AI: A New Angst For Designers

The Must-Have Desktop Device of The Future? Coming in 2028 – The all-in-one 100 Petabyte AI generator, espresso machine, and desk lamp.

The topic of AI-generated content has suddenly dominated the news, or at least as far as the entertainment business is concerned. The subject is certainly a factor in the recent Writer’s Guild strike that is now in progress as it’s one of the sticking points that caused negotiations with the studios and the producers to break down, and not without unrealistic concerns on the Guild’s part.

The discussions around AI-generated content have been percolating in the background for some time but only recently has it seemed that people are taking it seriously. At first, it was just educators who were worried about students using ChatGTP to generate papers or do tests for them. But now several fake Drake songs and a photographer winning a photo contest with an AI-generated picture have suddenly focused the public’s attention on the possibilities.

Photo: AI image by Boris Eldagsen

If the studios can eliminate or minimize writer’s contributions to story and script development, how long will it be before they eliminate actual designers from the process? Are Art Departments seeing their extinction on the horizon?

Twenty years ago the Film industry, at least from the Art Department’s perspective, looked askance at computers. They weren’t to be trusted. The secret fear was that once they became ensconced in the design part of the industry, a lot of work would evaporate. Once something ( a location, a set, a detail drawing) was committed to digital information, jobs would begin to evaporate. The exact opposite happened.

The idea that digital information is permanent, for one thing, is now hysterical. For another, the idea that they would reduce the need for individuals is also funny. The possibilities for design exploded. Now you could do many versions of versions in less time, create renders of drawings and models, create visual displays that would have been unthinkable before. The average size of Art Departments on most medium to larger films has doubled, sometimes even tripled. You need people to generate all that work and now that process is the norm. On one feature not long ago there were over twenty Set Designers and a dozen Illustrators where there would have been a third of that number before.

As for the permanence of digital information, that happens only with excellent human oversight. On one feature we were instructed to copy all of our files to two different external hard drives for safety and to ensure the files would be available for the film sequel. We assumed that by doing so we were pretty much insuring that we wouldn’t be working on said sequel.

A year later I got a call asking if I was available to work on the sequel. It seems that one of the hard drives had gone missing. The other one was located but wouldn’t be of any use. The person responsible for keeping it safe had decided that they needed to back up their music library, and rather than spend $50 on a new hard drive, had erased what I estimated to be over $1,000,000 worth of design work. We were all hired back to redraw what we had drawn once before.

Had the drawings been done on vellum, they could have just pulled the sheets out of the file and made new prints. Which medium is more ‘permanent’?

A recent article at the Center For Data Innovation website outlines the issues that people are commenting about when dealing with AI. The author, Daniel Castro, argues that people are worrying about the wrong issues when discussing AI.

He argues that while AI systems should certainly not be exempt from complying with intellectual property (IP) laws, they should also not be held to a higher standard than humans are when it comes to ‘artistic influence’, as it were. he argues that AL will create more opportunities for artistic creation and that training AL software with copywritten images is no different than what humans do when they are influenced by artwork and music when creating new work.

Ed Sheeran recently won a lawsuit brought against him for supposedly copying a Grammy-winning song by Marvin Gaye. Sheeran defended himself by noting that the same chord structure and melody he used in his song was common to hundreds of other songs which were similar but yet different.

The case was watched very carefully by the music industry as well as artists everywhere, as it would have had a huge stifling effect on music creation as well as future artistic work if Sheeran had lost.

Current laws do not make it illegal to create generative AI work that is similar to another piece of art or image, but they do prevent the creation of a work that is identical or nearly identical to another work. Of course that description of what constitutes as a copy has the danger of veering into a very subjective territory.

In his article Castro makes the point that rather than limit the pool of information that AI has access to in creating generative artwork, it is incumbent on policymakers to strengthen and enforce IP laws, which would protect artists in other ways as well.

There may be a time when a producer or director decides to “pre-design’ a show using AI technology. Architects and Interior Designers are using it now to create basic designs and floor plans. But I think its usefulness is limited. Without a deep knowledge of stage work, period design, an understanding of the story, technical knowledge and an artistic eye, much less personal aesthetics, drawing ability, and color sense, with generative AI you will basically have an interesting collage /scrapbook instead of a fully thought-out design.

Designing For The Camera – Understanding Cameras & lenses

New Master Class – Pre-Sale at 50% Off Until May 15

Until now, no one has created a class that explains cameras to designers.

