Set Decorator Tina Jones Dishes on Her Career
Posted on: Dec 14, 2022
What do Kinky Boots, Assassin’s Creed, and Aladdin have in common? We mightn’t assume much, but there is a common thread: their award-winning Set Decorator.
Over the past 20+ years, Tina Jones has decorated some of our most iconic sets — from Game of Thrones Season 2 to King Arthur’s round table and sword in the stone — and in countries as diverse as Croatia, India, Poland, and Uganda.
Here we speak to Tina about her journey to set decorating and the lessons learned along the way.
How did you come to be a Set Decorator? What initially drew you to the craft?
I studied Fine Art at The University of Leicester and painted particularly large paintings, so thought scenic painting or backdrops was possibly the way to go. I attended Bournemouth Film School on a postgraduate course and was instantly hooked. The excitement and atmosphere of working on something creative and collaborative gave me such a buzz after the solitary experience of being a painter. I loved it. Sadly, not much was taught [at college] about set decoration, so I left not really knowing that it existed or what it entailed.
On completing the course — and after much persistence — I managed to get a position at Elstree Studios, assisting a well-known scenic painter paint backdrops. It was while I was there, looking into the sets from high up on a scaffolding tower, I saw — almost like looking into a giant doll’s house — a person directing a team of prop-men moving various pieces of furniture around a room. It was the Set Decorator!
Can you walk us through what the Set Decorator’s job involves?
My job initially involves reading through the scripts, then sitting down with the Production Designer and discussing the sets in detail from the information they’ve received from the Director and Producers. I look at as many concepts as I can (which are produced by the Art Department), then sit down with my Production Buyer and put a rough budget together of what we think it’s all going to cost.
This budget also includes a labour spread of how many people we think it will take to do the job. My crew will include Concept Artists, who will be responsible under my direction for drawing and designing key props and set decoration. I will also have a team of Draughtsmen and Art Directors, who will be responsible for drawing all these items up so we can pass them on to the prop manufacturers. Not all jobs will have big teams — on my current project I have a team of 33, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom I had 23, Bourne Ultimatum [I had] five — so it really varies depending on the appetite of the production.
What skills and character traits are essential to have in your role?
Enthusiasm, patience, tolerance, good observation, and determination are all qualities needed. Add a dash of perseverance and attention to detail, coupled with an inquisitive nature and a good general knowledge of historical styles in furniture design.
When you were starting out, how did you go about finding work?
Starting out was tricky. It was at a time when there weren’t American productions or studios here, and work was thin on the ground. So it was usually found by calling people up and trying to get them to take me on as a runner. Eventually, your name gets known, and people pass your name around if you’re good.
Do you approach designing for TV differently than you do for film?
No TV [series] or film is approached exactly the same way. Since COVID, films have been smaller and lower budget (unless they’re Marvel films) as the cinema isn’t making the revenue it was pre-COVID.
Have there been any mentors or influential figures along your journey?
I learnt a lot from all of the early designers I worked alongside. The productions were smaller, so I was lucky in that we often all shared an office and I heard everything that was going on. If I were to single out one designer, it would be the extremely talented — and sadly no longer with us — Alan MacDonald. I did quite a number of films with him, and he taught me to always trust my instinct and be true to myself.
Can you tell us about one of your career highlights so far?
Career highlights so far… Winning an Emmy for Game of Thrones and working alongside Robert Zemeckis on Pinocchio last year!
What about a particularly challenging moment? Perhaps one you learnt a lot from?
You always learn something new on every job. Each production is different — they all throw up unique challenges. The director John Maybury said to me when I was apologising for not being able to give him a prop that he requested, ‘Sometimes greatness comes from the unintended’, and this is often the case with decoration. You think something will work, and it doesn’t. It will be the unintentional item that will bring everything together in a way you didn’t expect.
What advice would you offer an emerging set decorator in today’s industry?
Don’t hurry. Take your time to start at the bottom and slowly learn your craft. You will last ten minutes if you’re crap — but a lifetime if you’re good.
Be sure to catch Tina’s latest project, Apartment 7A, next year. The top-secret thriller stars Ozark’s Julia Garner and is directed and written by Natalie Erika James (Relic).
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