Noticing Every Little Detail of NYC Streets by Charlene Wang

I’m currently working on “In the Heights” and since the film and musical is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s love letter to his neighborhood Washington Heights, a lot of exterior shots are filming on location in the actual neighborhood this summer.

We are doing many street scenes, which then means we are doing lots of exterior street sets, so I have spent a lot of time studying and noticing details of the streets of Washington Heights.

Doing things like taking photos of street vendors to capture little details that make them unique to their neighborhood (yesterday I was in Jackson Heights in Queens and marveling at how the street vendors had similar set-ups as the vendors in Washington Heights but totally different merchandise), studying photos of what kind of trash cans and fire hydrants are on each corner and etc.

Here’s what I can tell you I have learned about each:

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Trash Cans: NYC has at least 5 different types of official trash cans in circulation and the green mesh wire one that is the most common has been in circulation since at least 1930. Some blocks literally have different types of trash cans on each corner.

(old style)

(old style)

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Fire Hydrants: They are REALLY expensive (new ones are $1,800 +) and REALLY heavy (over 300 lbs). The city only buys the new style now but you will notice the old style one all over the city still.

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Street Vendors: in 2019, vendors seem to universally embrace the folding table with grid wire rack attached on top as the way to display items. There’s a lot of variation beyond this, but I will say that’s pretty consistent all around the city.

Subway Globe Lights: I know there’s a whole thing about different colors mean different things that are mostly lost on us regular subway riders. But I really thought the half-white/half-green globes were pervasive, but once I started noticing I see the all-green globes everywhere now too! And all red ones sometimes.

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Fire Call Boxes: Wow there really a lot still on the streets even though people don’t use them. The heavily ornamented red ones in NYC are very unique and cannot be bought from other places.

One thing I really enjoy about this job is how it makes you notice and observe things in a more acute way. In the past few weeks living life around NYC I can honestly say I have truly noticed each trash can, fire hydrant, what color the subway light globes were, what kind of fire call box was there and what state of disrepair it was in, and each remaining phone booth.

There’s something really cool about all of a sudden noticing details and being aware of there existence all around you all the time that otherwise just disappear into the blur of daily life. If musicals are heightened reality, re-creating reality gives you a heightened awareness.

Used Milk Crates Treasure Trove by Charlene Wang

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Wanted to buy a large selection of colorful used milk crates that were in our color palette so after some internet sleuthing found this guy who seemed to have a lot.

Went to meet the guy, a retired cop, and discovered he has a thriving second-hand crate business (he has sold almost 4,000 since he started the business 3 years ago) and has sold to crate collectors (a real thing!) in Japan, Germany, and beyond.

He told me of the almost 4,000 crates he has sold he’s only seen 5 yellow ones and I took 2 of them! 🐥🌼⭐️🌝☀️🍋💛love meeting niche businesses like this and the people who run them—one of the funnest parts of the job.

Anthropology vs Aesthetics by Charlene Wang

Been thinking about anthropology vs aesthetics and how sometimes they are at odds and reconciling that idea when putting together a set.

I’ve had the great fortune to spend the last few months working on a number of different sets for characters from different class and cultural backgrounds. That is actually a rarity in our business. The great majority of stories that are told on screen (and thus the sets I work on) are centered on white people. Actually white males, actually straight white males from upper-middle class…but that’s a whole other topic.

What I’m trying to say is I have been RELISHING the opportunity to think deeply about different types of characters then I usually get the chance to do and imagining what their homes and spaces look like.

I love set decorating work for so many reasons and one of them is the aspect of anthropological curiosity we get to apply to how people actually live. Researching, learning, and finding what types of furniture, decorative items, functional pieces, artwork, curtain style, or leftover food wrappers that might be found on table surfaces specific people surround themselves with and what it means is a particular joy for me.

My goal when working on a set for a group of people who are often under-represented on screen is to learn as many unique little details and put them in the set so that when people from that group watch they see such a specific part of themself reflected on screen they delight in the recognition that someone “gets them” and feel truly seen. Or that the writer, actor, or director come onto the set and feel they understand the character better or cry in recognition (has happened twice!).

Most often the process to unearth these details is the set decorating team and the production designer find reference photos and work from there. Usually I take it a step further and try to interview people from the same community as the character and ask them anthropological questions about their homes.

