Set Design Part 1: Narrative Filmmaking

On set of “Just Friends” in 1995. Notice the underwhelming photo frames behind me.

This article was originally posted January 6, 2011.


The first short film with dialog I ever produced, wrote and directed was a 1995 romantic comedy about an ex-boyfriend and girlfriend traversing the complex world of being “Just Friends.” It was a sort of African-American “When Harry Met Sally…” I learned a lot about the filmmaking process during the making of that film, but one of the most important was the value of set decoration. I expended absolutely no pre-production energy on set design, and by the time we started shooting, I wish I had.

Set design (also known as art direction or production design) is the process of creating the look and feel of the environment for your story. Depending on the scope of your production, set decoration and design could involve multiple departments, or it can be one lone person. Set design is important because it has a profound effect on the authenticity of your story, the flow, and overall production value.

The problem with “Just Friends” was that 80-90% of the story took place in the bedroom of a single guy and it looked more like a freshman college dorm room rather than a swinging bachelor pad. The reason was that we used MY bedroom and at the time, despite the fact I was a bachelor, my simple needs in life resulted in a rather boring room. I had no posters on my wall, no picture frames, and my mattress was on the floor vs. a bed frame. By the time we started shooting, my DP/co-producer pointed out how spartan and boring the room looked. But he was right.So we scrambled to add something to the room to make it more…authentic. We got these small 4×5 frames that didn’t match for pictures that were required props in the script. They were so small, they didn’t translate well on

So we scrambled to add something to the room to make it more authentic. We got these small 4×5 frames that didn’t match for pictures that were required props in the script. They were so small, they didn’t translate well on screen. I threw up a cheap U.C. Berkeley college poster in a corner that looked rather lame all by itself on the wall. In general, it was just a valuable lesson in the importance of investing time and energy into not just writing and directing, but set design.

There’s obviously a lot that goes into set design: picking a location, deciding what to build and what to buy; props; etc. Here are just a few high-level considerations. I assume most people reading my blog do not have large set design budgets (if any at all), so these tips take that into consideration.

Start with the story: you can affect the success of your set design starting right at the story level. Deciding where and when your story takes place will have a profound effect on your required set design. Don’t make choices in your story that require a huge time or financial investment if you don’t have those resources. A simple love story can take place almost anywhere or any time; don’t set it in the roaring 20s if not absolutely necessary.

Be creative: we recently shot a holiday film “For the Man Who Hated Christmas.” The set design on that film served both a creative and logistical function. From the beginning I always envisioned it being a high key set that represented sporadic memories. The only thing you would see were significant items that stood out in the narrator’s mind. It was also partially inspired by the “flashback” scenes in “Strictly Ballroom.” But the simple set also happened to serve a great logistical purpose. There simply was no budget or time to have the kind of sets the script would traditionally call for (i.e. department store, school gym, living room, etc.)

Delegate: if at all possible, delegate someone to be in charge of set design. You don’t necessarily need to pay for someone either. Film is a collaborative process and it would behoove you to build a team of fellow filmmakers in your area that you can call on when necessary. It could be current or recent film students; interns; colleagues in the industry; etc. Check out local art and fashion schools for people interested in movie making. Connect with local theater companies not only for possible set designers, but for finding props. If you put your mind to it, you can find an enthusiastic individual(s) who can put all their effort and energy into making your sets look great.

Involve Your DP: get the person in charge of lighting your film involved in this process. The DP’s job may be impacted by the sets you create. The number and kind of props and furniture could affect lighting placement. If you’re working on a sound stage or studio and building a set, light placement is also going to be key. Furthermore, the lighting esthetics and color of the film will be affected by your set design. Are you shooting with a CMOS sensor camera (e.g. DSLR, etc.) then you need to be mindful of any fine patterns or lines in the set design that could create moire. Do you need to do a close up of a picture frame, how will you light it so you don’t get glare?

Building Sets vs. On location: there are lots of pros and cons of either building the sets yourself or shooting on location somewhere. Neither is better than the other per se. Obviously, the budget has a lot to do with it. Technically, we could have built a bedroom set for my “Just Friends” film. But seeing as the budget was all coming out of my not-too-deep-pockets, that wasn’t realistic. If you do decide to build any part (or all) of the sets, just keep in mind realism. You don’t want it to look like a built set. You want it to look real. (Unless, of course for some creative reason, you do want it to look like a set). If you decide to shoot on location, depending on the city, you may need to apply and pay for the proper permits (which can take a while and cost a lot).

In my next installment, I’ll talk about set design for documentary filmmaking. Yes, even if you’re shooting a documentary, the look of your set should not be neglected or forgotten.

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