Q&A about library props + call numbers with a Hollywood prop buyer

“When you see a library [onscreen], it is often a set and not a real library location. We rent books and shelves and everything else.”

I am so excited about today’s post, and I hope y’all will be, too! If you’re a regular reader of Reel Librarians (thank you!), then you may have noticed that I’ve been writing a lot more lately about call numbers in TV shows and movie posters. Over the years, I have written quite a few posts about incorrect call numbers I see onscreen, and you can explore an entire tag of posts about call numbers on this site. I have also been contacted in the past by a couple of prop masters to double-check call numbers they were preparing for various projects — definitely a highlight of my professional (and online) life! 😀

Light bulb moment

And in early March, I received this intriguing comment from Melissa Frankel, a set decoration buyer and prop buyer in L.A.:

Hello, I found your blog while looking for dewey decimal examples to put on fake library books on a tv show. I’ve spent quite a bit of time creating library book labels in the past – mostly for the tv show Young Sheldon. I always try to get them right. […] I’m kind-of glad that someone might appreciate the trouble that I go to to get it right, but I’m also afraid that they will notice errors! Happy hunting!

So I reached out to Melissa to thank her personally… and then I had a light bulb moment! Wouldn’t it be interesting to learn more from her perspective and expertise about library-related props and set decoration, and then share that info with all of you? So we emailed a bit back-and-forth, and I was thrilled when Melissa agreed to an interview, which we conducted over Zoom. (Note: This interview took place before the current strike and contract negotiations by the Writers Guild of America labor union in Hollywood.)

Zoom Room chat with Melissa Frankel
Can you tell I was really excited to chat with Melissa? Screenshot from our Zoom Room chat.

A bit of background

Melissa Frankel is a very talented textile artist and painter who also studied music. Please check out her website, Melissa Frankel Designs, as well as her Instagram account. Melissa started out in the prop department in professional theater. Her current focus is in the art department, specifically in props and set decoration — two different things, as we will explore! — on TV shows such as Hacks, Young Sheldon, Black-ish, New Girl, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (just to name a few!), as well as movies, including Beautiful Boy (2018) and Dance Flick (2009). Amazing, right?! 😀

Q&A with Melissa Frankel

Below is our chat together, edited for length and clarity.

Jennifer:
What are the different roles in set design, and what are the proper names for those roles? Like, is “prop master” an actual term, or are there different terms I should be using?

Melissa:
Great question! For television shows, the head of the Art Department is the Production Designer. The Art Director is the Production Designer’s assistant, second in command for the Art Department. (On film, sometimes there is no Production Designer; in that case, the Art Director is the highest position.)

  • Set Designer (not to be confused with Set Decorator): They do the drafting of sets that will be built and the technical drawings (computer or hand drawing) for the blueprints.
  • Graphic Designer(s): They design signage (street / storefront / brand logos etc), artwork, handheld props that use graphics, etc.
  • Construction Coordinator and foreman, etc.: They oversee the Paint department, the Greens department (trees/plants), and the Construction department (who build the sets).

There is also an Assistant Art Director. The following departments are independent but collaborate with and are hired by the Production Designer.

Props:

  • Prop Master
  • Buyer
  • Assistant Prop Master (on set)
  • Prop Assistants (on set)

Set Decoration:

  • Set Decorator
  • Assistant Set Decorator (if applicable)
  • Buyer
  • Lead Man, who oversees the Set Dressers and On-Set Dresser(s)

Jennifer:
Wow, so props and sets are two different things! Is there coordination between the two?

Melissa:
Yes. Sometimes the lines between what is the set decorator’s responsibility and what is the prop master’s responsibility is blurred. In general, items that are handled by an actor are props. Items that are not handled by an actor but are anything in a set are set dressing. For instance, lights, mail, clothes, dishware, furniture and art are all set dressing, provided by the set decorator. In a library [set], there might be a globe. If it is not handled by an actor, it is set dressing. But if an actor spins it, marks it, picks it up, etc., the prop master will work with the decorator and decide who will do it and what it should look like so that it looks good in the set but also is appropriate for whatever action is involved. If the books are not handled by an actor, the set decorator is responsible for them. If the book gets checked out at the checkout desk, then the prop master usually provides the book.

