Two great books on set design

A few months ago, a local film school asked me if I’d be interested in teaching a production design class for them. I told them I had never designed for the movies, but, the more we talked, the more I realized that  production design is very similar to set design, so I agreed to do the class. Then I immediately went looking for books on production design to pick up on anything I didn’t know.

That’s when I found two books that can not only also apply to theatrical set design, but that cover a number of topics I haven’t seen in set design books, which, for the most part, tend to cover design itself briefly and then move right into how to build scenery. There are other books on the subject, but these were the two I was able to get through my public library, and both are available through Amazon.

The first is The Filmmaker’s Guide to Production Design by Vincent LoBrutto, and you can view the table of contents online at https://www.amazon.com/Filmmakers-Guide-Production-Design/dp/1581152248#reader_1581152248. The book covers topics such as how to visualize a screenplay (the same thing we do with a script) and how to interpret the characters visually (ditto). It also has a good section on research, and chapters on design drawings, color, texture, architecture, and genres (a chapter that I found especially appropriate to live theatre). It even includes a list of one hundred films to study for production design. 

The second book is Production Design for Screen: Visual Storytelling in Film and Television, by Jane Barnwell. This one covers the design process, the visual concept, how to use space, light, color, set decoration, and other topics, and, like the other book, focuses everything on how to use visual design to help tell the story. You can view the table of contents at https://www.amazon.com/Production-Design-Screen-Storytelling-Television/dp/1472580672/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_img_0?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=X9MGQ1P7Z7S2MMA6GHFV#reader_1472580672.

I’ve been saying for years that I think it’s sad that theatre people tend to focus mostly on books and magazines on live theatre, and that more cross-pollination would would be a huge help. These two books definitely fit into that thinking process. Please check them out.

 

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“We can’t afford a set designer”

During the past few months, I’ve seen a fair number of posts in the Educational Theatre Association’s Open Forum asking for help with designing a set because the posters don’t feel they are knowledgeable in the subject. Now, as much as I try to help out with links and ideas and such, I also feel that I need to make a case for at least considering the possibility of hiring a professional set designer in these instances. Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of excuses for not doing so, and many of them start out with “we can’t afford it.”

So here are a few thoughts to consider:

“We can’t afford it”

You don’t know until you ask, and asking is free. If the current budget won’t allow it, this might be the time to make a case for a future budget to do so. More on this below.

“The set will cost too much.”

Again, you don’t know until you ask. One of the first issues I bring up during an interview meeting is the budget: how much can they afford to spend on the set? Most real set designers will do this rather than design something without a figure in mind and then realize it can’t be built.

Another question I always ask is, what are their resources? Do they have a shop and a qualified carpenter? Who’s going to build and paint it? And a third question is about the schedule: how much time do they have to do this?

All of this is so I can figure out whether it’s feasible to do that set for that company within their parameters. Doing a set for Annie or My Fair Lady, for instance, would probably cost more, and require more extensive resources, that Fiddler on the Roof or maybe Oliver!

At this point, if I feel I can’t do a good job for them given the givens, I will very politely turn down the show. It’s not personal: it’s business. But at least we met and discussed the project, and it didn’t cost the production company anything. And, hopefully, they are also interviewing a couple of other designers anyway.

“We can just go to the local community college and get a student.”

As I said in A word about set designers, not all of them are trained the same way, and some don’t even have formal training. The idea that giving a college kid a chance is fine and noble, but not all of them are ready for a real show. In my case, and that of many of my college friends, I didn’t feel I was ready for a real show until much later in my training. If nothing else, be sure to take a very close look at a prospective set designer’s portfolio before you hire them. What you see in that portfolio is what you will get.

More on this in my posts “Hiring a set designer,” part 1 and part 2.

“We don’t need it. It’s only high school.”

This one really gets me. Schools are for learning and for getting ready for the next step, and students deserve the best they can get from a school. Sports teams, in many cases, are very well funded, and coaches, especially in college, are often very well paid. It’s just another investment in the education the students receive.

BTW, I did a post on this subject some time back: Theater and sports: an editorial.

“We can just muddle through it.”

Hiring a professional set designer can be a great investment not only in the show but also in the educational experience. By arranging with the designer, up front, to make himself or herself available to answer questions, explain the process, share sketches and drawings, and so forth, the students will be able to watch the design develop from start to finish. It might even get some of them interested in pursuing the subject as a career. A college I’ve worked with for years always asks me to do this, and they find that the students really like it and appreciate it; the college has even asked me to build or paint a piece or two myself just so I can hang out in the shop and talk to the students.


