-236- THE JOY OF SETS: SET DESIGN
When a friend asked me if I'd write an
article on sets, I said, "WOWIE" Yes indeed! Do I get to do
"Sets, sets," he repeated.
"Oh,... okay," I murmured, sinking back to reality. Just
as well I stick to topics I know somtheing about. So here goes.
If you are tired of looking at that dreary curtain in the
background of each of your shows, then maybe it's time to get a
set. No, I don't mean a pair of matching curtains, I mean a
studio set with windows, bookshelves, sofa, an end table, and
maybe a potted plant.
Why bother building a set, you ask? Isn't it easier to go
to someone's home, a barn, a wine cellar, a supermarket, or NASA
Mission Control rather than trying to construct such a thing in
your studio? In the case of Mission Control, and even the
supermarket, it may be easier to shoot on site. It all depends
on whether NASA will let you in, or what the supermarket will
charge you for tying up their store for a day. Then you have the
travel expenses of your talent and crew. Add to that the
complications of lighting, sound control, local unions, weather,
parking, and Murphy (as in Murphy's Laws). Your studio (or a
rented studio) offers much better control of the environment than
Next question: Do you hire a set builder or do it
yourself? If the set promises to be small and easy, you could
probably do it yourself, especially if you have a staff with
carpentry skills. If you have a staff of Abbotts and Costellos,
try contacting your local college to see if an intern would like
some hands-on experience building your set. At least with an
intern, you get someone who is studying the field of set design
and will offer some creative ideas, all for the cost of carfare
and bandages. The time not to build sets yourself is when the
endeavor interferes with the rest of your work. Your time may be
more valuable producing tapes or schmoozing with clients rather
than swinging a hammer. Maybe you mow your own lawn and
decorated your own house, but when it comes to plumbing or
surgery, some of us leave it to experts even though they charge
more than our own wages are. The set designer may fall into this
catagory. A set that is used many times and is going to define
the image of your show or a series needs skills that transcend
mere carpentry. You need a set designer.
Selecting a set designer -
A set designer is like an architect. He/she imagines the
image you are trying to portray, and then turns it into drawings
or models. The set designer could stop there, or continue to
supervise carpenters and painters to complete the construction of
the design. Strictly speaking, the set designer designs, not
builds. In the smaller industrial markets, however, set
designers may survive by being jacks of both trades.
All set designers are not alike. TV set design is a
specialty. Theatre scenic design, graphic design, and interior
design are all specialties. An interior designer or advertising
display designer may put too much detail in the design. Video is
a fuzzy medium and doesn't need a lot of detail. Furthermore,
they may be inclined to give you lovely beauty shots (long shots
that occur at the beginning and end of your program) at
tremendous expense when 95% of your show is going to be close-ups
in a confined area.
Veteran TV set designer, Brian Flynn (25 Bear Cave Road,
Blairstown, NJ 07825 telephone 1-800-851-7887) tells me of a news
set created by a Metropolitan Opera scenic designer. There was 8
feet of space between the anchors. This might have looked great
on stage or from the ozonosphere mezzanine, but the newscasters
looked like they were playing shuffleboard rather than working as
a news team. A set designer for TV realizes that one-shots and
two-shots make up the majority of the camera images. Performers
need to be close to each other and the "active" parts of the sets
may be very condensed.
Even film set designers see the world through a different
viewfinder. They work with more detail and realism, more complex
color, lighting, and textures, and include things like ceilings
in their sets that TV scenery doesn't require.
Where do you find a TV scene designer? Try:
* TV studios in your area
* in the yellow pages under "Scenery" or "Theatrical scenery"
* Broadcast Designers Association International (470 Park Ave.
South, 9th Floor, North Tower, New York, NY 10016, telephone
It is best to use someone local. You'll save travel
expenses, and they'll be nearby if you want to use them again.
Furthermore, a local set designer, being familiar with your
locality, may be able to suggest rental studios that match your
needs. Experienced set designers know where the less expensive
stages are, even in the "expensive" cities like New York and
Chicago. They are also familiar with local transportation
problems. Within a certain radius of Time Square, for instance,
various union members go "on the clock" the moment they enter the
studio door. Outside this radius, they begin charging when they
leave their homes. These portal-to-portal charges can add two
extra hours to your crew expenses.
Working with the set designer -
First, learn some of the jargon. There are basically two
kinds of sets: presentational and representational.
Presentational is the kind of set used for newscast, sports
interviews, and talk shows. They have their own individual,
somewhat imaginary style. Representational sets are meant to
look like real life, such as a living room, back porch, or hotel
room (even when a guy pops out of a suitcase). And there is some
blurring between the two as presentational sets become more homey
and include a sofa or a fake window overlooking scenery.
