Creative Lives — From adaptability to organisation, Mairi Claire Bowser shares how to make it as a props buyer and set decorator

Posted 20 November 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction by Ayla Angelos

Mairi Claire Bowser, a Dundee-born props buyer and set decorator based in between London and Scotland, has always been “savvy and keen” to get into the film industry. During her BA in Performance Costume Design at Edinburgh College of Art, she would spend her free moments on work placements for films such as World War Z, Cloud Atlas, Irvine Welsh’s Filth, Belle and Sebastian’s God Help the Girl and Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, graduating with a wealth of experience that led to her first role. Now, her portfolio spans Mission: Impossible - Fallout to Maleficent, and she even completed an MSc in Environmental Management last year. Although Mairi Claire admits that you don’t necessarily need a formal education to be a props buyer, it does broaden your understanding. Below, Mairi Claire lets us in on what it's like juggling multiple plates at once and how she plans to bring about environmental change in the film industry.

Mairi Claire Bowser

Job Title

Props Buyer and Set Decorator

Based

London and Scotland

Selected Clients

World War Z, Cloud Atlas, Maleficent, A United Kingdom, Justice League, Paddington 2, Dumbo and Bohemian Rhapsody

Previous Employment

Working in retail during high school and university

Place of Study

BA Performance Costume Design, Edinburgh College of Art (2014)
MSc in Environmental Management, The Open University (2015-2018)

Website
Social Media

Mairi Claire

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
When working as a set decorator, I conceptualise how a space is created by the humans, or beings, who occupy it. By working closely with the production designer – who designs the overall look and feel of the production, most notably the colour palette, tone and construction of it – my job is to flesh out and build on that design. This is achieved through the use of props, furniture, drapes, door furniture and lighting.

As a props buyer, I work closely with the set decorator to establish the type of product that they want in a space. Then I seek out the most suitable product – something that fits their concept for the best price, something that we are able to hire, purchase or have made in time for the dressing. The props buyer also arranges the pick ups and returns of the furniture and props in coordination with the propmaster or storeperson, as well as runs the budget and keeps the set decorator updated with spends throughout the production.

Mairi Claire sourcing her props

Mairi Claire sourcing her props

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
Every day is different and can vary massively depending on the scale and genre of the production that you’re working on. For example, on big budget productions that are in excess of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of funding, you can end up in a very niche role within the wider machine, with very specific tasks and boundaries. However, on smaller budget productions where there are fewer resources and job roles, you can end up covering a lot of ground, and with that the job role and day-to-day tasks are very different.

Broadly speaking over the course of a whole production, the roles of both set decorator (or assistant set decorator) and a props buyer will start by reading the script, researching storyline and character, and then can include researching suppliers, visiting suppliers, visiting filming locations, writing lists of what’s required in each space, drawing floor plans of the furniture in each space once they’ve been chosen, liaising with the production designer, director, propmaster and often the costume designer, hair and makeup designer, special effects designer, visual effects, greens team and producers too.

“No two productions are the same, and you can end up in a lot of very different situations.”

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I love the variety of experiences that it gives you. No two productions are the same and you can end up in a lot of very different situations, gaining a wide and sometimes random cross section of knowledge that you would probably not end up with in a regular day-to-day lifestyle.

What skills would you say are essential to your job?
You definitely need to be an adaptable person to work in the film industry. Large changes happen all the time, either on a weekly, daily and sometimes hourly basis – so you need to be able to adapt to new scenarios, be able to think on your feet, problem solve and stay as organised as possible.

Having a strong understanding of character helps a lot, as well as the ability to interpret how they would interact with their surrounding space, plus the spatial awareness of how to physically create that space in the right tone for the character.

Communication is also key, as is the ability to coordinate. List writing is pretty crucial, as is an ability to prioritise, plus the confidence to negotiate and state your needs on behalf of the production and common sense goes a long way, too!