For a few examples, that’s how I learned that it was really important to reflect Abbie’s identity as a black woman in America with specfic hair care products and sleeping caps near her bed in Irreplaceable You; that Doc and Scarlett’s characters as second generation Korean-Americans in Season 3, Episode 5 of High Maintenance, would most likely only be visually reflected in her kitchen so I dressed in the stainless steel bowls that are unique to Koreans, a rice cooker, and some Korean food products; that Adriana as a second-generation Puerto Rican woman living in New York in Season 3, Episode 8 of High Maintenance, a wooden beaded curtain would likely make an appearance in her home, and a bunch of details on the sets I’ve been working on for the last four months but can’t talk about until they air/get released.

Anyways, what I’ve been thinking about however, is where anthropology and aesthetics intersect and sometimes are at odds while putting together a set.

If we were working on a museum diorama or maybe filming doing a documentary our sets would just be recreating exactly how certain people and the anthropology would be the aesthetic. But as craftspeople, designers, and artists working on telling a visual story on screen our sets are artistically aesthetic expressions of the emotion and mood of the story as well as representations of the character and not merely anthropological recreations.

Often times the aesthetic tone of the story and character is defined and the starting point of imagining and creating a set before the anthropological details of character’s identity specifics are fleshed out. We want our sets to enrich the understanding of the character and illuminate backstories but we also want our sets to be aesthetically unified and visually satisfying.

What I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is how often the “perfect” lamp or side table for a character from a working class immigrant background is considering too ugly or far away from so-called “good taste” that they never make it into a set. On one hand there is already a fine line of representing characters with authenticity, compassion, and dignity vs being lazy, condescending, and working on stereotypes. On the other hand there is danger of imposing a certain mainstream (often white-centered) normative idea of decorating a home in “good taste” that often erases the specific details of living environments because they are “too ugly or cheap looking” but maybe there is more dignity in representing characters’ environments whatever their background as beautifully as possible.

Usually my guiding light is what makes sense for the character and what seems “too ugly” becomes “perfectly ugly” to me because it is an accurate or authentic representation. But many times that’s not how the decisions are made. I’ve worked with people where the aesthetic and design idea is the determining factor that trumps something accurate but “too ugly” and the resulting set is more beautiful and visually pleasing.

I can see both sides and I’m sure there is room for both approaches to work together when putting together layered sets to reflect both reality and the story. I would love to hear more about the underlying philosophy other decorators and designers use to approach these ideas.

In the Heights!!!! by Charlene Wang

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Super excited to start on the movie version of the Broadway musical “In the Heights” shopping for Set Decorator Andy Baseman.

This is my first big studio film and first musical so really looking forward to all the new things I will learn.

DESUS AND MERO JHURRRRRD!!!! by Charlene Wang

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As a proud and longtime member of #bodegahive and resident of the Bronx, when I heard that Desus and Mero had a new show on Showtime, I was working all sorts of angles to work on their show.

This is my sister and I meeting them at a special fan thing back in 2017. (yes I’m totally that kind of fan) and I would like to note I was so sweaty and gross because I just worked a full day on a pilot that day before this.

This is my sister and I meeting them at a special fan thing back in 2017. (yes I’m totally that kind of fan) and I would like to note I was so sweaty and gross because I just worked a full day on a pilot that day before this.

So I was ecstatic when I heard back from the producers who said they needed a Prop Master for some off-set shoots they were doing (it is normally a live-studio audience talk show).

I don’t usually work in the Prop Department or even on-set with the shooting crew, but felt I could take on the responsibility for this short shoot. Also cause it meant I would be on-set with Desus and Mero themselves (!) it was a chance to be closer to the excitement than I usually am when working on sets before the shooting crew gets there. I’m happy to report I was able to reign in my hardcore fandom and do the job even though it was totally outside of my comfort zone.

Of the many sketches I worked on for that short shoot, the one I’m most proud to have been part of was the “Greenbook” parody that was prefectly timed for the fact that “Greenbook” won the Oscar for Best Picture this year. (eyeroll).

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It was the full gauntlet of challenging facets of Prop work that we normally don’t deal with in set decorating: food, weapons, and cars! (If there were animals too I would have had the whole shebang). Plus the rhythm of work on-set is so different than usual off-set set decorating work (tougher in a lot of ways!) and I have so much respect for all the hardworking crew members who are on-set everyday.

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When I was setting up this scene (which was cut) where they share an oversized sandwich together

When I was setting up this scene (which was cut) where they share an oversized sandwich together

The chance to work closely and creatively collaborate with some of my pop-culture heroes made it so worth it and I was really proud at the end of the long (and cold) shoot to be part of a parody sketch that encapsulates so much of how I felt about “Greenbook” myself.

