How Set Design Brings Your Film To Life
Updated: Mar 2
“For an artist, there's nothing better than having the opportunity to create a world that doesn't- but could exist.” ― Christophe Lautrette.
The quote is essentially what a set designer’s job is. Have you watched a movie and ever said, “I wish I could be there”? That’s the power of an impeccable set design. What is set design? Set design- often called scenic, theatre or stage design. In layman terms is designing the set on which a shooting happens. What is a set? It is simply the set-up of props and scenery, where the actors are placed, and the film scene is shot. Let's combine everything and create a better meaning of set design- set design is creating an environment with scenery and props for the actors to be in and deliver their scene for shooting.
Before we move ahead, let me address the elephant in the room- what is the difference between set and production designing? Set and production design are not the same, and it is a common misconception. Production design includes all the visual elements that make up the concept of theatre production, television program or film i.e. make-up, lights, set etc. And set design just focuses on the set.
Watch this video to get a better understanding of set designing.
History of Set Design
Let’s familiarize ourselves with the history of set design- the history starts from the Greek period. The planning and architecture were in a manner that helped the audience from the last row to have clear visuals and audible. Complex Cone shapes were the planning preferred for that. The initial period had only the main character to a maximum of 3 people playing their roles. As the art of acting reached a wider crowd, the crew grew large, and to have the audience engaged and make them feel that they are traveling to different scenes along with the actors’ needed backdrops that suit the scenario, that’s when the set design was born.
Want to read a detailed evolution of set design in Western countries? Check out this article.
India, however, was different. In classical Sanskrit theatre and also the folk forms, the stage design did not exist. There was no need to show a physical environment or background as Indian traditions were non-realistic. Sanskrit drama predominantly used elements such as dance, music and narrators to express the setting while the actors simply performed actions. These dramas were staged in buildings, within temples or palace complexes, constructed according to the principles outlined in the Natyashastra, with auditory and performing spaces demarcated by measurements.
The shift in Indian Drama wasn’t seen until the British raj- a new concept of plays based on Western idioms or performance arose. By the mid-nineteenth century, drama companies existed, and their plays were influenced by reading Shakespeare and other European playwrights, presenting texts inspired by their stagecraft but soon incorporating Indian mythological stories. Sanskrit drama in translation, and, later, social themes sourced from local milieus. The Renaissance Italianate style of painted perspective scenery became Indianized. This offers a simple solution to the production of vast visual extravaganzas, recreating on stage such locales as palaces, forts, jungles, or streets- this was the rise of stage design in Indian Theatre.
To dive deep into the evolution of stage design in Indian Theater, you can read the following articles:
Purpose of Set Design
The set design isn’t just to make the drama more aesthetic; it allows the audience to visualize the setting of the story and adds realism. Let us list down the purpose of set design:
Conveying the setting
One of the most important functions of set design is to communicate where the action is taking place. The setting can be as general as a city or as specific as a room of a house on a particular street in that city. This might be an obvious one, but it is very important to correctly convey the setting of the action, otherwise, it can confuse the audience.
Conveying the period
Imagine your film is set in the 1970s, and you want to shoot a shot of the living room. In the 1970s minimalism was on the rise- so you would expect to see muted colors and art pieces. Patterned walls and floors and large retro furniture are also associated with the era. But, your set is a minimalist modern living room, which doesn’t fit with the era your film is set in. When a stage doesn’t communicate the period the drama is set in, it takes away the audience’s interest and makes the experience non-immersive for the audience.
The iconic set of Peaky Blinders is one of the best examples of conveying period of the drama
Communicating themes or symbols
The set design can also communicate abstract concepts, such as themes and symbols. For example- a quiet deserted town with dark cloudy sky and dead plants set an ominous theme. A path with luscious trees on both sides in bright sunlight set a serene and positive theme.
Set the overall aesthetic of the film
Set is one aspect of a show’s visual aesthetic and it needs to line up with the other design elements, e.g. costume design and lighting design, to create a cohesive overall style. Set design is also important in supporting the style of the production. For example, a play in a naturalistic style would aim to create the impression of reality through realistic-looking props and set items.
How to Make Movie Sets
Let’s briefly look at the stages that go into making a movie set:
The process begins with the set designers reading the script. Understanding the script and visualising it is essential to materialise the set accordingly. With the help of the director and the writers, set designers focus on the best way to conceptualise each scene.
Sketches & Set Design
Drawings or sketches are made of the set next. In larger budget films, the sketches are often architectural and highly technical, whereas lower budget films must ‘make do’ with their environment more than ‘make’ it. In this scenario, they will normally use cheaper methods of design like basic designs or picture boards of pre-existing locations. This is normally because lower budget movies don’t have a dedicated set designer.
