Art Director, Set Decorator, and Prop Master Mariana Silva
When she was 13, Mariana Silva’s family moved from Colombia to Paraguay for her father’s job. His coworkers brought gifts to the house, including a box of books for young Silva. In it, she discovered a coffee-table book delving into how Christopher Nolan and his crew made one of her all-time favorite movies, Inception. The text was Silva’s first exposure to behind-the-scenes work on film sets and helped her understand the importance of art departments for productions.
Silva’s commitment to filmmaking and creating meaningful designs led her to Los Angeles. She now works in numerous art department roles for film and television, including set dresser, set decorator, prop master, art director, and more.
Highlighting and Volunteering
Silva lived in Paraguay for several years before moving to the United States. She also spent time in Brazil. When facing the challenges of adolescence, movies, and television shows became a refuge. A highlight of Silva’s week was when the TV guide arrived in the family mailbox. She would carefully review the guide, highlighting interesting shows and films. It turned out studying the guide was much more fun than studying for school.
At the start of her career, Silva volunteered on a lot of sets. She earned a degree in Film and Electronic Arts from California State University Long Beach (with a focus on post-production) while helping out on many fellow students’ projects. One day Silva realized she was much more interested in what was happening in person than in working with recorded footage.
“Starting off, I was pursuing film editing, but then realized I didn’t want to be away in a room, on a computer all day,” she said. “I’m a people person. So I started doing production assistant work, which film school had not covered. I made connections and started getting calls to help with more projects. And that’s when I was like, this is where I’m staying. I’ve found what’s my thing.”
The Overall Look
Art department professionals are responsible for creating the overall look for a television show or feature film. They design, build and decorate sets with even the most minor details in mind to support a director’s vision.
Silva uses the example of a cake that an actor smashes in a scene. For multiple takes of the same shot to take place, the art department must ensure numerous copies of the exact cake are available to be smashed. The director can then select which shot is their favorite.
“The audience doesn’t think about the work of an art department when watching a film,” mused Silva. “People need to realize that building sets where stories happen takes a lot. There are many design aspects—a lot of planning and processes. You must consider the budget and how much time it will take to build a set and then secure or make props. And you have to be in sync with the director to understand what they want to see. Every single thing an actor picks up in a scene, someone in the art department made sure it was there.”
Don’t Get Discouraged
As a Latina, Silva would like to see greater representation in cinema and a move away from stereotypes and negative character depictions. She hopes that having a successful career in the industry will inspire other Latinos to pursue their filmmaking dreams.
Silva points out that throughout her career, she’s had the good fortune to meet people who were not only encouraging but also acted in a mentoring role. It’s an action she plans to emulate for next-generation filmmakers interested in joining art departments.
Regarding three pieces of advice she’d give to those dreaming of working on sets, Silva shared:
- Once you get onto a set, be friendly, present, and open to asking a lot of questions. I listen to everything people are saying and try to anticipate their needs. Use your time to be helpful. Making sure people have water and snacks can go a long way.
- Don’t talk a lot about yourself. Instead, use the time to ask questions. People will notice your interest and passion and be open to teaching you. Also, people working in the art department often run around. To help them, you’ll need to be running around right there with them.
- Most of all, don’t get discouraged. Get your foot in the door, make connections, and show you can do the work. Be a problem solver. People will remember you if you can provide solutions.
Written by Erin Prather Stafford
Images provided by Silva
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