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Understanding the Basics of Set Design

Hobbit House

Set design is one of the most important aspects of any film or television production. In any production, good set design can make the difference between professionalism and amateurism.

Analyzing the Script

As a set designer, you’ll need to form a tight, collaborative team with your director and costume designer. You’ll also work closely with those of your colleagues who are in charge of lighting and sound design. Like all processes in dramatic storytelling, set design starts with carefully analyzing your script. Naturally, you’ll make a different kind of analysis than an actor or director might make. The director will read the script with an eye for character motivations, subtexts, and narrative arcs. In contrast, your read-through will focus solely on visual elements.

Underlining Key Elements

Though you might do most of your reading on a screen, you’ll want to have a physical copy of the script at your disposal. As you read through, mark all passages of the script that identify sensory elements. Use a different color to highlight references to setting, costume, lighting, sound cues, and props. Underline any pointed references to color or imagery. You may want to underline props with red so they stand out especially well. Looking over your underlined passages, you’ll be able to quickly spot any repeating themes in the script. These are cues you should follow in your set design to give the whole production a cohesive feel.

Making An Actionable List

As you go through your notes and assemble a list of needed props, be aware of where props originate. Items deriving from spoken dialogue take priority over items mentioned in stage directions. After all, the dialogue comes directly from the pen of the screenwriter or playwright. On the other hand, stage directions sometimes come from other sources. If there’s any conflict, you should generally prioritize written lines.

Thumbnail Sketches

Because you are working in a visual medium, you’ll need to describe the look and feel of your production to other team members early on. This is best achieved if you can make some simple sketches or line drawings. These “thumbnail sketches” needn’t be larger than several inches across. It shouldn’t take you more than a few minutes to complete each sketch.

Rendering Your Vision

Once you’ve completed your initial sketches, consult with your creative collaborators and integrate their ideas. Be open-minded and willing to compromise with your team. Then you’ll be ready for set design rendering on your computer. Thanks to modern visual design software, rendering is easier than ever. In the earliest days of television, sets were extremely simplistic and lacking in detail. These days, computer rendering tools have enabled people to quickly design sets of great complexity and beauty. Thanks to computer rendering, you can tweak your design to perfection before turning it into reality.

If you’re new to set design, get ready to discover a field where you can truly express your inner artistry. This is one field that is wide-open in terms of artistic and economic opportunity.


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