Model Builder

  • Model Builder

Helping to communicate the set designer’s vision through a physical representation is the model builder. In design meetings, it is understandably difficult for others to fully imagine the finished scenic product based on two-dimensional sketches. Therefore, the scale model becomes the most important and effective tool in representing the world in which a stage show will live.


The model builder is hired by the set designer to construct physical scale models from sketches of the show’s scenery. These models are then used to demonstrate the design to the creative staff, as well as to demonstrate any moving set pieces, flying backdrops, or complicated automation sequences. During the build phase, the master carpenter and crew will refer to the same models in constructing the set. While cardboard and foamcore are still the preferred modelmaking tools of theater, more model builders are developing their skills in the use of 3-D modeling software. Like physical miniatures, the digital version aptly articulates the designer’s concept, but is more portable, easily replicated, and allows for increased flexibility for making changes or augmenting the viewing perspective. Rather than looking at a half-scale stage, the director or carpenter can take a virtual walkthrough or get an accurate look at how an audience member sitting to the extreme house right will perceive the stage. Additionally, performing a set change movement at a design meeting with little cardboard stairs and walls is far more time-consuming than executing a few keystrokes on a laptop.

No matter the medium in which the model builder is working, his or her process begins in consultation with the set designer. The artist will review all materials provided by the designer—varying from rough pencil sketches to polished color illustrations—and creatively interpret how to represent those designs in three dimensions. Again, the model builder will seek the designer’s input and approval in properly conveying style, materials, and other artistic properties of the scenery. If the model requires it, the artist will also apply color finishes that accurately depict elements like aged wood, concrete, and wallpaper, all of which may later be created using faux techniques by the scenic charge artist. Constructing or digitally creating the model is usually solitary work, delivered on a strict deadline. The model builder is responsible for artistic accuracy, but also technical precision based on the given dimensions of the scenic design.

Skills & Education

A formal education in theatrical design, architecture, fine art, or a related field is recommended. Coursework should include set design, stagecraft, sculpting, drawing, art history, or similar topics of study. Technical construction skill and artistic ability are necessary. Additional training in the use of 3-D drafting and modeling software is also beneficial. As the artist will work on a variety of projects, he or she should be comfortable conforming to the designer’s style and representing designs from numerous genres or historical periods. Precision is important, but so is the ability to work quickly while maintaining accuracy.

What to Expect

Model builders are not constructing dollhouses for their own amusement, but building another’s artistic vision. As such, he or she must be malleable and willing to adapt to constantly changing circumstances. A thick skin is also helpful. While most model builders are hired repeatedly by designers who know and trust their work, these fellow artists will not hold back constructive criticism in an effort to perfect the model before presenting it to the director. The model, and therefore its builder, is a reflection on the designer. Artists in this career field may work as freelancers under contract to one or several shows at a time, or may work with a resident theater company, a scenic design and construction company, or as an associate to one designer. One considerable benefit of this role is the flexibility of employment.


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