Professional set designers are just individuals who are trained in, and practice, a specific set of skills, but a lot of people don’t know all that much about us because we tend to stay in the background and just do our jobs. That’s where a lot of assumptions come into the picture. So feel free to look around and talk to a few of them. We’re friendly.   🙂

 

 

It’s about the experience

There’s a huge industry in the U.S. that not too many people have heard of, mostly because they don’t often cross paths with it: the themed entertainment industry. These are the companies, consultants, and people who create, design, manage, operate, and support theme parks as well as, in many cases, museums and exhibits, aquariums, themed restaurants, and many other types of venues. And there are two large trade associations supporting the industry. It’s a real thing.

One of the buzzwords in this industry is “experience,” as in customer experience. The whole idea is that a theme park (for instance) wants the customer to begin his/her experience before they even arrive at the park and continue it even after they leave the park, and that the experience should be positive, exciting, and compelling all the way. It’s what they will remember. The general consensus is that Disney is fantastic at this and that other parks are learning.

Over the years, I’ve seen a few theaters (even professional ones) delve into this concept, but most have been half-hearted attempts, as if they were afterthoughts. But how exciting would it be for an audience member to be “captured” before they even walked into the house, and to still be engaged in the experience after they leave? It’s totally do-able, even without Disney’s deep pockets.

Making something like this happen would require a detailed plan (just like themed entertainment venues have) to define the overall customer experience and get everyone on the same page. Specific things that could/would make this happen include:

  • Compelling, timely advertising with exciting imagery that not only tells you about the show but gets you interested in it. It should grab you and pull you in.
  • Press releases, properly formatted, to announce the show, and including photos if possible.
  • A QR code on all paper advertising: someone sees the poster/flyer/whatever and can immediately click on it, get more info, and buy tickets right then and there.
  • A thank you email or note after the purchase.
  • A well-lit parking lot with maybe a staff member or two to greet customers.
  • A friendly, smiling person to greet the customers the moment they walk in the front door.
  • Some “stuff” in the lobby that relates to the show and gets people talking: cast photos, a model of the set if possible, set and costume renderings, construction or rehearsal photos, maybe a (duplicate) prop or piece of furniture from the show, historical material relating to the show (like maybe newspaper clippings from the incident the show is based on), and similar items. These want to be spread out so people can wander among them while waiting. Again, the idea is to get the customers to talk about the show.
  • Maybe a host/hostess in the lobby to answer questions about the displays.
  • Friendly, smiling box office staff and ushers.
  • A nice voice-over welcome to the show, or someone walking out on stage to greet the customers.
  • Someone to thank them on the way out after the show.

I’ll stop here but you get the idea: get them interested, get them excited, and keep them that way until long after they leave.

Some producers partner with local restaurants to offer a dinner/theatre package, which helps make it “an evening out” instead of “going to see a play.” Always a good idea as long as it’s a good restaurant and can serve the customers and get them out in time for the curtain. After all, they’re part of the experience.

Let me say that again: the restaurant is part of the experience.

There are lots of ways to create an “experience” that goes beyond the play itself, and most of them don’t need to cost money (or much money, anyway). I’m even going to go overboard here and suggest that a great way to research ideas would be to go visit a good theme park and see how they do it, including what they do with the queue lines.

If nothing else, it’ll be a fun experience.

 

A paint mixing cart on wheels

A recent post in the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) Open Forum about a mobile costume shop workstation was so cool that I decided to do a post here on a paint cart I designed years ago for a local theater.

The shop already had a dedicated space for storing paint stock and accessories, so this cart was intended to provide a place to mix and store all the paint for the current show under construction. It was built from scrap materials, mostly 3/4″ plywood, and had shelves on both sides for various-size paint cans, as well as plastic bins for tape, gloves, masks, chalk, and other small items. It also had a rack at one end for extension poles, straightedges, and similar tools. Because it was on casters, it could be easily moved around the shop, or out onto the stage, as needed. The overall dimensions were about four feet by two feet, by thirty inches high.

The paint-can opener, which always tends to disappear, was tied to a string secured to the cart handle, and it never disappeared after that.

Paint cart 5_2
Paint cart 5_3

Sometime after the cart was built and in use, I added a new feature to it.

A lot of scenic artists use music stands to hold their painters’ elevations while they work on a set. It keeps the documents safe, off the floor or work surfaces, and makes them easy to refer to while painting. So adding one to the cart seemed like a natural.

Rather than cannibalizing a perfectly good music stand, however, I made a simple one out of closet pole and some scrap plywood. It had a simple tilting device on the back, held together by a bolt and a wingnut, and rode in one of the holes on the rack at the end of the cart.

