Concept art in SketchUp

Over the past few months, I’ve been teaching at a local film school, where one of my classes is in SketchUp — a fantastic visualization tool being used more and more in the entertainment industry. This isn’t a design class (that’s a different one), but a class strictly on how to use the software to visualize film sets. What I’m doing is creating the sets myself, printing them out, and then having the students re-create them in SketchUp, with each set introducing new tools and techniques. Below are a few of the ones I gave them to copy after we covered some of the basics.

First are two views of an Egyptian tomb. For this one, I gave them four views so they could see the set from different angles.

Tomb 1.jpg

Tomb 2.jpg

Once they were comfortable with those techniques and tools, I gave them a spaceship to introduce new ones. Here are several views of the set.

hip 1.jpg

Ship 2.jpg

Ship 10.jpg

And here are a few views of a different spaceship set. The curved green surface is a chroma-key screen used to insert backgrounds (like views of outer space) into the film during post-production.

Ship 5.jpg

That round translucent thing in the middle represents a hologram of the ship’s engine, which would also be added during post-production.

Ship 26.jpg

Ship 7.jpg

Ship 8.jpg

Here’s the drawing (11×17) I gave them for this ship as a sample of what “typical” concept art layouts may look like.


Although, at this point in the class,  the detailing in the three sets above is fairly simple, SketchUp can be used to develop some very complex shapes and details. You can find examples online or on my web site, at


The difference between art and design

Over the years, when I’ve  shown a set design to people who are not working on the show — and sometimes even to those who are — I’ve often heard the comment, “Wow, you’re an artist.” It happened just the other day with a design for a prop. My my usual response has been to say, “Thank you, but I’m a designer, not an artist.”

To which the response has very often been two raised eyebrows.

This has happened so much over the past thirty-some years that I thought I would write a post on the difference between art and design. That way, if I’m responding to a post on a chat room or an email, I can just reference it in case they’re interested. Not everyone will be, and that’s fine too.

Okay, so first let’s accept that there’s a lot of overlap between the two: some of the same skill sets and knowledge bases are used in both, and of course the semantics never end. But the biggest difference is in the end product, or, better yet, in the creator’s intention for the end product.

“Art” generally refers to a work that stands on its own and makes its own statement: it doesn’t support something else. A drawing or painting that hangs on the wall, a statue on a pedestal, a decorative item around the house, or even a movie, a play, a musical composition, a novel, or a poem. They could be great, mediocre, bad, or galaxy-class awful, but they’re art. They’re not design.

“Design,” on the other hand, generally refers to a work that solves a problem; in my case, a set solves the problem of providing an environment to help tell the story in a theatrical production. Many of us refer to it as a “design problem” and a “design solution.” To design a bridge is to create a solution to the problem of how to get people and things from one side of, say, a river, to the other side. To design a computer board, a car, a building, or a better mousetrap, are all ways of solving a problem.

Two paragraphs above I said there was lots of overlap and semantics. Sure, lots of designed works are included in art museum collections, and I’ve seen many of them. But they were still originally intended to solve a problem — they just happened to be so aesthetically pleasing, or so skillfully executed, that the directors and curators decided to include them. The Met in New York City has lots of Egyptian coffins and other artifacts on display, but they were originally intended to solve a problem or serve a purpose.

I also mentioned that the creator’s intention was involved, and this is where some people want to be artists and some want to be designers. I won’t go into the right-brain-left-brain argument (because, as far as I know, the theory hasn’t been proven), but it’s still a good analogy. Some people want to create things that stand on their own, and some want to create things that solve a problem. The thought process, and the creator’s personality and interests, have  a lot to do with it, even though both artists and designers may in some cases possess the same technical skills.

And they both have a place in the world.

Planning for a new theater

This post was inspired by a recent one in the Educational Theatre Association’s Public Forum, where a member asked for ideas and assistance in planning a new theater space. So thanks, Josh!

