What’s the point of a set? Why is it there? What’s it doing? If you haven’t ever thought about that because … “Well, duh, that’s obvious!”, take a moment and think about it for each and every scene in the script you have.
If a play or video is really well done, does it need a set? We often hear about how this actor or that actor ‘carried the show’ or ‘swept me away’… but you don’t often hear that about the set. Great Actors, carry a scene – or steal a show because their characters come a live. But no one (well almost never) ever says, “The sets carried the show and raised a mediocre set of background characters to a new level by challenging them.” The reason is that sets, are literally in the background. No one ever talks about how the sets kept everyone riveted in their seats.
At least, unless it’s Cirque or something like that – we really hope that isn’t the case because when sets are done right people forget they are there. They’re a way to immerse the audience, and it’s really hard to immerse someone if you’re the only thing they think about. They’re literally the background, the canvas, on which all the other artists that make up the performance will paint.
So if you haven’t asked yourself what the point of the set is – for each scene in a play – you’ve missed out on a very important set of details in your planning, which is that it has to be a part of the story itself, it has to take and grab the viewer and make them forget their in a theatre, or watching a video or whatever medium they’re viewing in.
Here’s a set that’s really impressive. It’s got the floor of an ancient desert temple in Egypt, even the clouds in the sky are eerie realistic. They even have a vehicle on the stage.
Most of us, will never have the kind of budget to do this – there’s so much carved foam here it’s almost more sculpture than set. It’s an amazing job.
But the truth is, for as awesome as the first set is, this set, which is very humble and very simple for it’s purpose (video production) is just as impressive. It’s the dressing. It’s the way it’s to be used and will it immerse the viewer – that makes it a great set. It looks like a small apartment. Sure here in this photo your not immersed. Look at it through cropped shots with adjusted depth of field and yeah, it could easily fool you.
The best sets are built first by reading the script and understanding what the sets purpose is for each scene. Once you understand what the set will be used for, then you can begin the process of design. Get as detailed as you can – view it in your mind over and over – and then draw it out, and don’t miss any detail, just add them to your annotated drawings.
Greg Chown, on his website has some awesome detailed sketch designs for projects he’s done, and they’re not just a set design – if you follow his sketches – they become a character themselves setting the mood, the feel of the scene in a way no actor can. He sets moods with side comments about key elements, colors.
Look at his “crappy hotel room” set design sketches and see how they really made the room…
When Greg sets up the design – he makes a point of little details like “* No Toys *”, even details like “T8 x 2” fluorescent lights – which if you’re familiar with those – they give a particularly crappy color light to a scene, they flicker sometimes, really you usually see them in shops not hotel rooms — they’re what you’d expect not just in cheap hotel room but a cheap hotel that has busted up or burned our stuff and its been replaced with even cheaper/older/wrong kinds of things as a part of maintenance. The pink/baby blue refrigerator and stove really set a specific time and type of room from the late 60’s/70’s – so he’s really describing the room’s age and oddities by calling that out.
He’s actually defining the room the way an actor would define their character.
The set, is in a lot of ways an actor. And part of what every actor does, is ask themselves – for every scene, “What’s the point of my character?”, “What’s my motivation?”, “Why are they here?”, “What are they doing”?”. A good set design, will do this as well.