Still from Maleficent

Still from Maleficent

How did you balance your MSc in Environmental Management alongside your job?
I finished my MSc at the start of 2018, having worked on it part-time for the previous three years alongside working in film. It was quite a lot of work to do at times, but I balanced it with taking on shorter jobs and decent amounts of time out in-between, so that I could focus on my MSc. I also only took on assisting roles so that I could work on it during the evenings and weekends – you can’t always do this working as a production buyer or set decorator, as the roles require a higher level of responsibility overall and they can be harder to switch off from.

Are you currently working on any personal projects? If so, how do you manage your time alongside other work?
I’m working on a couple of personal projects at the moment. One of them is an extension of my MSc research, where I studied individuals and communities from all over the world who use waste materials as a building resource for their homes. I think there is great potential in connecting the waste materials that come out of the film industry with places where it can be reused – such as in building homes and interior design. I am also writing an illustrative book about these individuals and communities with the hope to make it a more accessible subject – aiming to have it ready to be published by early 2020 and available to buy from next summer.

The other project is a collaborative one. A few of us from across the departments are working together to establish the best course of action for bringing about change in the film industry, in terms of transitioning it into one that is environmentally responsible.

In terms of time management with side projects, when I’m on a job, that has to be my priority, along with sleeping, eating, general self care, seeing my friends, family and my super fluffy cat Meowser Bowser. Also, regularly writing a list of goals of what you would like to have finished or achieved helps too. It’s not always possible, but it does help to guide you and keep you on track to some degree.

“When I’m on a job, that has to be my priority, along with sleeping, eating, general self care.”

What tools do you use most for your work?
Definitely owning and driving a car – as a buyer you are so often out on the road. I have done whole projects where I have been almost completely out sourcing, and I can be driving for up to six hours each day on top of my commuting time. A laptop, the internet, a notebook and pen (have these on you at all times), a measuring tape, laser measure and a copy of our industry suppliers diary are also important to both roles of set decorator and props buyer.

What inspires your work?
Real-life humans and the spaces that they create inspire me massively. I am so fascinated by how we are all formed from the same basic elements and yet our interpretations, experiences and expressions of the world around us can be so different from each other. I love it when people create spaces that are truly reflective of their interests, culture and state of mind because I see that to be an honest reflection of that human and who they really are.

I am particularly interested in counter-cultures, people who buck trends, or express themselves differently to what is mainstream of their culture or wider society. I also take a lot of inspiration through the experience of travelling – from meeting people who are from different backgrounds and experiences than my own – and of putting myself into new situations and environments to understand new perspectives on the world.

Still from Paddington 2

Still from Paddington 2

Still from Paddington 2

Do you find that many people in industry share your experience for finding sustainable props?
It’s not that the props themselves are sustainable – although that is a whole other conversation in itself around material use and ethical supply chains, more that there is a lot of material waste that comes off film sets that could be reused elsewhere. Sometimes there is an issue around props that very clearly belong to a specific film or ‘brand’ – for example from a saga or series. The film does not want any other person or company to have it in case it gives away upcoming plots. Another reason is that they simply see it as a unique design created solely for the production.

Beyond this, there is still a large volume of material that is generic, sometimes as simple and basic as contemporary shop bought plates, cutlery and glasses that could go into direct reuse somewhere else. The issue around these types of props and product is around time and manpower, as well as responsibility – at what stage of processing is it someone’s responsibility to dispose of these materials in an environmentally responsible way in the industry?

There is still work to be done and more responsibility to be taken with regards to the industry’s environmental impact, but I think it’s heading in the right direction.

“At what stage of processing is it someone’s responsibility to dispose of these materials in an environmentally responsible way?”

Has your volunteering work in Calais informed your work at all, or given you a new perspective on sustainability?
My work in Calais has definitely informed my practice, in terms of relating to humans from many backgrounds and experiences and understanding more about the spaces they create.

When I was preparing to go to Calais for the first time in the winter of 2015, I was working on a feature film production and I sent an email to production letting people know that I was going. I also shared a list of the types of materials that I was looking for to take out with me. A few people came back to me with donations of various kinds. One in particular was from a lovely guy (I think he was a rigger), who happened to have meters and meters of used (but quality) tarpaulin that was waste from a well-known big budget production.

