Green screen sound stages and virtual scenery are becoming more prevalent in film and television production, but most productions—save for maybe some reality programs—still require the labor and skill of trained craftspeople to build the sets that complete the environment that the characters inhabit.
Operating within the construction department under the direction of the art department, scenic carpenters are a crew of highly skilled technicians that bring to life the creative designs of the production designer, art director, and set designer; this crew is directly managed by the construction foreman and lead carpenter. According to the models, sketches, and blueprints produced by the art department, the scenic carpenters build all interior and exterior sets and physical scenery for a film or television production. Scenery can include basic structures consisting mainly of a few flats and a door or highly involved construction projects like building an entire house, great hall of a castle, or several decks of a spaceship. Carpenters will work on assigned projects as outlined by the foreman and adhere to the department’s production schedule. Like everything in the entertainment industry, this crew works on a strict deadline to produce scenery in preparation for principal photography. If a set is late, the entire production is held up, potentially costing producers millions of dollars.
Under most circumstances, carpenters work within a scenic shop to construct set pieces that are then transported and assembled at the shooting location. When necessary, sets are built in the soundstage where principal photography will take place. For productions that demand on-location filming where is it not logistically feasible to transport sets, carpenters set up shop wherever space can be found and make due in the setting they are given. Again, the production industry can be unpredictable, so those who intend to make a career must be flexible and able to adapt.
Skills & Education
This career requires expertise in standard construction methods, as well as the industry-specific techniques used in film and television. Proficiency in the use of electrical, pneumatic, and manual shop tools is necessary, as a carpenter risks serious injury to himself or others if not adequately trained. A particular college degree is not required for this career, though an education in film and television production is valuable in understanding the production process and learning industry techniques. Professional work as a residential or commercial carpenter is applicable in seeking employment in the entertainment industry. Additionally, a carpenter should have a solid grasp of geometry, algebra, and basic physics. This is a career where those seemingly impractical equations are relevant to everyday activities.
What to Expect
Entry-level work as a scenic carpenter is available on various productions, depending on the needs of the department and size of the production. Typically, independent projects are more likely to hire less experienced technicians who are willing to work for less than scale. A tough truth about the industry is that many have to work for free or low pay to gain experience before carving out a good living working on major features. This is typically a freelance career, though full-time and part-time work is available with scenic shops that cater to the film, television, and theater industries. Other related career opportunities in the construction department for entry-level technicians include work as a carpenter’s assistant or trainee. Carpenters are eligible for membership in IATSE, the union that represents artists and technicians in the film, television, and theatrical production.
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