Paint cart 4_2

Visiting scenic artists were delighted with this, as it gave them a safe and convenient place to keep their painters’ elevations and other reference materials.

In future posts I’ll be describing similar shop-made accessories that can make life much simpler and more productive. Stay tuned.

 

 

New feature: Table of Contents

Now that I have over sixty posts here, it’s getting harder for readers to find posts on specific subjects without digging through the archives. So I added a simple table of contents, which is just a reverse chronological list of all posts, i.e., with the newer ones on top.

Eventually I’ll decide on some way of ordering them by subject (or something else), but, in the meantime, a click on Table of Contents in the menu above will show you the complete list.

How to read a script like a set designer

This post was inspired by some recent projects, which in turn made me think about older ones and the people I worked with, and how they approached the process of designing and building a set.

One of the things that has really stood out for me over the years is how so many designer/TDs in non-professional theatre seem to look at a script in terms of “okay, so we need to build a such-and-such.” A few years ago, one of them didn’t seem interested at all in how the scenery units helped tell the story or how they worked in context with other units: he was just focused on the construction of individual pieces. And I found it surprising because he was also a good director and actor who paid close attention to the actors and their characters and motivations in the context of the story.

So how do we look at a script from the viewpoint of a set designer?

Start by understanding the story itself. Stories are about people, three-dimensional people who want something but can’t get it because there are obstacles in the way, so they have to figure out how to get past the obstacles. Whether it’s a play, a musical, an opera, a movie, a sitcom, a “reality show,” an election, or a sporting event, it’s all the same: somebody wants something and has to figure out what to do about it.

A set is nothing more than a physical environment in which the characters in the story show us how they approach getting past those obstacles. So the set not only has to make it physically possible for the story to take place, but hopefully also wants to give us a sense of the overall mood of the story and present us with a logical place for it. Watch your favorite TV show or movie and notice how characters’ homes and workplaces “fit” the characters and the nature of the story. Some years back there were snide comments about the lifeguards on Baywatch all having homes that nobody could afford on a lifeguard’s income. It was probably done to enhance the “glamorous” nature of the characters portrayed, but, still, it was distracting.

Here is where good set designers read the script two or three times before starting to draw anything. The first time is for the story itself and the other times are to understand what the story really requires in terms of the physical space and how it all works together. I covered some of this here in several previous posts.

The danger, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, is that by thinking about scenery units (or props and furniture) out of context, they just become generic pieces. I’ve heard it many times: “We don’t have to build a staircase – we have one from last year. It’s about the right size and has a nice railing.” What can be (and often is) missed here is that last year’s staircase was from Willy Loman’s house and this year it’ll be in Daddy Warbucks’ mansion.

While reading the script, we also look for things like genre and mood. Is it a comedy, a drama, a mystery, a horror story, or something else? Is the mood happy, sad, tense, poignant, scary? These, and the nature of the story itself, are what clue us in as to whether the story wants a “realistic” set or a “non-realistic” set, a.k.a. a representational set or a presentational one.

These are some of the things I discuss at my first meeting with the director because I want to find out how he or she is approaching the story, and why. Too often I’ve seen a new director want a realistic set for something like a musical or a Shakespeare play, where realistic sets can come across as static and unimaginative. On the other hand, plays like Neil Simon comedies or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, can “feel” better in a “realistic” space.

For instance, here’s part of a set I did years ago for David Lindsay-Abaire‘s play Rabbit Hole, which is about a young couple who lost their four-year-old son to a car accident. The director and I decided that we wanted the audience to focus on the sadness of the story, so we would avoid any theatricalism and create a fairly realistic space. The show was done in a black box.

On the other hand, here’s my set (under work lights) for J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, which is about an investigation into the suicide of a young factory worker and takes place in England during the Edwardian period. Here we wanted to show the wealth of the family who lived in the house and their isolation from the common people, and also pick up on the story’s sense of things being out of balance.

In both cases the research led to authentic period detailing, but the sets themselves had totally different feelings to jive with their stories and their characters.  You can read more about these sets on my web site, at www.georgefledo.net. And, for a good short intro to how we approach research for a set design, you can read my post here, at Research is an investment, not a luxury.

Once I have a good sense of how we want to approach the story, I can go back to the script to start defining the physical space. Many scripts include detailed stage directions or even floor plans, and there is an ongoing debate as to how much of this was included by the playwright and how much is just a record of the original production. A couple of years ago I contacted a few publishers to get their take on this, and the consensus was that, unless the contract specifically states otherwise, there is no requirement to follow any of it. You can read about this at The script, the set, and stage directions.