When you see a library [onscreen], it is often a set and not a real library location. We rent books and shelves and everything else, and the labels are probably not right for the books.

Melissa:
In props we have the saying: “One is None and Two is One.” So we often have at least two identical of any and every item that we provide. Sounds crazy — and it is! But that’s the best way to be prepared.

When you see a library [onscreen], it is often a set and not a real library location. We rent books and shelves and everything else, and the labels are probably not right for the books.

Jennifer:
Do you always make call numbers for book props? Do you use any resources to help you with creating call numbers?

Melissa:
On Young Sheldon, I used the Library of Congress Catalog website regularly. I could usually find the Dewey Decimal number on there, as well as the Library of Congress number. I did get confused when I had to make a label for fiction, which I guess Dewey Decimal doesn’t cover. The numbers for the scientific books were easier to find. I do remember using the WorldCat site, as well. 

Jennifer:
Those are the websites I use, too! I’m glad somebody’s out there noticing these things, and the work that goes into it.

Melissa:
The covers of the books interest me, too, because we often will create new covers, whether it’s for a real book or a made-up book, because we’ve got to follow a lot of rules about showing other people’s artwork, which includes book covers. Real books actually take quite a while to get cleared for us to use. So we always have a plan B, which would be a made-up book, or actually, sometimes we’re allowed to use the real title, the real author, but we have to create our own art in the style of the original book. We have graphic artists who are usually full-time on the show. I would let them know that we need to make a front, a back, and a spine, and we will wrap the new cover around the real book. If the real book doesn’t have any artwork or photos on it, and it only has text, we can usually use it as is. If we’re making a book from scratch, we need to get title and author names cleared by the legal department.

Jennifer:
And I have a question with the graphic design. Are they also the ones responsible if there is something on a computer screen, like a closeup?

Melissa:
It can be the graphic designer. It could also be the Playback department, who works on the set while they’re shooting, and they actually plug into the computer that needs to be seen. In the past, when I worked on Young Sheldon, I was doing most of the research about the computers because I was buying them. So I then would forward some information about what it should look like to the post production or playback people who were designing the screens. I would get manuals and images, and I was dealing with vintage computer collectors, so sometimes I’d pass along some of that information to them. We work so hard to get it right. So it’s a collaboration.

Jennifer:
What led you to this work?

Melissa:
I sort of fell into it. I think if you’re not suited to it, you don’t last, but a lot of people do sort of fall into it. I studied music in college, and so I applied to musical theater and opera houses. When I got out of college, the job that presented itself to me was a prop job, so I worked in props and set decoration for professional theaters for several years. And then I met somebody who had worked [in L.A.], so I thought, Okay, I’m gonna try that. And so I moved to L.A. and got in the business, and I’m a craftsperson, so I’m well suited to working in props.

We work so hard to get it right. So it’s a collaboration.

Jennifer:
On your IMDb.com profile page, sometimes you’re listed as the set decoration buyer and then on others, you’re listed as props buyer. Do you like to switch in-between, depending on the needs?

Melissa:
Yeah, depending on just the job. I think most people don’t do that. I worked in set decoration for over 20 years, and then I was offered a job that was supposed to be half set decoration and half props, because it was Young Sheldon. So that’s how I sort of moved back into working on props. And now, if I’m between jobs, I’ll apply for either type of job. There’s a lot of overlap. There’s a different kind of focus with set decoration. You’re dealing with huge quantities of stuff because you have to fill rooms with stuff, whereas props you deal only with what the actors handle, so it’s only a few items each day. But I need to give them a variety of those items. I need to give them multiples that are identical in case something breaks while they’re shooting. So it’s more focused. And you have to make sure you get it right, and that it blends with the rest of the set.

