Offstage: What Does A Set Designer Do?

INSIDE AGENTI  /   JAN 02, 2020

STEFAN MANCHEV  •   5 MIN READ

STEFAN MANCHEV

STUDIO MANAGER

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Find out more about the art of set design, where creativity meets craft. Set designers are the unsung heroes of stage and screen, architects of fantasy, and engineers of illusion.

 

 

In the cinematic universe, a Set Designer’s role is often equated to that of an architect working within an architectural firm. This comparison stems from their pivotal responsibility in conceptualizing and producing detailed working drawings. These drawings are not mere sketches; they are the blueprints that the Construction Department relies on to bring to life the elaborate stage sets and intricate scenery that become the backdrop for the stories told on screen.

 

These designers are the visionaries behind the physical spaces that actors inhabit, crafting environments that can range from the historically accurate to the wildly fantastical. Their work is foundational to the visual storytelling process, providing the tangible framework upon which the narrative is built. Unlike architects, whose designs must adhere to strict codes and practical considerations, Set Designers enjoy a broader creative license. Their primary mandate is to create spaces that evoke emotions and support the director’s vision, all while ensuring feasibility for the construction teams.

 

 

 

Here’s a general list of what a set designer in the entertainment industry, i.e. film and television, is responsible for creating:

  • Surveying locations and creating accurate as-built drawings.

 

  • Construction drawings of stage sets; plans & elevations, scale detail drawings, FSD’s (full size details). These may be architectural or mechanical in nature.

 

  • Working drawings of any period of architecture as well as fantasy or futuristic/science fiction designs.

 

  • Working drawings of organic elements: topographic maps, terrain creation, volcanoes, mine shafts, caves or subterranean features, other planets.

 

  • Working drawings of vehicles: automobiles, aircraft, ships or marine craft of any period.

 

  • Working drawings for furniture and props.

 

  • Working drawings for special effects shots.

 

  • Director Plans, stage plans, and location layouts.

 

  • Dimensional study models of paper and wood as well as 3D digital models with photorealistic textures and other elements like furniture or vehicles.

— ARCHITECTURAL DRAWINGS

— VECHICLES & PROPS

— PERIOD & FANTASY SUBJECTS

— STAGE & LOCATION PLANS

One of the most striking distinctions between a set designer and professionals like architects or interior designers is the unique opportunity to conceive and illustrate concepts that would be unimaginable in the latter professions, even over several lifetimes. For a set designer, the primary concern isn’t compliance with building regulations or structural integrity, but rather ensuring that the visual impact of the final product is extraordinary. Design isn’t a secondary consideration; it’s the essence of the work.

 

What competencies are essential for a set designer? A significant advantage of this field is the perpetual journey of discovery and learning—it’s not about being confined to drafting mundane ceiling plans indefinitely. The learning curve is ever-present.

 

Whether your passion lies in crafting vehicles or architectural marvels, the choice is yours. Or, if your heart is set on vehicle design alone, that’s also within reach. Many professionals hone a particular craft, dedicating themselves to the design work they find most fulfilling. The realm of set design is an expansive buffet of creative opportunities. Even after 100 Films and TV shows a Set designer will still be thinking “I’d like to create that I haven’t yet done.”

 

 

 

So, what are the primary skills you need? I’d start with this list:

  • The ability to draft – You have to know how to create proper working drawings and unlike fine art drawing, anyone can learn how to draft. It can be exacting because precision is important. But, as they say, it isn’t brain surgery. You can learn it.

 

  • Camera basics – We design scenery, not permanent buildings. We design for a camera. I tell people that basically, we create beautiful reflectors. A film is a record of light particles that have bounced off of people and scenery and passed through a glass lens. Making it look good is the main objective. Understanding lenses and how they work is a big part of successfully designing stage sets.

 

  • Architecture & proportion – You’ll never know everything, but knowing the basics of building history is a must. You’ll be drawing details of doors, windows, stairways, and furniture. You’ll specify hardware, mouldings, plaster details and finishes. There is very little that we order from a catalogue. Almost everything is custom made by studio craft persons.

 

  • Set Construction – Understanding how sets are built and knowing correct nomenclature is a key part of being able to draw studio sets. A lot of our drawings are similar to architectural drawings but there are some big differences between them. The layout styles, nomenclature and notation have more in common with theatrical and 1920’s architectural drawings.

Also, you’ll need to understand basic physical special effects, how to create and lay out backings, both painted and photo backings, know how to create scale drawings from photographs and artwork, understand visual effects requirements, and do location surveying. The list seems overwhelming but remember, you will learn a lot of these things on the job. You just need the basics and a good portfolio to get your foot in the door.

 

You’ll need to be proficient with computer software. There will probably be one program that you will do most of your work in and that will be a personal preference. Unlike architecture, there is not a standard program that we use, so you may work on a project with many people using a wide variety of programs.

 

Currently, in the Bulgaria, the most-used software programs for set design are  Autocad, Archicad, Sketchup, Blender and a few others like Photoshop, V-Ray and Twin Motion for renders. Don’t try to learn them all. Software diversity is great but it’s better to get really good a just one or two.

 

There are a lot of choices of film schools in the country, but if that is the route you choose you’ll have to check to be sure that they have a course in film design or a Production Design track. Many schools don’t.

 

If you are thinking about schools and looking for an alternative to a four year program, We hold twice a year 5 days seminars in set design that focus on the basic skills you need to get started.

 

If you want to find out more information check out our EVENTS section in the blog.

 

 

 

HAPPY DRAWING EVERYONE!

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