The set designer’s scope of work, Part 1

I mentioned elsewhere that the actual type of work generally performed by a set designer isn’t always understood, either by some production companies or by designers who have no formal training in the subject. So it’s time to help out a little bit. I described the design process in A Set Design From Start to Finish, so, in this post, I’m going to focus on the deliverables, i.e., what the designer provides to the production company. Additional (optional) services will be covered in Part 2.

1. Initial rough sketches and drawings.

After one or more discussions with the director about the story, the themes, the period, the atmosphere, the characters, and so forth, the set designer prepares one or more rough sketches to illustrate the design concept. These are usually in pencil and rather loose, and show the overall look and feel, but very little if any detail. These sketches are reviewed with the director and any desired revisions or details are noted.

Personally, I like to let the director take a couple of days to think about these sketches before getting back to me, but I keep finding that more and more of them just have a few comments and we’re off and running.

2. Developed sketches

At this point the designer will develop these sketches to show more detail, furniture placement, plans for different scenes, and similar items. These can be in black and white or color, but still leave room for discussion and revisions. They will be likewise reviewed with the director. Once the director approves the concept, it’s time for the next deliverable.

3. The final design

This usually takes the form of a scale model or a color rendering, although more and more designers like to present a 3D computer model. In any case, this final design spells out each scene and what it will look like, as well as information about how scenery units move or are parked offstage between scenes.  The director will then approve this before the next step.

4. Construction documents

These are the “blueprints” defining the floor plan, elevations, details, and so on, that the shop will use to build the set. Some production companies prefer designer’s elevations, which show views of each scenery element (to scale), with dimensions and other necessary details, but not the actual construction methods. The companies then pass these elevations on to their builders, who work out the construction details. Other companies prefer the actual detailed construction drawings. Either way works, but the form preferred by the production company needs to be specified up front, ideally when the designer is hired. The format and style of these drawings are basically the same as for architectural drawings.

This step also includes painters’ elevations (color drawings showing how the various elements will be painted) along with any necessary specifications. The process of painting a set, and the type of paint used, can vary from shop to shop, so I will cover this in a future post.

Finally, the designer provides photos or drawings of any furniture and set dressing required.

That pretty much sums up what set designers generally deliver to the production company, and what most designers expect to deliver. Additional deliverables can of course be requested as part of the scope of work, but these need to be specified ahead of time so the designer can plan accordingly.

Set designers are also expected, and expect, to visit the job site now and then to answer questions, as well as to attend technical rehearsals and similar events, and I will address this in Part 2.

Now… how about building the set, painting, supervising, shopping for props, and so forth?

These services are normally not part of the set designer’s scope of work (and are not allowed in the professional theatre world), although some non-professional companies may want the designer to provide one or more of them. Again this needs to be discussed up front, during the hiring process, as designers will vary in their interest or availability to provide these services. I have seen some designers contract separately for scenic painting or painting supervision, or for providing props and/or furniture, and this can sometimes work out well if both parties agree to it.