In this corner, the designer…

A few weeks ago, browsing through a bookstore, I picked up a copy of 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, by Matthew Frederick. As I was flipping pages, one statement jumped out at me, to the effect that engineers are interested in things in and of themselves, while architects are interested in how people interact with those things. The author did not elaborate, but, for me, he didn’t need to: after my fifteen years in the architectural field working with architects and engineers on a daily basis, I could totally relate to this.

But I could also relate to it from the theatrical viewpoint, where there is often an undercurrent of… shall we say… competition between set designers and technical directors, carpenters, and shop staff. The set designer wants his pieces to “look” and “function” as he intended, while the tech people often want to simplify the construction by using stock pieces and materials. In my experience, this desire for simplification is generally attributed to budgetary reasons such as not enough money or not enough time. And sometimes that’s a valid point.

The sad part, however–and I’ve seen it many many times–is that sometimes simplification is viewed as an “us against them” statement. It gets personal. It becomes a win-lose situation, where either the designer “wins” or the shop “wins.” But one of them, by definition, “loses.”

The solution: a win-win-win

Back when I was working at a major scenic studio and estimating jobs sent in by designers or production companies, we often came up with a price that was higher than what the client had anticipated. Sometimes it was a minimal increase, but other times it was a huge difference. The way we dealt with it was to sit down with the production company (often the technical director and designer) to review the drawings and point out where the problems were. It was totally business. We made suggestions as to where expenses could be reduced, and the tech director and designer responded, often with their own suggestions. In the end, sometimes after two or three hours (or several sessions), we arrived at solutions that served the production itself, the design intent, and the client’s budget.

It was a win-win-win. The production company wanted a gorgeous set and got it; the designer wanted a portfolio piece and got it; and we were able to build it on the client’s budget and schedule and still make a profit, so we too got what we wanted.

But what made it work was that communication process where everyone came to the table with the same goal in mind. We were all on the same page. We all wanted to do our best work and have something to show for it.

In the end, that process would have never worked in an environment where there’s no leadership: no one to say, look, we are all on the same team here. It’s not “In this corner, the designer,” and “In that corner, the techies.”

I love SketchUp

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

Problem solving: the barricade in Les Miz

One of my favorite things to say to young designers and techies is to avoid going with the obvious. It’s almost like saying, think outside the box, but without resorting to the cliché.

Case in point: a production of Les Miz I designed for a theatre group in Newark, CA. This group plays at the local high school, which has a nice auditorium, complete with stage, lights, control room, a shop right behind the stage, and so forth. However, the stage was designed more for choral concerts and dance recitals than for theatre: the proscenium opening is about forty feet wide by fourteen high, and the stage is twenty-eight feet deep. There is wing space on the sides, but not much. You get the idea.

The director of course wanted a huge barricade, and I had to agree: anything less than huge on that stage would have looked like a postage stamp. And of course the barricade has to revolve to show both sides. An early idea at a production meeting was to rent a 12’ revolve, but I nixed it, both from the standpoint that it would be too small and that it would create other problems. The barricade ended up being twenty feet wide (which was dictated by the amount of open space) by about seven high when covered with stuff, and four deep.

After a long discussion with myself while looking at the floor plan, I agreed that the barricade had to split in half, with one side stored in each wing. There was no other way. Then came the fun part: how to get it onstage, how to connect it together, and how to make it revolve.

The solution turned out to be simple, but I did have to get rid of all pre-conceived notions of “typical” revolves and wagons.

We installed a trailer jack (from Harbor Freight, which was right down the street) on one of the halves. There were two crew members inside each half, who pushed their halves onstage to meet right at a preselected spot. Then the trailer jack, which had a small piece of ply with a non-skid mat on the bottom, was cranked so the ply sat securely on the stage. It didn’t take much pressure to create a secure pivot point. Finally, the two halves were attached together with large C-clamps at the horizontal braces. The onstage end of each half was covered with rough brown burlap to hide the crew inside, and the top was left open for ventilation.


What the audience saw was the two halves rolling on stage on their own (no one was visibly pushing them), come together, and revolve on cue. Then the two halves (each with eight dead bodies on it) separated and rolled back offstage. I didn’t take many photos of this show, but you can see a few on my web site, at

I make no claim that this is an original solution, but it worked well and was relatively simple.

Urban legends

There are a number of misconceptions about sets and scenery which keep coming up over and over, so I’m going to use this post to address a few of them.

  1. “Everything has to be realistic.” — This is far more important in the movies than in a stage set, since in the movies we are made to feel like we’re right there in the middle of the action. When we go to the theater, we accept certain conventions, such as the “fourth wall” and the “willing suspension of disbelief.” On stage, it’s far more important and effective to evoke a feeling of the environment than to try to duplicate reality.
  2. “All sets are made of flats.” —  A flat is a piece of scenery that was created long ago for a specific purpose: to serve as a flat surface such as a wall. Many stage sets don’t have flat surfaces, and therefore don’t need flats.
  3. “You have to fill the stage with scenery.” —  You need to create a picture, but it doesn’t have to consist only of scenery pieces. The best set I’ve ever seen was at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-on-Avon, one summer when they were doing the four Henry plays in rotating rep. The set was simply a raked stage, from the footlights to the back wall of the theater. That was it. No backdrops, no flats, no masking, nothing. We literally saw the back wall of the theater and all the rigging, pipes, and everything else back there. But when those actors came on the stage, they grabbed you and shook you and pulled you right into the story.
  4. “The audience won’t notice it (aka the five-foot rule).” —  Audiences can be very forgiving, especially when they know it’s not a professional production, but they do “notice it.” They will see everything on that stage as it is, not as how you think it is.
  5. “Paint it black and nobody will see it.” —  Black paint doesn’t make stuff invisible. If it did, a lot of us would be in federal prison just for knowing about it (and never mind writing about it). The “black on black” principle works for specific applications, but, generally, an object painted black looks just like what it is: an object painted black. Scenic artists rarely use black paint by itself unless there’s a very good reason for it in the design, and almost never for shadows.