You can watch the full sketch here:

Only footnote I have is, they filmed that clothing scene on re-shoots so I wasn’t part of it (that total flagrant disrespect for period details is killing me so I just had to make that note).

Also, one of the funniest things about this job was they created their production LLC to be called “Gimme Dat Money LLC” (haha so them to be funny even in the name of their LLC) so I legit have a paycheck from “Gimme Dat Money LLC” this year.

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That Gun Door Handle on Russian Doll by Charlene Wang

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Russian Doll has been out on Netflix for almost two-weeks now and it is exciting to see it has been received with such enthusiasm by critics and viewers. I worked on the series as the Assistant Set Decorator to Set Decorator extraordinaire Jessica Petruccelli.

The (great) Production Designer Michael Bricker gave an interview where he discussed the door and as he said we, the art and set decoration departments, had to figure out how we were going to execute the scripted idea of a gun triggered door. It is an important element of the apartment that is seen in every episode including the opening moments of the whole series.

Fun fact: those tiles are also very special handmade hunter green tiles from California we got for the bathroom.

Fun fact: those tiles are also very special handmade hunter green tiles from California we got for the bathroom.

The mechanics and specifics of the gun door handle was a project Jessica gave me to handle (door pun) and since it was so fun I wanted to share some of it here.

First I started with the antique hardware to match the idea of the house being an old East Village Yeshiva from the early 1900’s so I went to Olde Good Things and spent an afternoon in their antique door hardware section, which I shared with glee on here last year.

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Next I got in contact with our friends at The Specialists who not only are prop fabricators, but also are the premiere weapons rental house and weapon experts for the film and TV industry in New York City. I explained to them what we were trying to do and over the course of weeks we exchanged many many emails and phone calls.

The process in photo attachments looked something like this:

picking the gun we wanted to use

picking the gun we wanted to use

matching the gun to the chosen door key plate

matching the gun to the chosen door key plate

imagining what it would look like from the side and deciding how much of the barrel to keep

imagining what it would look like from the side and deciding how much of the barrel to keep

double checking measurements

double checking measurements

finished product (well the whole thing got painted after we installed it)

finished product (well the whole thing got painted after we installed it)

installed in the set

installed in the set

In the shot as a star!

In the shot as a star!

Sometimes hardware is the least fun part of set decorating or buying, but this custom gun handle was a super fun, creative, and gratifying piece of unconventional hardware that was a recurring featured detail in the show.


Low Budget Sleeper by Charlene Wang

Our low-budget take on the Sleepers aesthetic

Our low-budget take on the Sleepers aesthetic

In episode 4 of High Maintenance Season 3 on HBO, we had a set that was meant to be a set dressed into a homeowner’s home on a fictional filming crew’s set. (yes, very meta.)

We needed something that quickly read as drastically different than an ordinary residence’s furnishings so our designer Tommaso came up with the creative idea of doing a sleek futuristic look based on Sleeper to create a high contrast with the existing home.

the original inspiration from the set of “Sleeper”

the original inspiration from the set of “Sleeper”

The existing room we were working with looked like this:

BEFORE

BEFORE

AFTER with just some white linoleum, plexi glass, light boxes, table and chair set plus plants

AFTER with just some white linoleum, plexi glass, light boxes, table and chair set plus plants

For a set you see maybe for 2 seconds on screen and the reason it is there is not entirely readily apparent if you are just watching the show without knowing the script. The idea is that the homeowner is answering the door to let some set dressers in to put the finishing touches on the set.

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Mother-in-Law's Brainscan as Art by Charlene Wang

On the window above the taped “HELP” is the brainscan also taped to the window.

On the window above the taped “HELP” is the brainscan also taped to the window.

In episode 2, in Season 3 of High Maintenance on HBO one of the characters is Darby who among other hustles she has going on around town, steals items from our corporate office job to resell on Craigslist. If you look closely, the items laying around her apartment ready to sell match items in her office.

We wanted to flesh out her character as a strange, dark, and creative woman with many little art projects in and around her apartment.

On the desk are many little art projects we created as we imagined Darby would have started

On the desk are many little art projects we created as we imagined Darby would have started

After gathering a bunch of elements to put together these aspects of her character, we still needed somethings that were off-kilter and a bit off.

So I searched around my own apartment for things that might add to this part of Darby’s character and then I saw my mother-in-law’s brainscan and was like hmmm this could work. And it ended up being a star.

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