Audiences don’t usually spend much time wondering if a particular scene of a film or television show was shot on location or created on a sound stage, and that’s the way it should be. Set designers that create elaborate and visually stunning scenery leave an impression on admiring viewers, but the subtle sets that seamlessly create a believable environment inside of a sound stage are noteworthy for holding the suspension of disbelief.
The set designer works within the art department under the supervision of the production designer and art director to help realize the director’s vision for the scenery of a film or television show. Based on the script, the director and production designer—often aided by a concept artist or illustrator—go through a process of visualization to design sets that must be built for the production. Through iteration, those design concepts are refined. Following approval of the final sketches, the set designer is responsible for translating production designer’s drawings to architectural blueprints that detail how the sets are to be constructed. He or she must establish the true dimensions of the sets and how multiple pieces must fit together, taking into account structural stability and production requirements for the crew and equipment.
Skills & Education
A set designer working in film and television production requires the same training and skill used by scenic designers in live theatrical entertainment. Expertise in traditional construction methods and those standard within the production industry is essential, as is a firm grasp of basic physics and mathematics. Like residential and commercial architects, set designers typically use computer-drafting software like AutoCAD to aid in drawing construction schematics, or blueprints. A college degree is not always required, though an education in film and television production or theatrical design with a concentration in scenic design is recommended. Set design, like many of the entertainment trades, is a skilled artistic craft that requires an individual with talent and experience.
What to Expect
Employment opportunities exist within scenic design shops that cater to the entertainment industry and at shops operated on-site at motion picture studios. Set designers often move into freelance work after having trained as an apprentice under a master designer and established their credentials through numerous professional projects. On the job, working conditions will vary greatly, depending on the production schedule. Hours can be highly irregular, dependent on the deadlines set to begin principal photography. The process of a film’s pre-production is different in many ways from that of a television series. In television, the set designer will work on a revolving schedule, repeating his or her design process for each episode that might demand new sets. He or she must be flexible and able to adapt to changing circumstances. Most important is the ability to collaborate and work effectively with others to achieve the highest possible quality of product.
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