So, basically, that’s how we read scripts: start with the story, make sure we understand it and the director’s intent, and then delve into the details that we need to create a compelling physical space. As I mentioned above, several readings are usually necessary to get a really good mental picture of what kind of space will best serve the story. And I often keep referring to the script as I make design choices, looking for hints about the characters’ intentions.

Many times the characters themselves (not the actors, although that’s a separate conversation) will tell us what they need, but we have to be open to listening to them. For instance, in the set above for An Inspector Calls, the head of the household, Arthur Birling, loves to tell people that he used to be Lord Mayor of his town; he considers it just one more symbol of his status and importance. So I decided we would have a formal portrait of him, in full mayoral regalia, hanging over the fireplace. That way, when he tells the Inspector about his former title, he can point to the portrait. The director loved the idea, as it would help show Arthur’s pompous personality.

If you’d like a little more on the design process itself, please check out one of my original posts here, A set design from start to finish.

 

The scene shop, part 1: general layout

Now and then I see a post in the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) open forum regarding ideas for a new scene shop, or tools, or something related, so I decided to do a few pieces here. This first one is about scene shops in general and subsequent ones will be about work areas, storage areas, and related subjects.

First off, a scene shop is nothing more than a dedicated place to build custom items which may be made of wood, plastic, metal, or other materials. The process, the tools, the ideal layout, and everything else are pretty much the same as in any other custom shop that specializes in these materials, the main difference being that the scene shop is used to build scenery instead of cabinetry, furniture, or other products. So we’ll look at a scene shop with that perspective in mind.

Workflow and layout

Like in other shops, the workflow in a scene shop is very straightforward: the raw materials come in “at one end” and the finished products go out “at the other end.” In between, the materials get stored temporarily, get cut to size and otherwise worked, get assembled, and get stored temporarily again until they get painted. Then they get painted, and, finally, they move onto the stage to get installed. Later, after the show closes, the pieces may come back and get disassembled.

And there are usually two or more projects (individual pieces of scenery) going on at once.

So, ideally, the shop layout should reflect the workflow: the raw material comes in at the loading dock end and the finished pieces go out the other end onto the stage. This suggests a long skinny room, but of course most scene shops aren’t built this way (most of the ones I’ve seen are either square or close to it). The idea, however, can still work with a little planning and/or rearranging of the existing equipment.

If you already have a shop, a good way to see if it is laid out with workflow in mind is to observe the construction crew during a typical show. How often do they have to move materials and piece parts from one place to another and back again? Some movement is of course inevitable, but (for instance) if you have to bring new plywood sheets to the back of the shop for storage and then bring them to the front again because that’s where the table saw is, you may want to consider a little re-arranging. Or if the paint area is at the back of the shop and the stage door is at the front, or if you have to run an obstacle course to get to the panel saw or radial arm, or if the best place for assembly is taken up by a large stationary power tool. But you get the idea. And don’t laugh: I’ve seen all these instances and many more.

One thing to avoid whenever possible is storing scenery, props, or other items in the shop. Unless the room was deliberately planned large enough to have dedicated areas for storage, what often happens is that it becomes a warehouse and leaves very little space for work. I’ve seen a few (large) shops that were so full of stored stuff that there was hardly any place to work; even the work tables were piled with props and other items, so layouts had to be done on the floor — and there was very little of that.

Flexibility

A major factor to consider when planning a shop is flexibility. Some pieces of scenery are fairly small and others may be huge, and sometimes you get some of one and some of the other, plus everything in between. The best way to deal with this is to dedicate a large open space strictly for assembly, and then to put as many of the power tools as possible on casters so they can be moved out of the way if necessary. I’ve seen a few shops where the table saw and other large tools are in the worst possible places, but they can’t be easily moved due to the placement of electrical outlets and dust collection systems. Their placement also cuts down on open space for assembling large pieces.

I’ll go more into this in the next two posts.

Resources

There are lots of resources available on how to set up a wood shop: books, magazines, online articles, and videos, and they are great for generating ideas; some even show actual or suggested floor plans and designs for storage cabinets. I have a workshop in my garage (I don’t build scenery or props at home, but woodworking has been a hobby since high school), and I consistently find great tips and ideas in these resources. Some of my favorite ones are listed in the Resources page of this blog, and there are lots more.  I’ve seen a few pieces on how to set up a scene shop too, mostly in the older books, but unfortunately they were either very specific or are totally outdated.