Black duvetyne… or not

Black duvetyne has a long and illustrious history in theatre. In has been used in many applications, including curtains and masking, and has even stood in for velvet in some situations. It’s a very versatile fabric.

But there is one application — often seen — which it really doesn’t lend itself to, and that is as a backing for an open door or window. Consider this photo, from my set for The Odd Couple some years back. We are looking at the open front door to the apartment, on the other side of which is the building’s hallway. At first glance, it looks like what you would expect to see in an apartment building:

Duvetyne 2

Now consider the same scene, Photoshopped to simulate a black duvetyne backing instead of the wall and door:

Duvetyne 1

That’s exactly what the audience would see: a black surface behind the door. Granted the door may only be open for a moment to let the characters in or out, but that one moment, and the field of black back there, would be enough to remind the audience that they are in a theatre and distract them from the story.

It would be even worse if the duvetyne were catching the lights, or had rips or tears in it, or was visibly draped on the floor or wrinkled.

One of the interesting things about being a set designer is that, because you’re so focused on the story, sometimes you want to create things that are so correct for the story that the audience won’t even notice them. They just look natural, like they’ve always been there, or like that’s the only way they can be. TV sitcoms are great at this: for the most part, every house or apartment is so well-defined for the character who lives there, that there’s nothing to distract us from the story. It’s where you would expect them to live.

In the set above, I decided to fully render that hallway because I wanted the director to be able to leave the door open for as long as it was natural for the action. In other words, I didn’t want to force him to close it quickly to hide the black field. It gave him a lot more flexibility with the actors. However, I could have omitted the door across the hallway (which didn’t open) and just showed the two-tone wall by itself; it would have been almost the same effect.

In a future post, I will address the technique of using a dark brown or charcoal duvetyne or paint to help create shadows and depth. It’s much more effective than using black for some situations, and fairly easy to do.