That’s where the collaboration comes in. The props department, they work with the things that the actors are handling, and then the set dressing are the things that theoretically (but may change on the day) are just for background. Most of the errors that happen are maybe decisions like on the day where, oh, let’s have some action, and let’s pull a book. Only if we are told in advance that we’re gonna look at a particular shelf, that’s the only time we would pay any attention to what type of book is there in what order. As long as it’s a book, and it has a white label on it, it would go on a shelf, and we wouldn’t pay any attention.

Jennifer:
I appreciate that level of detail. I absolutely hate it when there is a specified library scene, and there are no call numbers anywhere on the books. I’m like, “Come on! This is like the lowest level. At least have call numbers!” And you get books and things from prop houses, right?

Melissa:
Yes, they’re big buildings filled with stuff for rent. There is a specific prop house called Faux Library. All you have to do is call them, and you could say, I need a 100 feet of books, or I need 500 feet of library books, and they’ll pack them up. You can call them, and they’ll send you books with labels, so there’s no real excuse, I think, for not having labels — unless you can’t afford that prop house, because it’s a low-budget production or they’ve run out of books for some crazy reason, and it’s last minute.

Jennifer:
Do they get things from real libraries, like when libraries weed or get rid of books? Is that where they get their store of books?

Melissa:
Maybe some of it. I think originally the title “Faux” was because they used to empty the books out of their pages, so that the books were lightweight. They would recreate books with foam. It costs a little more per foot for the hollowed out books because they had to work to recreate them. But it’s nice because the set dressers have to haul all those books, you know.

But I think they probably get them [books] from all different sources. At this point I don’t know if they acquire any more [books] unless a show offers them, because they have a big collection, they have a warehouse full of stuff. I think there was one time when I collected old law books from some place that was getting rid of them. So that does happen sometimes.

And to think, how different your life would have been if you’d gone for that library cataloging job.

Jennifer:
You once thought about going to library science, and then a job with the Library of Congress. What led you to consider that?

Melissa:
Well, I lived in [Washington] D.C. at the time, and I think I was looking for a job, and it was musicology related. I had studied music in college, and I think I was offered the job after a long process of applying, since it’s a government job. I think that I really enjoyed doing research in college, and I like looking for things. I turned it down because it was just cataloging for at least a year, and I thought that might get tedious. I didn’t know if I could do that.

Jennifer:
Cataloging is a very specialized field. I don’t know if I could do it either. And I even took a cataloging class [during library science graduate studies]. And it’s an even more specialized field because it’s music.

Melissa:
Yeah, it was cataloging sheet music. Yeah, it’s interesting where your paths take you.

Jennifer:
And was that before you got really into set decoration and props?

Melissa:
Yes, it was. I had had two theatre jobs at that point, working backstage and prop making, and then I decided that I would move to the West coast and pursue theater some more, which I did. I [first] moved to Seattle. So I lived in Seattle for about four years and worked in theater there before moving to L.A.

Jennifer:
And to think, how different your life would have been if you’d gone for that library cataloging job.

Melissa:
A year or two after that, I went to some kind of music symposium at a university, thinking, should I go back into that world? But I think I prefer to be more active. I didn’t want to be sitting all day. Of course, now the job I have, I am sitting all day, but I wanted to be more active.

Jennifer:
And you’re still researching. I think that’s cool that you’re doing a lot of research in your job.

Melissa:
Yes, a lot of my job is research. So I like it for that reason.

Jennifer:
As a college librarian, I teach research skills [credit] classes, and I like to point out to students that research doesn’t end in school. We all do research on a daily basis, like even in our daily lives. And I like to bring out examples of careers where you use research in different ways. So this is another good example.

Melissa:
I’m curious what you teach in that class.

Jennifer:
We call it information literacy. It’s focusing on basic research skills. So how do you search effectively online? Which I think has gotten harder. When do you need to use library resources, and when do you need to go online for research? How do you take a research topic and drill it down to searchable keywords? How do you do citations? How do you not plagiarize? I really enjoy it. I try to make the class as practical to real life as possible. But enough about what I do!

Yes, a lot of my job is research. So I like it for that reason.

Jennifer:
Here’s a totally left-field question. So when you think of librarians and movies — and this may be the first time anyone has ever asked you to do that! — what comes to mind? Do you think of any movies or reel librarian characters?