Over the past five or so years of hanging out in the Public Forum, I’ve seen the same question come up numerous times, to the effect of “I’m planning a new space; what do I need?” and it is usually followed by the same answers by the same small group, including me. So I thought I would do a post on this subject so, in the future, I can just refer members to it.

But first, here’s a little background, and feel free to skip this section if you must.

I was trained as a set designer in college and grad school and then spent fifteen years in the architectural field, mostly working on large corporate and government projects. One of my primary jobs there was to work closely with clients to understand and help define their real space problems and what they needed to solve them. This involved interviews, site visits, and a lot of listening, and — because some of the projects were huge — often took weeks or months before we ever did a sketch.

Another part of this was making sure that the project would address the client’s needs over the expected lifetime of the building, which was often twenty or thirty years. It was particularly important on civic projects that were paid for with taxes or bond issues, and where the client (elected officials) had to convince the public (voters and taxpayers) to go along with the project.

What it came down to was that these were very expensive projects which the client would have to live with for a long period of time. Not a place to make hasty decisions.

But during these years I also ran into architects, builders, and consultants who seemed to be in a hurry to begin construction based on very little understanding of how the space would be used. One example: courthouses. By asking questions, listening,  and observing, I learned that one serious problem in some old courthouses is that the same elevators are used by the public, the lawyers, the judges, the witnesses, the press, and, in some cases, the criminal defendants, and that the circulation patterns often allowed for these people to cross each other in the hallways. Blocking off the hallways to allow just one of these groups to pass might work in a small courthouse, but would definitely not work in a large, busy one.

One point made by several posters in the Forum was that architects are trained in how to design buildings, but not always (and yes there are exceptions) to pay attention to, or understand, how they are used. I can vouch for this from my years in the business, and it helps explain why so many buildings are designed from the outside in, instead of from the inside out. Once the shell is created, the rooms have to be fit into it, and sometimes the fit doesn’t work. This isn’t so much a problem with “spec” office buildings, but is a huge problem with dedicated-purpose buildings such as courthouses, hospitals, and theaters.

Another problem I ran into was with equipment vendors and consultants. The vendors naturally wanted to sell us their equipment, and often consultants were looking to specify given brands of equipment so they could get a commission.

Enough on background, but the point is that up-front planning pays off in the long run.

BTW, I’m not a theater consultant: that’s a very specialized job which I happily leave to folks who want to do this type of work. But theater consulting is a very valuable service which can save clients a ton of money and help them get just the type of space that will meet their needs for a long time.

Based on the posts I’ve seen in the Forum, the main interest among the members is in creating a producing theater (as opposed to a road house), so the following discussion relates to a producing theater. So, in planning such a venue — new construction or renovation — there are some questions to ask yourself or your group long before hiring a designer or consultant.

I will come back later and discuss why some of the questions are important, but for now here’s a start-up list, in no particular order. Other questions will come up as you proceed and (hopefully) as you work with a consultant.

Warning: some of these questions will appear to have no-brainer, i.e., obvious or d-uhhh answers, but they are probably the most important ones to put some real thought into. And, while some of this may look like you’re creating a business plan (which is a great idea, BTW), it’s all related to designing the theater.

  • Why do I want to build (or renovate) this theater?
  • What do I want to say with it?
  • What do I want to do that other local theaters aren’t doing? Why?
  • Will this be a defined teaching space (performance, music, dance, tech, etc.)?
  • What type of plays and musicals do I want to do? Why these and not something else?
  • Do I want to do concerts, recitals, etc., in addition to plays and musicals?
  • How many shows do I want to do a year, now and later?
  • What audience capacity do I want? Why?
  • Is it a black box, thrust, proscenium, or combination? Why?
  • Who will use it – the local community, the school, outside groups, etc.?
  • Will it be available for rent?
  • Who will staff it – paid staff, volunteers, both, other?
  • Who will manage it — drama teacher, managing director, artistic director, board, etc?
  • Who will maintain the physical space?
  • Who will run and maintain any dedicated theater equipment?
  • Do I want to offer refreshments (a concession stand) now or later?
  • Is the space easy to get to? Parking and loading? Audience access?
  • How long will it be there — five, ten, twenty years — and why?
  • How will I promote it? What will I need to do so?
  • Where will the funding come from, now and later?
  • Do I have a start-up budget?
  • Will it be a 501(c)3, or part of an existing school, or something else?
  • Will the local zoning allow me to do this? Do I need any special permits?
  • Am I prepared to comply with ADA, fire, and similar requirements?
  • Will I be using union labor now or later?

