in any department—hopefully one that interests you—and see how the process works. Then, you work hard and are reliable, and people remember. They remember even more if you are not reliable.”

5. Continue growing: It’s common for a set dresser to advance to the job of a leadman and then a set decorator before becoming a production designer.