Melissa:
Well, the first thing I think of is the librarian in Young Sheldon, who fits into some of your descriptions of librarians, to meet sort of comedic purposes [like the Comic Relief character type].

Jennifer:
That makes sense that you think of the show you’ve worked on.

Melissa:
And I was usually not quite interacting with her [the actress Sarah Baker who played librarian Ms. Cheryl Hutchins]. But I was making props for her. There wasn’t [a library scene] in every episode, but it was not uncommon either. It was a school library [Medford High School]. Sometimes we didn’t see the librarian, but Sheldon, the main character, would eat lunch in the library a lot. So also I had to label books for him, that we would see even when he wasn’t in the library, because he always had library books out that he was consulting. And in fact, this is kind of interesting. I used to get the books from the head of the Astronomy and Physics department at UCLA — so he’s the technical advisor for Young Sheldon and an amazing guy. He had worked on The Big Bang Theory, as well, which was the precursor [to Young Sheldon]. I would go meet him, and he would have pulled a bunch of books, a stack of books for me that he got from professors who had retired or passed on, and he’d pass them along to us, and so then I’d have to label them.

Jennifer:
Oh! That’s interesting! And that’s such a good use of books from retired professors. We often get that in [college or university] libraries. A professor will retire, and then offer to give us their collection. But the books are often just so old. We are trying to keep our collection current, and often those books are not.

Melissa:
Well, that show [Young Sheldon] is supposed to take place, when I was working on it, at the end of the 1980s. So even if the books came from the ’50s or ’60s, that was totally fine. I was super careful about not having any books that had come after 1989, because that’s the year we were supposed to be in when I started on the show.

It is cool, working on the studio lots, because you feel the history there.

Jennifer:
I’ve done a round-up of call number errors. I probably need to update it! I also include when people get them [call numbers] right, so I’m equal opportunity. But I wonder sometimes, where did it go wrong?

Melissa:
And it may be multiple answers. Everybody has their specific role. And although you collaborate, you have only so much budget, so much time, you know, to do these things. It’s very fast-paced.

Jennifer:
I anticipate complaining more about call numbers [onscreen] in the future, so I want to make sure that I’m possibly not directing my irritation toward the wrong person. Like, I’m not ranting at you.

Melissa:
It’s annoying to me, too. I mean, I guess that’s why I like doing my job. I like it to be done right. There’s gonna be times when I get it wrong, for whatever reason, a bunch of reasons. But I wish we always got it right.

Jennifer:
Yeah, but it’s cool that you’ve focused on these things. You do research for this job. It’s very interesting of how these kinds of things, you know, like call numbers — which are very, very specific to my field — but other people access these things in different ways, too, even in props. And there are places like the Faux Library prop house, like that is what they specialize in! And that’s very cool.

Melissa:
It is cool, working on the studio lots, because you feel the history there. I was just down at a lot last week that I had never really been on, and they have these underground stages – where The Three Stooges shot – and it has this really old elevator that they could put a car into and then go underground There’s a lot of history there, although they are tearing down a lot of the old stages and replacing them with office buildings. But it still feels like a cool place to work.

Jennifer:
Thank you so so much, Melissa, and thanks for all your hard work on these little details [like call numbers]. It is appreciated by some of us! I think my readers will find this really interesting, to have this chat about this crossover from my profession into your world.

Melissa:
Yes, it was fun. Thanks!


Continuing the conversation

Thanks again to Melissa for this amazing chat! I learned so much about the work that goes on behind-the-scenes on sets and props, and I know this will shift my perspective when I analyze library-related scenes in the future. My favorite parts? I enjoyed learning how much Melissa uses research skills in her work as a set decoration buyer and prop buyer, and how much she enjoys that aspect of her creative profession. And I clapped with glee when Melissa shared that she ALMOST became a cataloger at the Library of Congress. How serendipitous is that?! Librarians and prop design = a match made in Hollywood? 😉

Did y’all enjoy this Q&A with Melissa? What did you learn or find interesting? Please leave a comment and share!

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