The Scavengers: Michelle Torres

Michelle Torres' work has graced your television set during your favorite critically aclaimed series and guilty pleasures, but you probably weren't paying attention. 

Today’s television landscape includes more commercials at shorter intervals, while the viewing public’s attention span and patience is shrinking. However, with the advent of DVR technology, brands have been forced to great lengths to capture and keep your attention. More than ever, commercials are produced as short-form films with higher production values and even A-list directors.

That 30-second commercial you skipped over while watching The Voice last week represents hundreds of hours of planning and production time. Michelle Torres, freelance art department coordinator, is just one of the hardworking people whose work you so willfully ignored. Go ahead, feel guilty.

A native of California, Torres got her start in production when a friend and art director offered her a gig as an art production assistant. Since then, she has held numerous roles within the art department on commercials for Toyota/Scion, Samsung, Nike, and Sprint. Not that you’d remember her contributions since you callously abused the fast-forward button.

Get In Media: What are the typical duties of an art department coordinator?

Michelle Torres: A typical day on the job usually starts in pre-production. My days range from 10 to 12 hours during pre-production to 12 to 19 hours on shoot days. During pre-production, I work alongside my art director and leadman working out scheduling, coordinating with my vendors, and making sure all purchase orders, checks, credit cards, and insurance are handled. I also collect my art department crew’s timecards and go over them to make sure they are completed properly and calculated before I hand them over to the production supervisor. An art department coordinator not only deals with the paperwork and scheduling, but I also get to help with finding and locating props, set dressing, building materials, or tracking down an eight-foot roller skate.

GIM: Where do you find the props that are needed on set?

MT: My vendors that I use for rentals are spread out all over Los Angeles and they are prop rental houses where we can find just about anything we need to decorate a set. If we cannot find it to rent and we cannot find it to purchase then I turn to my set construction companies to build it or alter something that I can purchase. 

RELATED: Set Decorator Laura Richarz put a lot of thought and effort into decorating Godric’s home in the second season of HBO’s True Blood. And then they went and blew the whole thing up. 

The art department has many crewmembers with multiple titles. We all work together as a well-oiled machine to make sure everything is ordered, purchased, and picked up or delivered. After we finish filming we have to account for every item we rented before packing it back up into boxes and returning it to its proper vendor. I, as an art coordinator, am responsible for making sure all of our rented items go back to the right vendor. If anything is lost or missing, or accidentally went back to the wrong vendor, I track it down and get it back to the vendor or I purchase something comparable to replace it. Occasionally, some items are irreplaceable and we have to deal with what is call L&D [loss and damage] where we have to pay the full replacement cost.

Michelle Torres (left) on setMichelle Torres (left) on setGIM: Walk us through a typical day on the job.

MT: When the job starts, I meet the production staff and collect the items I need: purchase orders, insurance certificate, credit card information, accounting information, a production manual of do’s and don’ts, time cards, petty cash, petty cash envelopes, mileage forms, kit rental forms—basically all the paperwork I need. I spend the next few days prior to shooting (“prep days”) coordinating paperwork with my vendors. I also assist my leadman and set decorator with finding/researching where to find set dressing/props that are not at the obvious prop houses. I help to organize all of the pick-ups and purchases. Then we move on to our shoot days.

When we are shooting, I am dealing with timecards for my crew and I may still be helping with paperwork or finding set dressing for additional shoot days on that particular commercial.  A typical commercial can be a one-day shoot or [as long as a] five- to seven-day shoot … it just depends on how many spots are being covered. After we are done shooting, I now have to “wrap” the job. I help organize the returns of our rentals and purchases, and after our trucks have returned everything, they meet up with me to hand over all of their paperwork so I can comb through it making sure all of my purchase orders reflect what we rented and how they were paid for or if they still need to be paid.

I collect everyone’s petty cash and line out what was spent on what (meals, set dressing purchases, truck fuel, etc.) I make sure everyone’s timecards are completed and properly filled out. Once I have finished all of my paperwork, I head back in to the production office and turn everything in to production, including any non-returnable props items—they usually donate them to a local Salvation Army or Goodwill.

GIM: How long have you been working in your field?

MT: I have worked in my current position for just over eight years now, but I also cross over into other positions in my department and production. I feel very fortunate to be able to move around in both departments and offer my skills where needed. I often work as a [set] decorator or set dresser for the art department. A decorator does all of the shopping for the shoot and a set dresser places the decor accordingly per the decorator or art director.

I also work as a production coordinator, which has the same responsibilities as the art department coordinator, except as a production coordinator I handle everything for all the other departments. The art department typically has their own coordinator because they have so much paperwork, so it helps to take the additional workload off of the production coordinator who is dealing with five other departments.

“Honestly, if you do not know someone in the industry, I would recommend going to school for an opportunity to work in film.”
GIM: Prior to your current role, what jobs and internships did you have?

MT: I started off as an art PA [Production Assistant] and I was a typical gofer—go get coffee, go get lunch, go get snacks. I started off making $75 a day without any overtime and I still worked the same amount of hours. I know it’s a bit cliché, but I knew someone who was an art director and that is how I got into the industry. I still had to prove that I was a hard worker with an impeccable work ethic, but at least I was lucky enough to know someone who would give me a chance.

GIM: Did you take any classes or participate in any programs that helped prepare you for your current career?

MT: I didn’t have any proper training, but I will say that typing was a huge help. I took online classes in Photoshop and Illustrator, and I basically threw myself into learning Excel and PowerPoint. Both are pretty important. I think most people know [Microsoft] Office programs. If not, you should at the bare minimum. Art classes helped a little, but natural talent seems to prevail in most of my coworkers that work in the art department. Honestly, if you do not know someone in the industry, I would recommend going to school for an opportunity to work in film. For families that are economically or socially disadvantaged, there is a program called Streetlights, which is a production assistant program. Some of my best PAs have come from this program.

GIM: Give us an example of a time when finding props was difficult…
MT: One time we needed a ton of dandelions for a makeup commercial—the talent was supposed to blow it—and it obviously had to be the “perfect” dandelion. I drove around for three days gathering dandelions from fields, outside of homes—I would knock on doors and ask their permission first—and then I would put them in vials of water that were strategically spaced inside hard foam inside of Rubbermaid bins. I think I had over 150 dandelions by the time the shoot came and we probably used five!


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