You’ll not only learn the technical information that will help you understand the mechanic of cameras and optics, but you’ll learn how they capture your scenery and how they can affect your design decisions.

Image: Warner Bros Studios

As a film designer you must understand how cameras capture and record images, because that’s how the audience sees and experiences your work.

Few if any film design schools include optics as part of the curriculum leaving film designers with a huge disadvantage when working with the cinematographer on a new project.  The information in this course will help you create effective and believable sets that help the camera tell the film’s visual story as successfully as possible.

Image: Netflix

With this course, you will be able to discuss the camera requirements for your sets with the cinematographer and visual effects supervisor and not be excluded from important decisions that affect your designs. It will further your knowledge for a successful career in the Art Department as a set designer, art director, or production designer.

What you’ll learn in this course:

  • Cameras – Film vs. Digital
  • Lenses – spherical vs. anamorphic, prime vs. zoom
  • Specialty lenses – lenses and attachments that solve tricky shooting issues
  • Understanding focal lengths
  • Understanding depth-of-field
  • Aperture settings – F-stops vs. T-stops
  •  Dynamic range – over and under exposure comparisons
  • Lighting – color temperature, typical lighting styles
  • The Inverse square law of lighting
  • The basics of optics for in-camera effects such as foreground  miniatures and forced perspective sets.
  • Understanding color grading vs. color correction,  and digital intermediates or D.I.’s
  • Why is resolution important? Understanding the race for more pixel depth.
  • User Manual – you’ll get a manual with both text and diagrams that explains the concepts of the course for later reference

You will also get access to the weekly Community Lounge where you can get questions answered and meet other members of the film community.

In addition, I’ve included a special section that analyzes a number of the shots from the new German film, “All Quiet On The West Front” (Im Westen Nichts Neues). which won Oscars for both Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction in 2023.

With 3D model recreations of some of the sets and locations, I’ll discuss why certain shots were difficult to get and how they achieved them. I’ll also discuss how physical locations and built sets can sometimes make shooting problematic and how careful pre-planning can avoid frustrating situations during production.

Sign Up Now

What Does A Set Designer Do?

Drawing by William Ladd Skinner

“So, what is it exactly that you do?”

That’s a typical question I get from people when I tell them my job title. People assume many different things, based on what they’ve heard from others, or read in a magazine. And most of the time they have an incorrect idea about my job description.

It’s not their fault, really. Our industry does a lousy job of explaining job titles in the entertainment world. They just leave it up to people outside the business to figure it out for themselves. It doesn’t help that the same jobs sometimes have different titles depending on what part of the U.S. you’re in, much less what part of the world you’re talking about. Many people who now work in the entertainment industry had never heard of the Art Department or knew that film design was a career option until after they had finished college.

I received an email from Bruno Anselmo, a Set Designer in Brazil. He was curious to know how our job descriptions might differ even though we have the same job title. His background is both in theater and film and video so I’m sure he experiences the same confusion with people he meets who aren’t familiar with the film industry. (Bruno, tell me if I’m wrong here.)

The job title ‘Set Designer’ means different things here depending on the end-product. In the professional theater field, the Set Designer is the lead artist for the creation and implementation of the visuals for a stage production. In the film and television industry, this role as head of the visual aesthetics of a project is given the title ‘Production Designer’.

To make matters even more confusing, the title ‘Production Designer’ is a department head title, not an actual job description. All Production Designers in the professional film and television entertainment industry are Art Directors. The Production Designer title is given to the head of the Art Department, and this title must be approved by the Art Directors Guild for shows which are produced under the union contract.

Let’s look at a typical Art Department:

Some will argue Set Decoration is a separate department as the Set Decorator works in tandem with the Production Designer rather than as a sub-department. In some cases and projects this may be true, the Set Decorator is absolutely a major contributor and an influence on the look of a film. But still, this department is under the Art Department umbrella and the winner of an Academy Award for Art Direction goes to the Set Decorator as well as the Production Designer.

You’ll see that the Set Designer designation is in the table above in the ‘Design’ category. I usually tell people that a Set Designer in the film industry is a close approximation to an architect in an architectural firm. They are in charge of creating the working drawings that are used by the Construction Department to construct the stage sets and scenery that is used at a location.

