Turning 30 Twice: A Set Designer Does What it Takes to Make it in New York
Annie Laurie Miller pulls up on a bike, a black basket strapped to the back. She is in the East Village. White paint is splattered on her leggings near the foot of her right leg from work that day. She has Chuck Taylor’s on her feet, and she has just changed into the black shirt she is wearing now after eating dinner at her favorite restaurant, NAVY, that evening. Beads of sweat pool on her neck.
Fanning herself with a piece of junk mail she has just pulled out from her bag, she sighs.
“I wish I would just stop sweating,” she laughs. She had taken a redeye in from Colorado the night before and had not had a chance to go home.
She throws the mail back in her bag. “Could you grab that?” she says, pointing at a case of beer, then proceeds to walk into the building and begins climbing the stairs of the walkup.
Set design means envisioning a set before it has ever existed, and being able to articulate and construct that vision from the ground up. The process is highly stressful, physically straining, and requires constant crisis solving.
“Stop sweating!” She yells at herself as she passes floor two. She stops in a friend’s apartment on the third floor of the building to put her stuff down and collect herself. There are three women who share the apartment. They are all named Sarah.
Eventually, she makes her way up the rest of the stairs to the rooftop. The party is just getting started. There are blue balloons lying on the wooden floorboards and brick walls short enough not to inhibit the view of the rest of the city, yet tall enough to keep an intoxicated person from a dangerous misstep.
Wind suddenly lifts the balloons into the air. Guests rush to prevent the balloons from disappearing into the breeze. One of the Sarah’s lifts a blue solo cup into the air and shouts as she continues to smile for the guy who is taking her picture.
Miller laughs at the whole scene and comfortably returns to a conversation with Katya Martin, a Spanish actress and former love interest of Cole Sprouse. Miller had met Martin on the set of “My First Miracle,” one of the first films for which Miller had designed the set a couple years prior.
Annie Laurie Miller is a freelance set designer, stylist, art director, and prop master for commercials and films. Miller is given the script and the purpose. She is responsible for bringing the scene to life. She is given a budget for the props, and then she runs free. Depending on the scale of the job, she hires assistants, grabs supplies and props from all across the city, and then assembles them for the commercial or film being produced. This means understanding the context, understanding the intentions and themes, and being able to articulate that look to an audience. On a day-to-day basis, she might be running to Home Depot and purchasing lumber, or she might be organizing a wardrobe for a movie. Set design means envisioning a set before it has ever existed, and being able to articulate and construct that vision from the ground up. The process is highly stressful, physically straining, and requires constant crisis solving.
Close friends call her Annie Laurie, and they just celebrated her 26th birthday. On set, Miller is 31 years old, and she goes by either Mills or Al.
A lot of women lie about their age—they take a few years off here or there, but not Annie Laurie Miller. She has always felt older than she is, and she wants the people she works with to see her in that same light.
“I started lying about my age when I turned 25,” Miller says.
She was tired of being young and a woman, and she had been wishing she were older for quite a long time.
Miller says that when one of her assistants, Lee Clayton, found out her real age, he struggled with being able to hold the same level of respect.
Producers never mind her age once the job is done—she works hard and she excels in whatever job she is given. It is the initial hiring process that makes things complicated. The production industry is competitive. Most set designers are between the ages of 40 and 50, and producers assume younger freelancers have little experience and will produce lower quality work.
While Miller was 24, she finally made her decision—on her 25th Birthday, she would turn 30 years old.
“I’ve always felt old... I felt old from the moment I started at The King’s College.”
Miller had taken a gap year after graduating high school to make money to support herself. After that gap year she had gone on to get an Associate’s degree of visual arts at Columbia Basin in Washington. She studied fashion and ceramics.
Miller transferred into King’s her junior year. King’s was a small school, and she said the administration assumed all first-year students were incoming freshmen. Miller wanted to be taken seriously and did not like to feel underestimated. She had been independent her whole life, and felt much older than other people her age, not to mention incoming freshmen.
While she says King’s did not prepare her for anything relevant to her career field, she wanted to be a well-rounded individual. She learned how to physically make art at Columbia Basin. At King’s she learned what art is, what it means, and why it matters.
