The Importance of Good Backgrounds

Production set atop SacrŽ CÏur There are many components that need to come together before a good production is put together, and having a good background (set design) is critical. Whether it is a low-budget production that films at a location or a high cost production with complicated set construction, backgrounds can have a powerful effect on an audience’s impressions and emotional reaction. Choosing the right background goes beyond selecting simply what is attractive, but also what is appropriate for the production.

Organizing a Background

Usually, before a set is constructed, there is a planning phase in which negotiations between the set designer and a director take place (or in the case of larger productions – a period of interaction between teams of experts). Issues like cost, material, location and budget are discussed and an appropriate course of action agreed upon.

The basic blueprint used to determine the organization of a background is a studio plan, which diagrams information on the permanent staging area (things like exits, facilities, storage areas and other fixed features). The staging plan is superimposed onto this in a separate plan called the “staging plan” – which outlines the settings (furniture and structures).

Television settings must be appropriate to the type of production and the staging must fit the budget and fit the parameters of the staging area. A good staging design should take into consideration cameras; lighting, sound and access (ease of moving around/manipulating equipment). HDTV can also complicate matters as sets that were once usable on SDTV no longer work with higher resolutions.

Technical and Artistic Aspects of Set Design

When it comes time to filming, a set designer should take into consideration a number of things; among them camera height, foreground pieces, depth and artistic considerations.

Technical Considerations

Camera height, for example, affects how much of the set is visible from different angles. Higher camera height can give viewers a more comprehensive view of the studio or location – this can be used to emphasize size, while low angles can give the audience a feel less space and distance.

Depending on what the director is trying to achieve – a set designer should consider the shooting angles and whether or not certain foreground objects become too prominent. Foreground pieces can be used in conjunction with camera angle to give a sense of scale. They can also be used to hide things as is the case with many historical production sets where modern objects like street signs can be concealed with foreground objects). Artistically, foreground objects can also be used to give information about a scene – and certain items can be brought into focus as needed.

Artistic Considerations

Video Set

A director can strongly influence the impressions an audience receives by the background setting. A slight deviation in camera position can significantly change what the audience can see and hear, thus changing their overall impression completely.

To give an example – if a director is shooting a documentary aboard an aircraft carrier – the choice in shooting location can significantly alter the viewer’s impression of life. Shooting on deck during exercises can demonstrate that life is characterized by action; hustle and bustle while shooting in the galley would demonstrate what it is like when the crew has down time.

When it comes to creating a convincing scene with budget or facility limitations, a partial setting can be incorporated into the production. Partial setting is a technique that allows directors to make a modest location or set look real, convincing or more than it really is. Building up a section of scenery within the camera field can be useful under limiting circumstances. This combined with good sound effects and camera techniques can enhance the reality of the set and make it more convincing.

A director can, for example convert a room into a studio with a combination of screens and flags. A cathedral setting can be simulated on camera by incorporating objects one would expect to find – such as a stained glass window and an organ (without having to shoot at a real cathedral).

Types of Set Backgrounds

As discussed earlier, there are a number of ways to generate a background. A director can choose to shoot at an actual location (e.g. the film is really shot in a gothic cathedral) or choose to use a substitute and create a partial setting (as in the case discussed in the previous section). It is also possible to make use of virtual sets and computer imaging to make the subject appear to be at the location. With a green screen, proper sound and lighting effects, this can be done professionally and convincingly.

Other times, it is appropriate to simply use a neutral background such as a washed white field or other basic background. Many television shows make use of what is called a “cyclorama” (shooting in front of a curved wall or backdrop) to suggest unlimited space behind the subject.

Cost Effective Sets

Budget does not have to be a limiting factor in the way of set design. There is an amalgamation of techniques available to produce quality sets with little or no resources. Open sets can be altered to look closed by tightly positioning furniture, support frames and backdrops can be constructed from a variety of different easy to obtain an inexpensive materials. Modular units can be built from wood and aluminium sheeting, or can also be purchased pre-manufactured.

Depending on what is suitable for the production at hand, pictorial backdrops, painted cloth, photographic enlargements and even television monitors can make effective backgrounds. It is necessary to note, however, when using such techniques that the lighting does not disrupt the surroundings. Picture backgrounds should be in good condition (not torn, creased or smudged) and evenly lit so as not to form shadows.

Correcting Production Problems

Usually, a director can improve a set if he finds that the background is for one reason or another unacceptable or unworkable. Often a simple lighting change or simple rearrangement can correct the problem.

It is also important to make sure that the background does not appear to make the subject look odd – as is the case when it appears that certain objects are growing or balancing themselves on the subject’s head. This is why, before proceeding – the set should be checked for distracting features, which could include bright reflective surfaces, problems with color contrast, blemishes and shadows.

These can be corrected easily by modifying the lighting or using foreground objects to block areas or objects that are creating light reflection issues. A simple change of the subject’s wardrobe can remedy color problems or simply moving the scenery around to produce a better effect.

In conclusion, a set designer should not be fazed by limitations in resources. Most problems can be corrected by using simple ingenuity and creativity. It is critical that one not immediately abandon their original ideas or settle for less simply for lack of resources or set limitations. A good director is always a master at producing illusions and using imagination to work with what is at hand.