Traditionally the Set Designer position was a starting point for Art Directors but this is not always the case. Some Art Directors come from set decoration or a scenic artist position.

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. Images: HBO, Netflix
Futuristic & Science Fiction. Images: Paramount Pictures
Period & Fantasy subjects. Images: Walt Disney Pictures
Vehicles & Props. Images: Warner Bros., Touchstone Pictures
Location Builds. Images: Universal Pictures
Stage & Location Plans Images: HBO, Walt Disney Pictures

As you can see, probably the biggest difference between a set designer and an architect or an interior designer is that over the course of a career you’ll get to design and draw things that no one in either of the other two professions would if their career lasted 300 years. Instead of worrying about building code or structural concerns, your main focus is making sure the final result looks fantastic. The design is the main focus, not an afterthought.

So, what skills do you need as a set designer? Well, one of the big plusses for me and for most people that work in the industry is that you will never stop learning. You won’t be stuck drawing reflected ceiling plans the rest of your life. It will be a constant learning process.

If you want to design vehicles as well as architecture then you can. If you ONLY want to design vehicles, you can. Many people develop a specialty and primarily just do the type of design that they like best. It’s a never-ending smorgasbord of design possibilities. After having done over 80 films, there are still things 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 craftspersons.
  • 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 U.S., the most-used software programs for set design are Vectorworks, Sketchup, Rhino, Blender, Modo, Autocad, Moment Of Inspiration, Z-brush, Solidworks, 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 offer specific classes in set design that focus on the basic skills you need to get started.

Our 10-Week Set Design Fundamentals series is available on-line and is self-paced so you can progress on your own schedule. It is now on sale for 40% off until May 30, 2023.

You can find out more information here.

Cinegear Expo – Why You Should Go

First of all, this is not a paid ad. I’m getting nothing out of doing this post other than making people aware that they may be missing a big opportunity to take advantage of an event where they can learn a lot about the state of current and upcoming technology that is created specifically for the entertainment industry.

Cinegear is an annual expo that takes place in Los Angeles during the summer. This year it’s being held back at its usual spot on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood on June 1 – 4. (There was one in New York in March and there will be a slimmed down version in Atlanta in October). And, it’s free. Admission is now waived, you’ll just have to pay for parking in an adjacent structure.

Known mainly as a product expo for manufacturers and purveyors of cameras, lighting instruments and production equipment, the event is a perfect place for designers and art directors to find out about inventions and equipment that will affect their jobs now and in the future.

People who aren’t camera-savvy tend to be intimidated by the immense amount of hardware on display and assume that they have nothing to gain by spending a day looking at cameras and grip equipment.

Yes, it’s geared toward professional camera crews, but they don’t make you take a test at the gate. The vendors are more than happy to answer any and all questions about their merchandise, even ones that you think might be simplistic. There are also hands-on exhibits and master classes available to anyone.

Where else can you go and see (and play with) every available cinema camera that’s on the market? My daughter loves checking out those $60,000 cameras that she can’t yet afford to rent.

At the Panavision booth they’ll even put any vintage anamorphic lens you want on one of their cameras so you can see them in action.

And it’s not just cameras that are on display. Vendors of new LED lighting instruments, LED wall systems, backings, pre-visualization systems, etc., are eager to show anyone involved in the business what the possibilities are. LED lighting instruments keep getting better, brighter, and smarter. The new Arri LED panels, for instance, are set up to mimic any color temperature or lighting effect.

You can see a map of the vendor sites on their webpage, and you can create your own map to track booths you want to visit ahead of time if a fear of being overwhelmed by the size of the venue (nearly 200 vendors) is a concern. Vendor booths fill 5 sound stages and the entire backlot area.

Master classes are usually held on the last day and attendance quotas fill up quickly, so be sure and make a reservation in advance.

If you do go, save time by registering beforehand and skip the long line at the gate:

Registration page is here.

This years’s show should be well-attended. It’s been 4 years since the last show at Paramount. Last year there was a much scaled-down version at the Los Angeles Convention Center which was disappointing to say the least.

The Digital Bookshelf – “Plastering Plain And Decorative”

My preference for books is always a hard copy, but sometimes having easy access to the information is more important than having a physical book, especially when copies of the actual book are impossible to find or really expensive.