“She’s always singing as she works. She knows the words to about every song. You have to ask her to stop.”
However, Miller says that her education looked different than most of her peers. She had not received any money from her parents and had to work 50 hours a week to pay for her rent and education on top of going to class.
“I wasn’t as involved in a lot of the social aspects,” she said about her time at the college. However, Miller said that working so many hours was what gave her the tools and ability to now pursue the career she wants through work ethic and learning how to multitask.
Set design has been her dream job ever since sitting down for an informational interview with a woman named Carly Beardli, a set designer who had taken the time to meet with Miller and talk about her day-to-day career.
“I remember walking out so clearly. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I knew. I knew it,” Miller says. Now Miller is doing exactly what she dreamed of, years later.
She seems completely at home on the set of a KIDZ BOP commercial in Bushwick. She is standing on a 15-foot ladder, pinning balloons against a backdrop her assistants, Lee Clayton and James Boxer, have been assembling for the past three hours. About 100 balloons have been blown up, and there are approximately 500 left. Miller is singing to herself, loudly.
“She’s always singing as she works,” says Clayton. “She knows the words to about every song. You have to ask her to stop.”
It is a lighting day—they are only setting everything up. Tomorrow the production crew will begin shooting. The production manager, Caroline Conrad, has gotten avocado bacon breakfast burritos and coffee for everyone. Conrad has been a production manager for a couple of years now. She was the PM for a Carly Rae Jepson music video.
Conrad sits on a stool. She is barefoot. She says that the KIDZ BOP commercial is a lower-pressure job than normal. There is music playing over the speaker system, keeping the environment light-hearted. The environment is important considering that everyone has been there for almost seven hours, and will be there for another five.
“For any project, the days are at least 12 hours, at minimum,” says Allison Hepler, another worker on set who has done several projects with Miller. “I have friends in office jobs who complain about staying at work for 10 hours in a day. I pull 16-hour days sometimes. All I do is work.”
Miller works an average of 80 hours a week.
Hepler says that set design is all about who you know. In the beginning it is really hard, but you build trust, and the same people often end up asking a designer to work on their other projects, or asking for referrals from mutual friends.
“You work really hard and accept every job you can,” Hepler says. Miller says that her long hour days are starting to wear on her.
“Two weeks ago I worked a 15-hour day, a 16-hour day, an 18-hour day, and then a 14- hour day right in a row,” she says. Working more hours does not mean getting paid more—it means better set design, which means getting better recommendations for more job opportunities.
Miller says, “It’s not sustainable—those were the words [my brother] used. I can do it now, but it’s not sustainable... I haven’t had a significant relationship besides my career.”
Boxer, Miller, and Hepler have all decided to join a Union because of the hours. They have not decided on which one.
While Miller loves the independence of freelance and the feel of Indie movies, she is tired. Unions offer regular work hours and health insurance. Most movies with a higher budget sign with a Union, meaning that only that Union’s members can be hired as crew for the job. Miller says joining a Union is like stepping into legitimacy.
However, joining a Union comes at a cost. For instance, the Producers Guild of America makes promises such as easier access to job opportunities, medical and dental coverage, and, most importantly, limits the hours a crew can be asked to work. At the same time, a designer or producer has to be accepted into the Union through a $50 competitive application process requiring references from inside and outside the Union, and then is subject to a $725 initiation fee, and annual dues of $395.
Besides fees, Miller says there is not freedom in choosing which jobs to accept, and designers are not always put where they are best suited, but where they are most-needed.
“You stay in your lane,” she said. “But I’m ready for normal hours.”
Miller stands there on the rooftop in East Village, a drink in her hand, a huge smile on her face. The balloons are flying all over the place, and only a few dozen have managed to maintain their original position on the ground. She smiles and laughs contagiously with photographers, actors, and designers, effortlessly bringing people into the conversation. She seems to have forgotten about the paint on her leggings, the sweat on her back, and her lack of sleep. She seems to have forgotten how many hours she has worked or how many she will be working the next day.
Miller expects to be in a Union in a few years. She will then be able to sleep and have more sustainability in her career. She also thinks she will stop lying about her age.
“Maybe when I turn 30 for the second time,” she says.