Tag Archives: set dressing

Categories of Props

Props can be divided into several categories, which may make the realm of props less overwhelming. Because of the diversity of traditions and practices in the hundreds of theaters that put on shows, a props person may not be responsible for some of these categories. This is also not meant to be an exhaustive list of all the duties of a props person, rather it is a list of all the kinds of props (For example, in union houses and many other theatres, the props department is responsible for sweeping the stage. I haven’t added that to this list).

The props in the different categories come from different places. Many of the hand props come from the text, or are requested by the stage manager or director during rehearsals. The set designer is usually asking for the set props, trim and set dressing. Often, actors themselves will ask for certain props, particularly personal props. Let’s look at some of these categories:

Hand – Hand props are any props manipulated by one or more actors on stage. A book, a gun, and a wine glass are all hand props. Hand props can be consumable or perishable prop, which means they need to be replaced every night, such as food which is eaten or a letter which is torn up. We can also look at costume (or personal, or “propstume“) props like purses or belts as a subcategory. These require special consideration with the costume department to determine who is responsible for both providing and paying for them. manual/special effect, practical

Set – Set props include all the furniture on stage, and any other “objects” which are a part of the set. It also includes furniture-like objects, such as rocks which are sat on. The lines between “set” and “props” are the most blurry in this category, as some sets have “built-in” furniture, and more abstract or metaphorical sets have less reference points for determining what is “prop or not”.

Trim – Trim props hang on the walls, like curtains, blinds, or pictures.

Set dressing – The set dressing is the items and objects on the stage which the actor doesn’t handle. The easiest way to think of this is in an apartment set. The floor, walls, doors and windows are the set. The furniture is the set props. All the knick-knacks on the dresser, books on the shelves, and plates in the sink are the set dressing. If an actor picks a set dressing item up, it becomes a hand prop and is treated differently. The set dressing can include practicals, which are electrical props (like lamps, chandeliers, and wall sconces) that actually work. Also included here are rugs, carpets, and other floor coverings. Set dressing is used more to flesh out the characters and setting rather than push the narrative forward. While it is up to the set designer to describe and lay out what the set dressing is, it is often left to the props master to choose and arrange the individual items. Set dressing is an art and a craft of its own, and in some cases (especially in film) can be a person’s exclusive job on a production.

Personal – A personal prop is a prop an actor carries to develop their character. Sometimes these are called for in the script, but often it is the actor who is requesting it. A pipe, a cane, or a fan can are examples. Some actors are notorious for picking a prop or two at the very first rehearsal to play with.

Greens – Whether real or artificial, the props department is oft responsible for plants, leaves, bushes and flowers. Obviously, if the set calls for a life-sized tree to fill the stage, the props department can defer to the scenic department for its construction.

Manual special effects – Bursts of smoke, remote-controlled rats, artificial fires in fireplaces, or any other manual special effect is generally the responsibility of the props department, though depending on the scope or means of achieving said effect, there may certainly be overlap with any number of other departments. Breakaway props may also fall in this category.

Manual sound effects – Though increasingly rare in these days of recorded audio, if a sound effect is generated off-stage by an actor or crew member, the props department is responsible for the apparatus that creates that noise. Older props shops still have the various crash-boxes, thunder sheets, and wind machines that fall under this category. You can see pictures of some of the machines that created stage sounds in one of my previous posts.

Dressing Interior Sets for the Motion Picture Camera

Dressing Interior Sets for the Motion Picture Camera

by E. E. Sheeley(originally published in American Cinematographer, 1923)

The dressing of moving picture sets calls for something more than a pleasing effect to the eye—any interior may be ever so pleasing in itself but its composition may be entirely conflicting when the camera angles are taken into consideration.

Every cinematographer knows how difficult it is to shoot an interior which, though probably beautiful to the eye, presents almost insurmountable obstacles to transfer its appearance to the screen just as beautifully. While an interior may, to all indications, be “tastefully” dressed, it may, on the other hand, involve such a series of clashing factors as to render impossible its being practically photographed.

Should Be Ready for Camera

When the cinematographer sets his camera up on an interior, that interior should be as nearly perfect as possible so that he will not be obliged to waste valuable time in making experiments in the shooting of the action of the characters before it becomes conclusively evident that the entire “dressing” of the set must be altered. If there is any experimenting—and there is plenty of it—to be done in the dressing of an interior, let that experimenting be done before the director calls his players and the cinematographer to the set for the making of the scenes in a production.