That’s the case with this book, Plastering Plain and Decorative. First published in 1890, the book has become known as “The Plasterer’s Bible”. Now out of print, except for the occasional third-party reprint, it went through four editions. It contains hundreds of black & white photographs and drawings which aren’t always of a very good quality with most of the modern reprints, usually because they are printed in a smaller size than the original quarto size and because the scan quality of the original images is bad.

On top of not being of a very good quality, they are also nearly as expensive as an original copy, which would be a better bet as those are stitched like a traditional book and not perfect-bound (glued edges) like all soft cover books are. I have seen so-so quality reprints go from anywhere from $100 to $300.

Fortunately there is an inexpensive (free) copy of the book online at the Internet Archive. This isn’t just a book of nice drawings and photos, this is a book written for crafts people. Besides the layout diagrams, there are drawings of the actual tools used to create complicated plaster elements and a huge list of plaster types as well as the ingredients and mixtures used to create them in various time periods, such as instructions on what type of animal hair to use in the staff pieces for strength. It is an early edition of the book and contains over 700 pages which is more than is included in later editions.

The book covers not just typical plasterwork but, sculpting, mold making, terra cotta work, scagliola, sgraffito, and composite decorations. Besides Western European techniques it examines designs and techniques from Japan, China, India, Persia and the Middle East.

There is also a section on concrete work such as staircases, sidewalks, road, roofs, fountains, and other decorative elements.

You can find the digital book here at The Internet Archive. There are a number of different digital files available for download with varying file sizes depending on the quality of the images you want to have available.

The $150 Forced Perspective Miniature – Part 2

A diagram showing the set shot at the widest angle with a 25mm lens.

( This is the second part of a previous blog entry -Read Part 1 here. )

When the work print arrived from the lab, I couldn’t get it up on the flatbed editing machine fast enough. These were the days when you didn’t know for at least 24 hours whether or not you had captured anything on the film stock, much less something that looked any good.

A miscalculation in an exposure setting wasn’t something you could see beforehand on a monitor. If you had flubbed up, it could mean jettisoning the whole scene altogether. Sometimes reshoots, like this one, were just impossible. It wasn’t for nothing that I was nervous. The first scene of the film would end up having to be reshot twice. Once because of a mislabeled neutral density filter and another because of a sloppy meter reading.

This was when you kept Pepto Bismol handy for the times when you finally saw your footage and realized you had just spend a lot of time and money on film and processing for nothing.

The print ran through the viewer and the scene appeared on the screen. It was just a single-light print but I was relieved. We got a good shot. The next scene looked good too, exposure wise. Still, there was something that bugged me.

Never Work With Children Or Animals, Or . . . .

Miniatures of static or physical objects is one thing, but shooting miniatures with natural elements is another thing altogether. Replicating rain, bodies of water, smoke, and fire are tricky.

It’s the reason most model ships for films are built at a large scale. The model for James Cameron’s Titanic is over 25 feet long. It was a true milestone when VFX artists were able to create believable water effects.

Making a fire look like a really big fire or making water behave naturally in a smaller scale usually requires over-cranking, shooting at a faster frame rate so when you slow it back down to 24 frames a second, it smooths out the movements to a speed that looks more believable to the eye.

Unfortunately combining over-cranked footage with in-frame live actors was beyond my capabilities. Today this whole problem could have been solved by a high school student with a green screen and Premier Pro editing software. Not a big deal. I was stuck with in-camera effects.

So, the fire effects weren’t quite up to my expectations but the fact I had gone for a bigger size (as in extensive) backing helped minimize the effect. The focal length of the lens helped too, along with the shallow depth of field.

Analyzing Different Set-ups

Diagram of camera set-up

How could I have improved the flame effect? Well, I could have built the facade at a larger scale. Below is a diagram showing the scale of the backing compared to a full size person.

On top of the backing is an icon of a person at the scale of the facade.

Below is an image of what the facade would have looked like at twice the scale size.

Angle of view on a 25mm lens
Angle of view on a 75mm lens

Yes, the flame effects would have been even more frightened real. The fire would have also been at the scale of an actual small house fire and without a lot of fire suppression in place, it would have been incredibly unsafe. The detail of the backing would have also needed to be much more realistic. I also was trying to capture a feeling of isolation, and the scale I used allowed me to portray the actress as being farther away from the fire than I would have been able to achieve given the size of the pond.

The fire burned itself out quickly. We went in and put out any remaining embers with a fire extinguisher and Hudson sprayers. I’m sure the firemen were even happier than I was that they got a good show and hadn’t had to drag their firehose through the mud, which would mean spending the rest of the evening cleaning firehose. And that, I can tell you, is really not a fun job.

