AI: A New Angst For Designers

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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

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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.

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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.