Set Dressings and Props
Both add interest to the story and character(s) and may include subtle clues about who they are, and they may even include symbolic references about the plot and/or how the character may tie into the conflict(s). The production designer, who manages the entire art department, the department responsible for the design, building and decorating of the sets, is the individual responsible for the entire set(s), including the props. (Sometimes production designers may even manage the hair/ makeup department.)
When you think of set dressings, think of curtains, rugs, pictures, furniture, lamps, knickknacks, etc. The set decorator and/ or their assistants are the individuals on the set who actually place the smallest details, making the set look as realistic as possible. (With small budget productions, it’s usually the art director and/ or production designer who’ll be setting this up.)
If the set is a dirty apartment inhabited by filthy people, set dressings may include dirty laundry, trash on the floor, piles of dirty dishes, crumbs, cigarette butts, carpet stains, etc. The main objective of set dressing is the importance of creating the character through the space in which they inhabit.
For instance, a doctor’s place obviously will be decorated drastically different from a college student’s, all the way down to the knickknacks, books and even the dust on the shelves. How one decorates and cleans their space tells a lot about who they are, and this takes a great art director and set dresser to make the character’s environment(s) appear as realistic as possible.
You’ve most likely seen films and television shows begin with the camera panning across a character’s possessions, such as pictures, diplomas, piano, trophies, etc. Instantaneously, this helps the audience distinguish who the character is or was, even before the audience actually meets him or her.
Props are most notably something written in the script and/or the actual item the actor/ actress touches and/ or uses; however because the line between what differentiates a prop from a set dressing may sometimes be blurred, it’s simpler to distinguish a prop as something that actually is needed and is somehow related to the action of the plot. Props can be anything, from guns, coffee mugs, cigarettes, paper, computer, etc.–anything a character handles or uses. Even a character’s car may be distinguished as a prop, particularly if they are always driving it or seen with it (aka picture car). Food the talent eats is even considered a prop.
Considering product placement, name-brand products and logos have often taken the place of certain props written in original screenplays. In Final Destination 2 (2003), the On-Ramp Lady at the beginning has a bag filled with a well known brand of orange soda cans; however, in the original screenplay it’s written in as a bag of oranges.
Although it’s the production designer’s role to oversee the spending in this area, it’s the property master’s job on the set to make sure these props are present, in place, and that there is enough for back up in case something is damaged or lost. A script supervisor (aka continuity supervisor) works with the prop master to make sure props stay in continuity between shots.
For instance, if a character blows out a candle at the end of a scene and the candle is a certain length in that shot, the script supervisor must observe continuity differences in the candle length during and between each shot. If it is a drastic change in length, it will need to be replaced to stay consistent, especially if there are any close ups where the candle length will be obvious.