The $150 Forced Perspective Miniature – Part 1

Forced perspective miniature during filming – Photo: Alan Derringer

The Challenge

My professor, Carl, looked at the scene list for my senior thesis film and furrowed his eyebrows. When I told him it was going to be an hour-long black & white film, set in the 1940’s in Eastern Europe, with dialogue in three different languages, he looked at me as if he wasn’t sure if I was being serious.

I assured him that I wasn’t kidding, and I knew that he was thinking it would probably be another overly-ambitious senior film that would never be finished.

He poked his finger at the page.

“So how do you plan on doing this scene?”, he said. “The fire-bombed city scene.”

Now this was the pre-computer, pre-digital, in-camera-effects-only period of filmmaking. Green-screen and blue-screen work was serious money. The only option other than in-camera effects was optical printing, and he knew I couldn’t afford that on a student film budget.

“A miniature”, I said. “A really big miniature”.

“Uh huh”, he said, with a look that told me he thought I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing.

It took about three weeks to truck all the materials to the farm pond where I planned on filming the scene. When everything was finally at the site, we had accumulated over 200 discarded wood pallets, over 24 sheets of plywood of various types and random pieces of drywall and corrugated metal. Since all the materials were donated, I estimated that the final cost of the miniature was $150 based on the cost gas for the vehicles and fire accelerant, i.e. kerosine.

I’d staked out my camera position and estimated that I need a miniature that was about 130′ long to fill the frame from edge to edge when I was shooting with a medium length lens. I planned on a miniature scale of somewhere between 1:10 and 1:12.

My father and I would drag the plywood sheets close enough to the small house on the property to string an extension cord to jigsaw-out the +250 rough rectangle openings in the wood to simulate the windows of the buildings. Once they were staked in place, we stacked the hundreds of pallets behind the wall, just far enough away to keep the flames from setting the plywood on fire before I could finish filming.

When we were done stacking the pallets, we moved to the other side of the pond to look at the finished model.

It was really, really ugly.

There was no detail. No even a coat of paint on the raw wood. But I new that it would look good on film because I had three things going for me: a night shot, shallow depth of field, and black & white reversal film.

The Shoot

The night of the shoot I was nervous. Black & white reversal film is unforgiving. Instead of creating a negative, you’re creating a positive image. It’s like slide film for a cinema camera. Exposure-wise, you have about one f-stop of leeway as far as over or under exposure. You have about a 5 to 7 stop range from pure black to blown-out white. Beautiful contrast, no margin for error. Modern digital cameras, by comparison, will give you up to 15 stops of latitude. I had to re-shoot the opening sequence of the film twice because of a mislabeled ND filter that resulted in over-exposed footage.

This scene was a one-shot deal. There would be no reshoots. The five-person crew was in position.

I’d tried to do some test shots a few weeks before using a bonfire and my lighting plan, but the bonfire was not a good simulation for what would end up being 15-foot tall flames in the miniature.

I used the headlights of a car for the key light on the actress Liana. A fog machine, run by my cousin Greg, was positioned next to the car to give some depth to the background as well as to diffuse the illumination from the headlights. The Assistant Director, Jan, helped the actress into position in the water.

A pumper truck from the local fire department was positioned next to the pond. They showed up hoping to just see a good show, but were prepared for an interesting fire training exercise on the chance that the flames got out of hand.

Scale plan of miniature & camera position.

The Technical Info

If your eyes glaze over reading technical data, you can skip this section and go to the next. I’ll try to keep this paragraph brief, but there are people who like to know this info.

I shot the scene using a Bolex H-16, a 16mm film camera that is spring driven. You have to hand wind the drive mechanism with a crank. It has a three-lens turret with 16mm/f1.8, 25mm/f1.4, and 75mm/f1.9 lenses. The 16 had too wide of an angle of view, so I decided to use the 25mm for the wide shots and the 75mm for the close-ups.

The H-16 did not have an external magazine, meaning that I was confined to a 100 foot roll of film. There would be no time to reload once the fire was started. This would give me 2 1/2 minutes of shooting time. I figured that the prime “flame activity” once the fire was started would last from three to five minutes before the flames would have consumed the majority of the wood and the flames would start to lose their visual impact.