The set designer may throw out other jargon such as
foreground, background, stage left, etc., but don't worry about
it. You won't get in trouble if you simply ask questions
whenever you hear words you don't understand. A good set
designer will explain the lingo, most of which make sense and is
easy to learn.
A good set designer asks to confer with your lighting
director; there roles are intertwined. The lighting director can
make or break the look of the set. The two will need to work
closely together to select or avoid certain colors, textures,
shadows, and reflections. Working together, the set director
will place a window so that a backlight can shine through it like
sunlight. The panes of the window will act as a gobo creating
homey shadows on the floor. The lighting design and set design
may be created at the same time so that set pieces do not block
the light yet are pleasingly illuminated by it.
According to Mr. Flynn, a set designer's perfect client is:
1. Realistic in his/her expectations
2. Can describe the style of set wanted. This could be as
simple as saying, "Make it something like 'Current Affair' or
'Larry King Live'." Or the client could bring a video tape of a
program illustrating the desired "look."
3. Provides a floor plan of the studio
4. Doesn't attempt to draw his/her own studio design (that's the
designer's job; let the designer have first crack at it)
The worst client is one who is vague and hasn't really
decided what he/she wants. This often leads to changes, more
changes, and then some more changes on site after the work was
supposed to be finished.
Clients sometimes prejudge how a set will look before it is
finished. Some set designers go to great effort to keep the
client out of the studio until the lights are on and the set can
be viewed in the TV monitor, the only place where the image
really matters. If you are not used to sets, their "real-life"
look and their "on screen" look can be very different.
Special considerations for television -
TV's lower resolution allows softer backgrounds. For news,
talk shows, and even the soaps, the background shots can remain
very simple and still look good. Busy wallpaper and visual
clutter are distracting. Less is more. WCBS news is said to
have once hired a lobby designer to build a set. The designer
included venetian blinds in the background. The moire from those
blinds in long shots vibrated right off the face of the picture
tube. (Incidentally, an insider's trick to using venetian blinds
in a scene without causing moire: Remove every other slat of
the blind. It will look normal but the increased spacing will
avoid moire on most shots.)
Avoid green and yellow backgrounds; they reflect badly on
skin. Gray is always a safe bet.
Avoid red except as accents. Red tends to bleed with
multiple generations of video. Mr. Flynn recalls an exercise
video with a peach background. It looked beautiful in the first
generation. The edits looked okay too. By the time it was
copied in VHS at the six hour speed (marathon exercise) the peach
looked like it was on fire. The background was changed to powder
blue and the whole show had to be redone.
Remember that TV has a narrow contrast ratio. Avoid
extremes unless you're aiming for a surrealistic "Cabinet of Dr.
Caligari" effect. Corporate names look nice as half tones on a
wall. Simple wallpaper or textured paint is appealing,
especially with a slash of light across it. Textures are easy to
make with a sea sponge or a rag roll (paint roller with a rag
wrapped over it). For more painting ideas, read Decorating With
Paint or Paint Magic, both by Jocasta Innes (Harmony Books, NY).
Many directors check their colors on their best monitors.
Mr. Flynn checks the color on the crummiest monitor he can find.
He wants to see what Joe Couchpotato will see.
Designers from the print world tend to specify their colors
using the universal color standard, Pantone. A Pantone 386 is
the same everywhere, print, film, and video in any country. The
problem is when the print people spec a Pantone color and forget
what a 500 watt light is going to do to it. The bright lights of
television usually bleach, blanch, and bloom any light color
used. Mr. Flynn generally specs colors 20% darker than one would
expect, and then adds light to brighten them up to what is
needed. You can't add darkness, but you can always add light.
The same is true for white. Twenty percent gray (as opposed to
white) may seem a little dark, but it won't get too white on you;
it leaves you somewhere to go.
Low luster paneling is okay, and the little bit of shine
you'll get will look normal. Wall pictures should have non-glare
glass or no glass. As for windows, you can use bobinet or
wedding veil. It creates a realistic, slightly transluscent
surface, and costs only $.59 per yard.
Insider's tips on set building -
As you can tell, I was taking notes like crazy during my
conversations with Mr. Flynn. Here are some more trade secrets
Need straight lines for accents? Use masking tape or
gaffer tape. Gaffer tape comes in colors, in case you didn't
know. One source: Just In Time, East Rockaway, NY
We are probably all familiar with the shortcuts of using
one-by-one framing and 1/8" plywood to build sets; it keeps the
sets light and cheap. The surprise is that Mr. Flynn paints all
sides of the set, front and back, for strength and fire
retardancy. Yes, paint will give the set strength. Most paints
give some protection against fire, but for genuine fire retardant
paint, contact Rosebrand Fabrics (telephone 800-223-1624) in
Manhattan, or Rosco (telephone 914-937-1300).
