“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.
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.