It is the duty, then, of he who dresses the interiors to exert every effort that the decoration of such sets be in accord with photographic possibilities rather than work against the camera and the cinematographer. Usually the fulfillment of such duties falls under the jurisdiction of the art director and cinematographers in his department who preside over the technical, the property and similar departments which carry out the actual physical dressing of the interiors.

Study Scenario for “Dressing”

The first step in the dressing is a careful perusal of the scenario so as to determine just what is needed. Here is where the severest difficulties very often arise. It may so happen that the scenario writer may recommend some certain interior construction and dressing, and it may be the case that the scenarist, though a very brilliant person in his line, may possess virtually no technical or architectural training so that the construction he recommends cannot be carried out at all if the interior is to be photographed; in fact, it would be necessary to give a set six walls in many instances in order to carry out the designation of the scenario department. It might be said here that if the scenarist, who does not have technical or architectural knowledge, would take it upon himself to learn as much as he could about the possibilities and the limitations of the camera, about the details which go to dress a set properly, about set construction even if he speaks only to the carpenter on the stage, he would increase his own efficiency immeasurably and prove an even more valuable man to his organization.

Every Step Considered

When the scenario is studied, those who dress the sets consider every step of action that is taken on the interior in question. The furnishings which go into that interior must aid the action as much as possible. Nothing that would obstruct the execution of the action may be used. Camera angles must be kept in mind at all times; nothing should be ordered that would violate the photographic factor in the least.

If the set does not house contemporary action but represents some fixed period, then every care must be made to furnish it correct to the slightest detail. We of course are familiar with the various furnishings and decorations which are in vogue today, so that an interior which calls for them naturally will not prove so hard to dress as an interior whose furnishings are of a period which has become strange to us.

Mathematical Calculations

Then there are all sorts of mathematical calculations to be made concerning the interior, and he who does not have a thorough knowledge of all branches of mathematics at his command will find himself at sea.

Property Houses Enlisted

When a list of objects which are deemed as suitable for the interior are finally drawn up, it is turned over to the “outside” man of the property department — that is, the man whose duty it is to assemble all the articles which are designated on the list. He makes a thorough canvass of all sources of such supplies — at the great property houses which have brought together for motion picture use materials from every part of the world. His duties are of the utmost importance, too, since the actual physical dressing of the set depends on him. He must know what an article’s camera possibilities are for certain uses. He must be able to pick objects correctly the first time so that time is not wasted in returning them to the property houses and exchanging them for others winch should have been selected in the first place. The “outside” or property man has also been given a copy of the script at the very beginning and he also studies it minutely with regard to period, given details, etc.

Effects With Props

Just as effects are to be made by the use of lighting, other effects are accomplished by the placing of objects in the dressing of sets. A picture placed here or an ornament there may eliminate bleakness or break a vacant effect. If great depth is to be shown in a minimum of set space, this may be accomplished by “forcing the perspective,” just as is done in drawing. Every interior must be balanced. Objects must be so planted that they fit in with every point of action that is to happen in the set.

Test of Sets

Before the set is turned over to the director, it is given the acid test within our organization when two cinematographers who comprise a special experiment department set up their cameras on the set in question and pass finally on its “photographic fertility.” If it is found that the set is cinematographically satisfactory, a chart which, with full data, has been especially prepared is turned over to the director who is to use it, pointing out the suggested angles which the experiments and construction have established as the best to shoot from. Of course when it is known which cinematographer is to shoot the set in question the props have been selected to harmonize with his own photographic individuality.

Originally published in American Cinematographer, vol. III, No. 12. March, 1923 (pp. 5-6).

About the Author: E. E. (Elmer) Sheeley was an art director for dozens of films between the 1920s and 1940s, most notably The Wizard of Oz in 1939.


For some productions, the set decoration and dressing can be thought of as an entirely separate area of design. From just a few clues in a script, you need to fill a space with a lifetime’s accumulation of objects. Even the most detailed of set designers will not specify every single item on a stage; for the props person who enjoys dressing a set, choosing these objects is a vital skill.

In the book Art Decoration Applied to Furniture, Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford features a short chapter on bric-a-brac. Rather than explaining how to collect bric-a-brac, she describes how these objects accumulate in a house and what they tell about the occupants. It’s like a perfect primer on set dressing. It was written in 1878, so it’s perfect for plays taking place in that time period; you can also adapt it for more modern plays by substituting “framed sports jersey” with “Moorish weapons”.