I planned to wait until the flames had reached a peak and then start shooting, getting the wide shots with the 25mm out of the way first, and then switching to the 75mm lens for the close-ups when the fire would still give me great reflections in the water but not have the intensity that it did in the wider shots.

The 25mm, focused at 16 feet away, and with an f-stop setting of about 2.8, would give me a depth of field of about 20 feet total. The Kodak Tri-X 7266 film stock had an ASA of 200, so I had to shoot almost at full aperture to have enough light on the actress. I spot metered several times from her face to the fire after it started before I was sure about my exposure. The f-stop spread convinced me that the front of the miniature would be solid black and out of focus, devoid of detail.

Plan of miniature shoot showing angle of view, focus distance, and depth of field range.

The Fire Is Lit

The pallets had been soaked with 5 gallons of kerosine a few hours earlier in the hope that the fire would spread evenly when lit but not explode the way I thought they would if we had used gasoline.

Only a few minutes after the fire is started, the flames are already subsiding in some areas.

When I gave the word to start the fire, it spread pretty quickly, but without a sudden burst of flame. Within a minute the flames were high above the top of the miniature and yelled for the soundman to start recording. I had rehearsed with Liana as to the sequence that we would follow and it went smoothly, without any stopping for head or tail slates.

The 100 foot roll ran through the camera quickly and when I heard the tail end run through the gate I knew I had better have gotten the scene. The flames were already far below the top of the facade.

Four weeks of work would translate into a minute of the finished film. The shooting schedule would continue for the next 8 months before we would be finished.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss what went right, what went wrong, and what I would do differently.

The Multiscale – Metric Version

Last week I posted the Imperial version of a new tool I’ve updated recently. I promised I’d post the Metric version of the tool this week so here it is. You’ll find the Imperial version here if you missed the post.

If you stack them one over the other, you get a quick scale conversion calculator across 12 Imperial and metric scales. No batteries required.

Download the tool with the buttons below.

Here is the tool layout for A4 format paper.

Ends In 24 Hours – 50% Off

One-Time Pre-Sale Offer + 2 Free Design Books

There are 24 Hours left in our 50% Off sale of the 10-Week Set Design Fundamentals Course.

In addition to half-price off on the course, if you sign up before the October 31 deadline, you’ll get two free design Ebooks:

By Hand & Eye

This is one of the design books on my Top Ten list. Authors Jim Tolpin and George R. Walker examine the role of proportion in design from ancient times to the present. While the emphasis is on furniture design, they show how much of the world is governed by simple proportions, noting how ratios such as 1:2; 3:5 and 4:5 were ubiquitous in the designs of pre-industrial artisans.

This is not a recipe book but a guide to a new way of looking at design through the eyes of centuries of artists.

Published by Lost Arts Press, this is just one of a whole line of fantastic books on design and hand woodworking that they offer.

You’ll receive a link after you purchase the course to download the PDF.

Wrand Glossary of Film & Video Terms

This new first edition is the only one of it’s kind; a film glossary created for film designers. Whether you are a novice or an industry professional, you’ll find useful information in this book that doesn’t exist in any other film glossary,. As well as nearly 1500 up-to-date terms on production, cameras, crew positions, post-production, legal aspects, stage equipment, and industry slang, there are hundreds of entries on architecture, hardware, set construction, and more.

The 2023 Ebook is due to be available in mid-December. Series purchasers will be the first to get the book when in becomes available and will receive a download link.

The 10-Week Course Description

This is the only time the series will be offered at this price and it will return to the normal price when the series begins on October 31.

This self-paced online series covers the fundamental skills that a Set Designer in the feature film and television industry here in Los Angeles are expected to have.

This is similar in difficulty to a one-semester graduate-level program at a university, but much of the material presented here is not covered at most colleges and is normally only available at the professional level. I’ve been developing this series for several years, basing it on classes I teach at the Art Directors Guild in Los Angeles.

Here is an outline of the material that will be covered in the series:

Week 1 – The Basics

Standard drafting conventions and symbols for set construction drawings. Set construction: typical flat construction techniques and variations.

Week 2 – Cameras & Optics

Understanding basic camera and lens terms: aspect ratios, focal length, depth of field, sensor sizes, exposure, stage lighting, using camera angle templates.

Scaling from photographs and artwork: calculating dimensions, understanding picture perspective and allowing for lens distortion.