We strapped that all to the top of my car and once I’d got it to Calais, we cut the tarpaulin down and used it to waterproof the roofs of the shelters we were building. It made me see a very clear need for connecting streams of quality material waste with situations where there is resource inequality.

Mairi Claire’s shelter built with the tarpaulin in Calais

How I Got Here

Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel you need a formal education for what you do?
I do not think that you need to have a formal education for what I do; some of the best designers, decorators and buyers in the industry do not have formal degrees. However, for me, my undergraduate degree in costume design took me a step closer towards understanding what I wanted to do. I learnt about and developed my interest in character interpretation and it gave me the space and time to start working while I built up my skills, my knowledge of time periods, and of directorial work that I was interested in. I found some of my favourite directors through our university DVD library, and I also met my core friendship group there, some of whom still work in the film industry. So for me, that has been invaluable.

However, I also say this as a Scottish person who got to enjoy a completely free undergraduate degree (go socialism), and so I think each individual’s situation is different. I don’t think there is any right or wrong way to go about it.

After graduating, what were your initial steps?
I was quite savvy and keen to get into the industry and so by the time I graduated I already had a few work experiences under my belt. I had started to build up a network from the productions of World War Z, Cloud Atlas, Irvine Welsh’s Filth, Belle and Sebastian’s God Help the Girl, and Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, and so when I graduated I had contacts. I didn’t previously know anyone but I was lucky to have a couple of significant people (who were a few years my senior) take me under their wing and find me most of my initial job roles. I was and still am incredibly grateful for that.

“Mostly I’m very happy with working freelance; it has given me a lot of freedom to live my life in the way that I want to.”

What would you say are the biggest challenges associated with being freelance, and how do you deal with these?
Mostly I’m very happy with working freelance; it has given me a lot of freedom to live my life in the way that I want to. I think the only potential negative is that nearly most productions will have some element of a ‘new’ team or crew, so there is an aspect of needing to prove yourself on every job. I recently heard one of my favourite designers talking of her need to prove herself to a new director. That blew my mind thinking that she still feels like that, especially with an established, award-winning career as one of the top UK and international production designers.

Overall, I expected the biggest challenge to be in finding work. But so far, while it can still be daunting, something always presents itself when I’ve needed it.

What have been your biggest learnings with making money as a creative?
I think that it would be dishonest of me not to acknowledge that I have come from a relatively stable financial background. As it happens, I have rarely needed to spend money that I haven’t earned during my working life to get by for basic needs, but I think I did have additional security in knowing that if everything went tits up then I would still be able to get by, and I recognise that not everyone is in that position.

Still from Cloud Atlas

Still from Cloud Atlas

Still from Cloud Atlas

Still from Cloud Atlas

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I’m on my current production until early 2020, and I’d like to take a bit of time off after this one to focus on finishing my book before going back to work. I’m also in the process of buying a house, so I may want to spend some time getting acquainted with the space and do some work in it.

For my next job, I’d like to take set decoration jobs specifically – either as a set decorator on small-scale projects, or as an assistant set decorator on mid- to big-budget productions.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Get as much experience as you can, as soon as you can. It helped me a lot having done work experience before I graduated so that I had a clearer idea of what I wanted to do, which I think is part of the challenge for some people.

Don’t give up if you’re keen to get into the industry, even if you feel like you’re not making headway to start with. You’ll get a lot of non-responses, especially if you’re contacting people you don’t know. Eventually you will get somewhere – it has a lot to do with timing and your CV ending up in front of the right person. Take opportunities, trust your gut instinct and come to work with an attitude of mucking in with everyone. It will be appreciated in the long run. Lastly, enjoy it! I think that anyone who has chosen to be a part of the film industry is lucky to get to be a part of it.

Posted 20 November 2019 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Introduction by Ayla Angelos
Introduction: Ayla Angelos
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Film
Mentions: Mairi Claire Bowser

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