Ever since another set designer introduced me to SketchUp back around ’06, I’ve been using it almost exclusively for my design work. SketchUp is a 3D visualization program that comes in a free version and a professional version, and is being used more and more by set designers, architects, engineers, and others.
Besides being very easy to use and very flexible, SketchUp has a world-wide user community that’s always coming up with extensions, add-ons, material libraries, collections of components, and even RUBY files for creating custom short-cuts. The professional version comes with an add-on, called LayOut, that you can use to prepare complete shop drawings from the 3D models. I used AutoCAD for years for my shop drawings, but recently I’m using LayOut more and more. I’m not giving up on AutoCAD yet, but so far LayOut has worked just fine. There are even third-party rendering programs that allow you to insert lights in your SketchUp models.
The caveat, though, and I’ve run into it over and over, is that SketchUp was created as a schematic visualization tool and not as a design tool. One of the things set designers do when creating a set is to draw a number of very small, loose sketches (known as thumbnail sketches) to get the overall look and feel out of the way before moving on to the details. Architects and other designers often do the same: it’s a way to see the big picture first, to define it and refine it and play with it until it’s right. Some of us do dozens of these “thumbnail sketches” before arriving at the look we want. And by small, I mean small: a sketch for a set on a 40 foot wide stage can be as small as two inches across. The sketches go fast and are disposable.
I’ve tried doing these directly in SketchUp, but it doesn’t work for me. Even using a stylus on a touch tablet, I find I get hung up on the primitives (the squares, circles, arcs, and such, not to mention the various tools) very fast and my sketches look very mechanical. For me, a pencil is much freer. So I use my sketchbook or the back of an envelope first, the sketches getting larger and larger, and only move onto SketchUp when I know exactly where I’m going. Even once I’m using SketchUp, I often go back to paper and pencil to study and work out details.
Like many other computer programs, SketchUp is a tool. You need to know what you want to do before you can use the program to do it. There is a learning curve (especially with LayOut, which requires some knowledge of drafting), but most users I’ve known have been up and running in a short time. Even after years using it, I’m still learning new techniques.
Since things change very fast nowadays, I’m not going to include a link to SketchUp here, but you can look it up in your favorite search engine and go right to their current site to download the free version or purchase the professional version. You can also see some of my own set designs, using SketchUp, on my web site, at www.georgefledo.net.