It is the bric-a-brac, the curious trifles, the movable ornaments and gewgaws used for filling up the picture, for giving an enhanced brilliancy, and creating interest — the things that “notable housewives” call trash and trumpery—that have about as much to do with the impression a room conveys as the heavier articles and their arrangement do. Indeed, a few moments’ observation in the drawing-room of any family will usually give much information concerning the grade of that family’s culture by nothing more than the character of the bric-a-brac to be seen there.

To be sure, people of moderate means must take their ornaments as they can get them — this an heirloom to be preserved with pride, if not with admiration; that a gift, and to be treated with honor, whether desired or not, although too frequently purchased with reference only to the giver’s eye, and without thought of its future surroundings — so that they are by no means responsible for the whole burden of their bric-a-brac. Yet almost every one can now and then find some small but characteristic treasure within reach, and that single characteristic thing, given due prominence, may be the one righteous individual of a perfect Sodom of worthless baubles. The absence of all trifles, though, is as betraying as the presence of inferior articles is, for if there is any evidence of much free expenditure elsewhere in the room, it is apt to show that articles sought for by the vulgar are in more esteem than those where sometimes one looks for beauty twice before finding it; and yet just as tale-telling is the presence of a multitude of the smaller affairs that have no especial value, for they declare a too eager love of acquisition and a less fastidious taste than full purse. The mere shape of a lamp shows whether people buy what their neighbors buy, or have any individual taste of their own to exercise, or give a thought to the matter of educating what we may call the aesthetic senses.

With the rest, if we have no myrrhine cups or unicorns’ horns, there are the countless things that our travelling friends bring us; there are our card-receivers, our tortoise-shell work-boxes, our brass appliques and candlesticks, our carved coral card-cases, our fans, our hand-screens, our albums between plaques of ivory, our vases of famous shape, even if of commonest blown glass, our lacquered trays and cases, our sandal-wood boxes, our bits of the strange Bombay work, our thousand and one fancy things, grotesque or severe, the tiny Xavajo basket that holds water, the bit of gold-work of Montezuma’s day, the drinking-cup of a chamois’ horn, the little Spanish dagger, whose damascene-work makes one remember the wonderful Moorish weapons with rubies set in their back like drops of blood, the brier-wood pipe that had a new intaglio cut upon it after every battle of the war, and that never will be smoked again — all these babioles can be made to illuminate a room and help its picturesque idea, even if they amount to nothing at all in the eyes of a dealer in bric-a-brac.

From Art Decoration Applied to Furniture, by Harriet Elizabeth Prescott Spofford, 1878 (pp. 224-230)

Set Decorators Society of America

comic by Terry Hart
comic by Terry Hart

I haven’t done any film or television prop work, so I was unaware of them, but the Set Decorators Society of America has quite a handy website. First off, they show off the decor in films which their members have worked on. These are extensive photo-essays showing the sets from these films, often without actors in the way. You can also read interviews with their various members.

They publish many of this in their quarterly magazine. Luckily for you, you can download their back issues in PDF form… for free!

They also have a list of resources for shopping, as well as a healthy list of books to check out. Also, the comic above is by my twin brother; click on it and you can check the rest out!

Retro Decorating

Marco Polo Motel by Curtis Gregory Perry
Marco Polo Motel by Curtis Gregory Perry

In honor of the Mad Men season finale (and since my computer broke and I didn’t have time to write anything lengthy), I thought I’d point out some great mid-century vintage sites I’ve found lately. Of course, Mad Men takes place in the early sixties, and most of what I’ve found is from the 40s and 50s, but it still inspires that period. Additionally, the objects people had in the 50s would still be around in the 60s. With that in mind, here we go:

  • The Retro Planet Museum has a great collection of vending machines, soda coolers, gas pumps, and other items of that ilk with photographs online. They also run the Vintage Vending blog, which has continually updated content about the same.
  • Atomic Addiction is about a couple trying to decorate their house in a completely mid-century fashion. Though somewhat focused on replicas, it also has great resources for researching this era.
  • Retro Renovation is similar in that it is more concerned with using retro inspiration for modern decorating. Still, it points to historical information, and it has great ideas on which vendors offer vintage or vintage-inspired items.