Okay, so what in the world does some of this have to do with designing a theater? Here’s where a good consultant can take several of your answers and put them together. For instance, let’s take just five of the questions above and see what comes out of them:

  • Will this be a defined teaching space (performance, music, dance, tech, etc.)?
  • Do I want to do concerts, recitals, etc., in addition to plays and musicals?
  • How many shows do I want to do a year, now and later?
  • What audience capacity do I want? Why?
  • Is it a black box, thrust, proscenium, or combination? Why?

Putting your answers to the above questions together, a good consultant can get an idea of how much real estate your performance areas will require, not just for performance, but for storage of things like dance floors, choir risers, acoustical screens, musical instruments (a grand piano, maybe?) and so forth. You may want to rent or borrow some of these up front to save money, but should you plan ahead so you don’t end up storing this material in classrooms later? The answer is yes.

I know it’s tough to sell “empty storage space” to some clients, but the space is necessary. We’ve all seen or heard of theaters that just don’t have the space to store stuff they need, and which has accumulated over the years. Scenery, costumes, props, and so on and on are necessary if you’re producing your own shows.

Now, if the consultant’s evaluation of your needs for space add up to too much money or space for you, this might be the time to reconsider some of your answers and scale down, or to ask yourself whether some work or storage space can be off-site.

The same with the issue of whether it’s a black box or something else. Will you need space to store chairs and audience risers, or any platforming and such to create a stage? This is where audience capacity comes in, and also where local regulations may limit the amount of people in a space or require additional means of egress.

How many shows a year, and what kind? Same issue: storage and work space. Since you’re a producing theater, and depending on your anticipated plans and resources, what will you need in terms of a scene and paint shop, costume shop, prop area, dressing and makeup areas, control booths, lighting and sound equipment, and so forth — and who will run these? Again, if it’s too much for you, this may be the time to scale down.

But another issue comes up here: electrical power. Once you know the type of shows you want to do and a few other considerations, you can determine how much power, and what type, you will need. Will your proposed venue be able to provide that much power, or will you need to add to it? Remember, it’s not just for the stage and backstage: the house (audience capacity again) will need lighting, and may also need heat, air conditioning, and other utilities.

Finally, the questions of is it a teaching space, and what kind of shows do you want to do? Let’s say you’re planning a black box with a given (i.e., limited) clear ceiling height. Do you want to lower the clear usable height by installing a lighting catwalk (which may also let you fly stuff in and out), or do you want to have as much height as possible for dramatic effect? And does — or can — your venue support the weight of a catwalk?

So there you go. Just five of the questions in the above list have generated a lot of discussion about the space and its needs, based on your future plans and expectations, and have begun to generate an idea of what the project, as you see it, will cost. This is where a good consultant will be invaluable by understanding your intentions and limitations when helping to design your space. I like to say a good consultant is not an expense: it’s an investment, and you should interview a few before selecting one. But here’s a tip:

If your prospective consultant immediately starts asking you about the rooms or equipment you want, walk away. And if he or she spends more time talking than asking questions, run away.

And, as I’ve said before in the Forum, take the time to visit several theaters and talk with the staff: what works, what doesn’t, what would they do differently? Their staffs will probably be delighted to talk with you. You can get a lot of ideas this way.

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 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

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.


“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.