Week 3 – Analyzing the Script / Reference Materials

How to break down a script for set design; using storyboards; techniques for estimating drawing time schedules.

References: using online, printed, and survey photo references; building a reference library on a budget.

Week 4 – Working Drawings

Step-by-step directions on creating proper construction drawings: plans and elevations; details, full-size details, and digital cut files; reflected ceilings and furniture plans; stage spotting plans, and director’s plans.

Week 5 – Door & Window Details

Diagrams and explanations of door and window construction and various adaptations for stage sets; creating accurate-looking period reconstructions; understanding, using, and sourcing hardware.

Week 6 – Stairways

The fundamentals of stair design: types of stairs, stair construction, how the choice of stair type affects design, and designing elliptical stairs.

Week 7 – Mouldings & Staff Elements

Understanding and using the Classical Orders of architecture; the proportions of mouldings based on style type; using a moulding catalog and creating built-up moulds.

Using plaster staff and compo elements in a set; designing with brick skins and textured surfaces.

Week 8 – Backings, Special Effects, & Visual Effects

Using painted and photo backings: The advantages and drawbacks of various types; creating custom backings; how to calculate correct placement distance from the set.

Special effects considerations: replicating fire, water, and wind effects; understanding legal requirements for special effects work on a sound stage; dealing with practical fireplaces.

Visual effects work: shooting with green or blue screens; using LED walls or volumes.

Week 9 – Backlots & Location Surveys

Shooting on studio backlots; shooting on location; proper surveying techniques; assembling a personal survey tool kit.

Week 10 – Physical Models

The advantages of physical study models; determining model scales; various model types and construction techniques.

Class Materials & Videos

Each week there will be tools, charts, and reference material to download as well as video instruction to help you do the exercises and create your portfolio drawings.

Along with the classes, you’ll have access to a private chat area that is only available to students of the series and alumnae who have taken courses previously. Here you’ll be able to meet other designers, discuss class material, get advice on your career, and exchange ideas and experiences from both the classes and real-world entertainment jobs.


– You must know how to draft. Drafting ability is essential to effectively completing the course and ending up with a set of professional quality working drawings. I’ll be offering a course on drafting later in 2022 to fulfill this prerequisite.

– Be familiar with CAD software  –  You are free to use any CAD software you are familiar with. Using software that you are still learning may make the lessons more challenging than you can handle. There is no standard drawing software in the entertainment industry as far as the Art Department is concerned. There are preferences among certain designers but one aspect of the job is a need to create files that can be used by many different other programs. 3D modeling won’t be required for any of the class projects but feel free to work that way if that is part of your usual design process.

There is a 14-day money-back guarantee from the time you begin the series if you change your mind. If you’re unsure about whether the series is right for you, you can schedule a free 15-minute discovery call to talk with me and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.

Sign up for the course and learn more here.

The Multiscale – Seven Tools That Fit In A Book

This tool is one of several which were designed for the 10-Week Set Design Fundamentals Course which is now 50% off until October 31.

A full-size triangular architects scale isn’t the handiest thing to carry around with you.

I have those miniature versions, the cute ones that are about 6″ long and require a magnifying glass to be sure you’re reading them correctly.

It hurts my eyes to try to read the numbers on these things

After I nearly poked a hole in my chest from having one of these in my pocket, I looked for an alternative that might lessen the chances of a trip to the emergency room after falling on one of these.

I found an 18th century drafting tool that was a combination scale and liked the concept. So, I updated and revised it to what you see here. It’s a combination of the six standard scales we use for set design and throws in a protractor as well.

A good thing about it is that it’s not engraved on brass or ivory and it fits in a binder or a book, or you can fold it up and put it in your pocket. But, it doesn’t work very well with a lot of folds in it. Best to leave it as flat as possible. Just be sure you print it out at 100%. Check it with the inch scale at the bottom against a known accurate ruler.

It’s better if you mound it to some thin card stock or manila folder material. Then cut out the little windows between the scales and you’re good to go. Heck, you can even have it printed on a transparency if you want.

Cut out the slots between the scales for use on drawings

Lay a ruler or straight edge vertically on the scales and you have a direct-reading scale conversion calculator. Next week I’ll be posting the Metric version of this tool.

A straight edge aligned vertically will allow you to do quick scale conversions.

Download the tool with the button below.

And, for those of you printing on European A4 size paper, here’s the file you need: