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Props for Props

Creating a believable set for film and television is similar to creating believable settings in fiction. It’s all about staging and props. To be honest, I didn’t realize how much time and attention went into building and dressing a set until I took the Universal Studios VIP Tour. Who knew there’s an entire warehouse filled with every type of prop you can imagine? Seriously.

Universal Studios LA props department

The VIP Tour provides an intimate behind-the-scenes view of how they create television and movie magic. An amazing treat, since I love films. But I was surprised that it also gave me insights into how to craft stories with more character and depth. [photos by moi, Universal Studios Hollywood]

Establishing the Setting

Sound Stage 44 on Universal Studios back lot is where the television show, Parenthood, a NBC family dramedy, is filmed. I learned that it took one day, 12 hours for a team of carpenters to build out the entire set.

Set for Parenthood, Universal Studios, LA

The Craftsman bungalow in Parenthood is set in Berkeley, California. The architecture and location establish the mood and tone of a story, as well as setting expectations for the family that lives there. Their morals, values, even their environmental and political beliefs. If it was a ranch house in Texas, we’d project an entirely different set of expectations on the family. When a setting is fully developed it becomes a character in the story, such as the graveyard in Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book”.

Dressing the Set

Dressing a set is the process of making it believable, giving it depth that reflects the characters. The Parenthood set took a skilled set designer six weeks to fully dress. The furniture, draperies, books on the bookshelves, pictures on the walls, and the knickknacks were all chosen to reflect the personalities of the people who inhabit the house. Subliminally, those items convey personality and quirks without having to say a word.

Inside the set of Parenthood, Universal Studios, LA

Props are also used to hint at a plot thread or character trait, such as items that are in a bedroom closet, or on display around the room. In an episode of Glee one character was going to enlist in the service, and the set was dressed with patriotic props.

Patriotic props used in an episode of Glee

In fiction, we’re always told “show, don’t tell”. What they fail to say as often is that “what” we show is just important. Too much detail slows a story down. A smattering of well-chosen detail—describing items that convey character and give their personality depth—moves the story forward while keeping the reader engaged.

Staging and props are a craft focus for me in my current project. So, I guess this post is a reminder to myself more than anything.


How do you approach staging and props in your stories?