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How it all Began Print E-mail

People often ask me how I became a Set Designer; I tell them it was just what I had planned!

When I was in High school I'd watch A Country Practice religiously and dream of the day I could "make" shows like that. I loved the idea that somewhere a group of amazing people was creating this image of a country town in a suburban Sydney studio. I knew that's what I wanted to do … but I had no idea how?

On leaving school I worked in a number of jobs. I sold second hand furniture and fitted vinyl signs to shop windows. In the evenings I took drama classes at a Private College in Sydney and by day worked part time in the office to cover my tuition.

Through writing letters and meeting people I landed a position at a Commercial Production company as a Camera assistant. Basically I carried the tripod and pointed the microphone. Don't get me wrong, good camera assistants (or sound assistants) are worth their weight in gold … I simply wasn't! Someone once said of me "He's officially the worst camera assistant I've ever had!"

I think they took pity on me and gave me a job in the production office … though I thought I was the ants pants: I had a desk and a phone and I didn't have to carry bloody tripods any more!

We were shooting a fund raising video for a prominent Sydney Private Boys school: a lot of wild footage of the Students and the School facilities tied together with a series of "pieces to camera" to be shot in our small presentation studio. I expressed concern that the backdrop was a bit plain, a timber paneled wall if I remember correctly! I offered to dress it up a little and create a "set" more in keeping with the period ambiance of the school. I borrowed my father's station wagon and dragged in antique furniture and dressing from home and thus created my first professional set!

This was not, of course, my first set ever - just the first time I was paid! My first set would be the "stones" I painted on a couple of my grandmother's old double bed sheets for the annual church concert when I was eight … incidentally, I still have that set!

After a couple of years and many more small presentation sets and major Television Commercials, I left that job to travel through Europe and the UK. When I returned five months later I was again unemployed and with very few contacts "in the industry" set about once more writing letters.

In April 1987, I was offered a job as a Stagehand at Channel 7's Epping Studios: the man who gave me the position was said to have hired a young Peter Weir many years earlier for the same position. I didn't know if this was fact or myth, but I liked the precedence!

Over the next six months I just lapped up the atmosphere. I literally swept studio floors, made coffee for news readers and pushed settage in and out of the studios during those all night bump-ins. Considering my High school ambition, it was kind of ironic that my very first duty on day one at Channel Seven was to vacuum the carpets on the Gilroy House set of A Country Practice.

I'm like a sponge … always soaking up what's around me: watching others work and learning from them. I figured this was "the real thing" and therefore these people must be the best! If I couldn't learn from them, whom could I learn from!

In November 1987 Channel 7's new Drama series Home and Away was about to begin production and I was one of the chosen stagehands to man the studio for that first record! What a long day that was.

I knew I wasn't cut out to be a stagehand and the Art Department was where I longed to be. Early in 1998 a runner's position became available and I was in! I really didn't look back - I worked hard and soon moved to Standby Props and then Set Dresser.

One day in 1989 I was called up to the Producer's Office: I needed directions, I'd never been "upstairs" before! He sat me down and asked me what my ambition was in Television and where I saw myself in the years to come. I didn't hesitate: "I want to be the Set Designer!" He explained that our current Designer's contract was soon up and that he didn't plan on returning … how would I like the job?

"YES!" I hollered as I picked myself up off the Producer's floor, and thus became the Art Director / Set Designer of one of Australia's greatest Television exports, Home and Away at the age of 23.

I spent three wonderful years building beach houses and boat sheds, mine shafts to science labs in Summer Bay! I worked with some of the finest crews and learned my craft from some of the most creative people Australian Television has to offer. I was right - this was a great place to learn!

Since then I have designed sets and Concepts for a number of Pilots and was Production Designer for the full 2 ½ year run of the Screentime / Chrysalis Drama Series, Breakers. To see a product through from its concept stage through almost two years of production and finally wind it up in the end was another wonderful experience. The faith placed in me and my fabulous team of Buyers, Standbys and of-course my sensational Set Dresser, was simply amazing. I would often joke that one day some one would find out that I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing and that I'm just making all this up as I go!

(Thankfully, no body has realized that as yet! Fingers crossed!)

What's my secret?
I have no secrets … I just like to observe! Watch and you will learn. I remembered being fascinated as a child to hear about a boy who'd learned to play piano simply by watching his father play. I guess I'm a bit like that boy: I watched my father in the garage or laying bricks in the yard and I watched my mother in the kitchen or digging in the garden. All simple skills, but invaluable when you're designing a Drama series.

I love to look at buildings and people's homes (never invite me over - I'll sit there quietly analyzing your décor for hours). I take in Doctor's surgeries (ever noticed how many medical waiting rooms are lined with faux timber sheeting?) I love reading people's personalities and imagining what their living space would look like.

I guess that's what made me a Set designer … my power of observation. The world is an amazing place if only we'd take more time to stop and look around.

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Glenn T. - Celebrity Designer