Blade Runner Set Design
Another step not often considered by those outside of the set design world is budgeting. This does influence the decision- whether to use a real-life area as the set or build one from scratch.
Next, the designers will scout the location of the set by visiting the in-progress build or the unhired area for filming. They take photos to show to the Director of Photography and gaffer to begin planning.
The filmmakers and set designers will collectively think about how to use the set, the different lines of sight that the camera will see and any possible reflections in windows or on surfaces they might encounter. At this stage, they’ll also make a final storyboard for the camera operators and director. This is to get a more definitive visual plan for the scene. Here, things like where to draw the line for the 180-degree rule (a rule in films that means the camera will mostly stay behind an imaginary straight line when filming a dialogue scene) come into play.
Finally comes the shoot on set. The runners and grips prepare this area, as they are the assistants on set. Normally, some small unforeseen aspects may need to be worked around. Green screens are put up (if needed) on windows to be keyed out (edited) in post-production.
Some Great Movie Sets
Here are some of my favorite movie sets that may help you to understand the power of good set designing:
This movie required sets that were both real (because they were recreating scenes on earth) and out of this world i.e. space (here they have more creative freedom). Being a Cristopher Nolan film, attention to detail was particularly important. One of the most famous sets is the ‘Cooper Farmhouse’- instead of simply locating a farmhouse and adding the mountains and cornfield according to the script’s requirement during post-production, the crew located the perfect spot where the mountains are at some distance and the land is vast. They built a farmhouse from scratch and then planted 500 acres of cornfields to create the set. Did you know- the corn was later sold for a profit over the cost of planting? The set design of any Nolan movie screams detailed and perfect, which is something I love about his movies.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson’s set designs have always had a somewhat whimsical feel to them, like a strangely bizarre yet organic aura. The symmetry and one-point perspectives help emphasize his film’s unique atmosphere, especially when coupled with the fact that the sets are designed shot by shot, frame by frame. In The Grand Budapest Hotel, the light pink/magenta hue of the titular hotel, the symmetric rooms and bakeries and prisons, the way everything feels old yet well-maintained. The Hotel is set in the fictional country of Zabrowka; production designer Adam Stockhausen had to visually create a whole world. This means, no real-life locals were ever used, and everything was created on set – mostly with cardboard and tape. Even the trains and train stations.
Yes, another Nolan movie on the list- one of the most famous sets of the modern era is Inception’s amazing spinning corridor set from the end of the second act of this 2010 epic. In this scene, Joseph Gordon Levitt (in a dream) fights two henchmen in a corridor that is spinning 360 degrees. This surreal set isn’t a feat of CGI, but one of the practical effects. The corridor did actually spin, and the actors all fought inside this prebuilt corridor set inside an airplane hangar in London. This is such an amazing example of creativity and makes you appreciate the art of set designing.
Watch this video to understand how do characters walk on walls
Who is a Set Designer?
A set designer designs and builds the set for a film, television show, theatre show, or performing arts production. This includes designing and planning the set, establishing a look and feel of the set, and building the set as required by the script. The set designer is an integral part of a film’s creative team and works in lockstep with the project’s set decorator, art director, prop master, stage designer, and construction coordinator to bring a set to life.
Responsibilities/ duties of set designers
Some of the key responsibilities of a set designer are:
Produce freehand sketches, accurate scale models, plans and working drawings in consultation with the director of the production, the production manager and other creative artists
Design sets and props, taking into consideration budget allocations and the artistic and technical requirements of the director or producer
Supervise tradespeople who construct the sets and direct set assistants on design interpretations
Advise on other areas of technical production such as lighting and sound.
Arrange objects, position models, and select landscapes and other visual elements according to the script.
Selects artistic media, method and materials.
Conceives and develops ideas, designs and styles for artistic works.
Applies media to surfaces using appropriate techniques.
How to Become a Set Designer
You can become a set designer by completing a degree in design, visual arts, fine arts, creative arts, technical production or visual communication. To get into these courses you usually need to gain your Senior Secondary Certificate of Education.
Many set designers have a background in fine arts, and all of them get practical experience on the set of real productions. Keep in mind that most set designer positions are on a freelance basis, so the same set designer can often work on different productions in close sequence.
You can read the article below for a detailed walk-through on how to make your career in set designing
Set designing is very creative and a career with high scope. If you are somebody who has an artistic flair and can combine your artistic skills with practical skills, then set designing can be a prospective career. Problem-solving is at the core of set designing because there are hurdles at each step when creating the perfect set for the scene. Would you consider becoming a set designer? Let us know in the comments.