Stars Aligned for the Prop Coordinator on Brad Pitt's New Sci-Fi Film
Emma Verdugo, who has degrees in Visual Communications and Entertainment Set Design & Decoration from FIDM, was the Prop Coordinator on Brad Pitt's latest film, Ad Astra. She recently worked on the forthcoming Top Gun: Maverick with Tom Cruise, and has Art Department credits on numerous films such as Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, Deepwater Horizon, Fantastic Four, and Saving Mr. Banks.
Where were you born and raised? Where do you currently reside? I was born in Carson City, Nevada. My parents moved to Washington state when I was a baby, which is where I grew up and went to high school. Once I graduated high school, I moved to California and attended the Orange County and Los Angeles FIDM campuses. After I graduated from FIDM, I moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I worked in the film industry in Baton Rouge and New Orleans for a few years before moving back to Los Angeles, which is where I currently reside.
How did you come to study Visual Communications and later Entertainment Set Design & Decoration at FIDM? I originally came to FIDM wanting to do event planning and fashion show production. Throughout my time in the Visual Communications Program, I learned that fashion show production just wasn’t for me. I found my love for set design and decoration during the Materials & Props class. That was when I came to learn about the ESDD Program.
Did you hold any internships or part-time jobs while at FIDM? I did internships in both Visual Communications and ESDD, both of which I found through the Career Center at FIDM. During Visual Communications I was able to get an internship with fashion show producer James Campbell. I was lucky enough to have that internship for at least two quarters where I gained experience of what it takes to produce a fashion show. Then during my ESDD program, I interned for a TeenNick and a Warner Brothers TV show.
When did you realize you definitely wanted to work in the Art Departments of the film and television world? I realized I wanted to work in the Art Department once we had to build a mock set for the Materials & Props class. It was then that I realized I’ve had a love for this my entire life. I used to redecorate and paint my walls every two years growing up. I never realized that it was something that I could do for a living until my time at FIDM.
What were some highlights of your time at FIDM? One of my highlights at FIDM was definitely during the ESDD Program when we went on the Study Tour in Europe. We had an incredible tour guide who showed us the architectural history of Florence, Milan, and Rome. You learn a variety of skills/lessons at FIDM. I think the most important skill is how to work with others and in groups. A majority of your assignments are group projects. There are so many personalities and characters that you work with in the film industry, so that learning in a group setting was extremely helpful to me.
Do you feel you had a "big break" or defining moment in your career? Being financially stable and independent has always been one of my top priorities. That being said, I recently joined the IATSE 44, which is the local union for Art Department members in the film/television industry. Being a part of this union gives me the opportunity to work on major studio jobs, while receiving negotiated wages, health benefits, and pension. Because of IATSE I am lucky enough to do what I love in the film industry and make a livable wage.
Tell us about some of your favorite jobs over the years. I feel incredibly lucky to have worked on the variety of productions that I have. My favorite part of my job is the research that goes into each project. Saving Mr. Banks will always be one of my favorites. We had to research three different decades in order to accomplish the set decoration for this film. We worked closely with the Disney archives and even got a chance to shoot at Disneyland for two days, which was so much fun.
What was it like to work on recent projects such as Top Gun: Maverick and Ad Astra? Both of these films were so amazing and challenging in their own ways. I worked in the prop department on both films, which means we were in charge of everything that the actors handle (watches, helmets, sunglasses, flight gear, etc.). One project was based in the future and required us to be innovative while designing/purchasing the props, while Top Gun: Maverick was all about maintaining accuracy to not only the Navy, but the huge Top Gun fan base.
You have moved to various locations for work. Any favorite cities? New Orleans will forever be my favorite. There is so much culture, art, music, and delicious food.
Tell us about your current project, Little Things, starring Denzel Washington. Well, I can’t tell you much since we are in the early stages of production. But I am currently working as one of the buyers for the set decoration department where I am also responsible for coordinating duties like budget tracking, art clearances, product placement, etc. It is a physiological thriller, which is my favorite genre, so it has been a lot of fun to be a part of.