Set Design Part 2: Documentary Filmmaking

This article was originally posted January 14, 2011. It has been updated slightly.


Yesterday week I wrote about the importance of set design as it relates to scripted, narrative films. But set design is also very important when shooting documentary style films (this includes corporate promotional films.) I wanr to give you three things to keep in mind when shooting documentary-style films as it relates to the set design.

Picking a Location. :In many situations your location choices may be limited. If you’re doing a documentary about the earthquake in Nepal, it’s pretty obvious where you’ll be shooting. But, if you’re shooting a corporate film where you will be interviewing key executives, you may have a number of options (e.g. their offices, conference rooms, large lobbies, etc.) If you do have an opportunity to pick a location, you want to keep in mind audio issues (e.g. traffic noise, computer humming, people working, etc.) as well as lighting issues (i.e. daylight, incandescent, and most importantly, fluorescent.)

Don’t Be Afraid to Move the Furniture.: Once you pick your location, don’t be afraid to move the furniture around if necessary. Adjust picture frames, plaques, awards, desk decor, chairs, etc., so you can get a nice looking environment that won’t be distracting. Having a busy background (lots of items with lots of different colors and/or shapes) could be distracting from the interview. The background and setting should support the kind of interview you’re going for.

Add Depth. As much as possible, add depth to your set up. Unless there’s absolutely no choice, avoid interviewing subjects up against walls or bookshelves. Doing that will leave our video looking flat and uninteresting; and besides, for all you DSLR shooters out there who LOVE that shallow depth of field, adding that third dimension will allow you to take advantage of the creamy bokeh. 🙂

Here’s a screen shot from the 40th anniversary film we shot for MidPen Housing. The awards & photos on the shelf in the background were all either moved there from other parts of his office or re-arranged if they were already there.



I know I said three tips, but I have a fourth…

Lighting as Set Design. Use lighting to your benefit when “designing” your sets. In addition to a traditional three-point lighting set up, you may also want to add some colored lights shone on a back wall to create depth or a certain mood.

The thing to remember is that whether you’re filming a narrative or a documentary, set design will contribute or detract from the final results. The more thought, effort, and creativity you can put into it, the better the overall outcome.

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