If you are not into erecting library shelves, brick walls,
clabboards or boiler plate, you can buy huge sheets of scenic
vacuum form surfaces from CBS Plastics (telephone 212-975-2751)
They make Roman columns, windows, archways, whatever. A 4' X
12' sheet costs about $100. Need an interior for a grass shack?
You can buy grass cloth that looks just like the real thing.
What would you do to create the wet asphalt look that you
see underwheel in those car commercials? For $400 you buy a 30'
by 30' sheet of linoleum, turn it wrong side up, then prime and
paint the back black.
Here's another one: If your sets are on wheels, how do you
stabilize them so that they don't travel on their own? Use
weights, sandbags, doorstops, shims, or even rope tied in a
square knot around the bottom edge of each caster.
Another: How do you counteract the hollow sound of raised
floors and platforms? Put a rug on 'em.
Some of you may wonder why you use platforms in the first
place? If your talent is sitting, your cameras will be looking
down on them creating a slightly unnatural look. Unless you have
special tripods, you can't get the cameras any lower, so you
raise the talent higher by putting them on platforms. The level
eye-to-eye shot looks natural.
Mr. Flynn generally builds his platforms the height of a
single step, 8 inches. The height is convenient for talk show
hosts and guests, and accommodates the height of most camera
pedestals. If more height is needed, he adds longer legs to the
Many people build their platforms in 4' by 8' by whatever
cubes because that is the size of a sheet of plywood. That is
also is the size of a hernia if you ever tried to lift one of
these monsters. Mr. Flynn prefers risers that are 3' x 6' or 4'
x 6', screwing the modules together to create a platform of any
What do you do to the top of the set where the wall extends
out of the picture? Mr. Flynn places a border at the top of his
sets. "The top of the set is like a hat," he says, "it gives a
finished look to the job." The border also gives camera
operators a warning before they accidentally shoot off the edge
of the scenery.
Panel discussions usually involve guests seated at some
kind of cubic tables. To accommodate panels of all sizes and
reuse the set modules, one can do the following: Build a number
of regular set modules that are essentially boxes (the side that
faces the talent is open). To make arcs and other creative
shapes, one can build bridges between the modules. These
pie-shaped sections have the same surface as the desk top and
attach in a way that ties the modules together. Another piece of
wood fills in the tiangular hole between the boxes and matches
the face of the boxes.
Although desk and table surfaces are usually 29-30 inches
in height, Mr. Flynn makes his 28 inches for TV so that
performer's arms don't bunch up at the shoulders. The work
surface is slightly less comfortable but it makes one look
HDTV sets require just a little more attention to detail
than regular TV sets. For instance, use two coats of paint
instead of one.
If you are into designing your own sets, you might find the
following computer software useful: 3D Home Architect by
Broderbund is a basic drawing tool that creates wire frames and
allows you to extrude a floor plan into three dimensions. It
comes with standard furniture models that you simply copy and
drop into your picture. It costs under $80.
The New York Local #829 Scene Designers' Union charges $500
per day. Independent scene designers charge fees that vary as
much as tides in the Bay of Fundy.
Often a set designer will provide a thumbnail
sketch/proposal at no charge if he/she has worked with you
before. If not, you may expect to pay 15% of the total job (or
$300 minimum) for rough line drawings. You would then pay an
additional 50% for the color rendering, model, or computer
generated model. The remainder of your payment would be expected
upon arrival of the set.
Note that the set designer can provide a turnkey
installation, overseeing the building and installation of the
set. On the other hand, the designer could give you the drawings
leaving it your responsibility to find a contractor to complete
What would you expect to pay for a set? It depends on who
you are. The Larry King Live set would probably cost $45,000 all
told, with about $7000 comprising the set design. A 14' x 14'
set for The Fester Fuzzbottom Cable Talk Show might cost $10,000
for everything, $1,500 of it being for design. If you didn't
think Fester was going to be on the air long, you could rent a
set from a set rental agency like VideoSetworks Inc. in the
northern New Jersey area (800-788-4713). VideoSetworks has a
rental catalog of stock designs which include news sets, talk
shows, business and home environments, and other common scenery,
props, and set dressing. Probably 80% of the set would come
directly from stock and the remaining parts would be custom built
(at about $250 per hour) costing a couple hundred dollars for the
materials. In the end, you would probably get by for about
Although sets sound like they cost a lot, consider that
many permanent sets have multi-uses, serving many applications
for many years, amortizing the cost of the design and
Regardless of whether you hire a set designer or design and
build the set yourself, anything has got to be better than that
insipid curtain you've been shooting for the last 20 years.
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