The SetWhen it comes to deciding how you want the world in your script to be translated to the screen, few things are more important than designing the right set, or picking out the right location. The artistic vision you have for the film should decide whether a set is built to your specifications, or you scout for the appropriate location. However it is important to avoid spending money building a set unnecessarily, or spending too much time looking for a location that meets your standards down to the last detail.

Gathering The Team

The producer will more than likely be the first person who will want to discuss your artistic vision for the film. He or she will want to know what kind of set you will be shooting on, and how much money you will require to do it. It’s best to know if you want a set constructed or a location scouted for nearly every scene by this stage, so then there is good communication and transparency between director and producer.

Once things are finalized with the producer, you should discuss what you have planned with your production manager and director of photography. The production manager should be able to offer real assistance, although at times it may seem like he or she is interfering with what you have planned. At least when everything is discussed during the early stages you will be able to solve any disputes. It is more vital however that the director of photography knows everything about the shoot. The D.P. after all is the person who creates the completed image that we see on the screen.

The Art Director

When preparing to choose a location or design a set, the director will want to spend a lot of time with the art director. They need to be on hand to join you on location scouts so they can offer advice on which places are appropriate for the scenes being considered. They will also be involved in designing the sets, and will have to present a breakdown of how much it will cost to the producer before supervising set construction.

It’s up to you to tell the art director every thought you have about the look of the film. The art director may have read the script, but that doesn’t mean that the vision of the film is clear. Only the director can decide on the tone of the film, and how much detail is needed for every scene.

The Set

When it comes to beginning the design for the set, again the art director is the first person you will want to offer assistance. The director must know exactly how the scene should look so then the art director can make sure the scene is set in the right period, and that the furniture or equipment in the room is appropriate. This is something that might not be totally clear in the script, so it’s important that the director makes these decisions.

When the art director goes to work, he or she will be able give you little details that will help you decide what the overall “look” of the set should be. For example, if the setting is a dining room in a mansion, the art director will suggest what kind of table and chairs should be used, what the cutlery should look like, or what paintings should be on the wall. A good art director will know how to make the set feel right based on what the director expects.

It may seem a little obvious to suggest, but the director should also know how big the set needs to be. You’ll want to avoid looking at the art director’s original drawing and thinking it looks big enough, only to be handed a blueprint for a much smaller room. Don’t be afraid to ask the art director questions, and try and learn how to read drawings and blueprints so then you and the art director are always on the same page. The director will also need to decide how high the walls will be, so then the D.P knows where the camera and lighting equipment can be positioned. The walls of the set shouldn’t be higher than absolutely necessary, otherwise it will cost more.

Advantages of Sets

  • Get the “look” exactly right: Say for example you wanted to film a scene on the bridge of a spaceship, it would be extremely hard to find the right location, and you would probably have to spend large amounts of money to modify it if possible. If you were to build a set, you could have the bridge look exactly the way you want it to, right down to the last detail.
  • Perfect sound quality: If you’re filming on a set you’re able to shut the world out and film without any background noise getting in the way. On location, that’s a little harder to achieve.
  • More control over lighting: In a studio, you can film day scenes at night and visa versa. You will have complete control over the lighting, so you won’t have to wait for the sun to move if a shadow is being cast the wrong way, or wait for some clouds to block out the sun if it’s too bright.
  • More time to shoot: Because everything is based in one studio, extra equipment and other members of the crew are all within arms reach. On location, you would have to do a lot of running from one place to another, thus leaving you with less time to shoot the scene.

Disadvantages of Sets

  • Too real to be real: You’re art director could build the perfect set, right down to the last detail, but it could still feel fake. Nothing of course can replace the feel or texture of an actual location.
  • Wrong sound for the setting: A studio of course is indoors, which could cause a sound problem if you’re looking for an outdoor-like sound quality. While the background noises of a location can be disruptive, at times it is vital for realism.
  • Money, money, money: It stands to reason that building a set instead of shooting on location costs considerably more money, hence why most low budget movies shoot entirely on location. Just remember that a lot of the money spent on the movie really doesn’t translate to the screen.
  • No natural light: Despite how temperamental it can be, nothing can really beat the effect of natural lighting. It will on occasion depend on what the director of photography wants to do, but ideally you should try and shoot in natural light when possible.