Film Industry

Set Designer Guide: How To Become A Set Designer

Photograph of the blog post author, Sam Jones

Sam Jones

9.7.2021

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Set design is essential in producing a good movie. The set is what immerses the audience within the setting of the story. It creates the illusion of watching a real event and helps portray important aspects within the narrative. At the centre of every good movie is an excellent designer. This high-pressure, but rewarding role can seem like a great occupation for any movie fan with a passion for design. In this article, we will take a look at what the role of set designer encompasses and the potential to make it your career. 

Whether talking about film or tv set design, this professional will have worked tirelessly to create the final product. Often we focus on directors, writers and cinematographers, but set designers can often be forgotten. We want to point out their contributions to film and how crucial their input is. 

If you have a passion for it, you might be considering it as your future career. To help inform that decisions we will look closely at the ins and outs of set design and its use in a film. Following this, we will look at the requirements for becoming a set designer and the more career related aspects like salary. By the end of reading this guide, we hope you will feel more confident in making your decision. 

What Is Set Design? 

Set design from Lord of the Rings

Set design is the creation of the physical space in which the action of a performed event takes place.

Set design shows the audience where and when the story is set and conveys a message. It’s the process of making the set and sourcing all the necessary resources. 

There are numerous reasons why set design is crucial. Let’s take a look at some of the obvious points: 

Setting 

Creating the environment for a film is the main purpose of this individual. Where each scene is supposed to be based is an essential part of any film.

To do this justice, set design needs to be accurate but obvious. Leaving no question about the location of any specific screens. 

Period 

Factually portraying the period your film is based in is fundamental. As soon as audiences catch a glimpse of the set, they should have some idea of when the film is based. 

Themes 

Set design can be used more abstractly. Creating themes and symbols is challenging, but effective.

For example, having a town with derelict and crumbling architecture conveys economic hardship. These messages within the set design are more subtle to audiences, but are essential in producing a coherent film

What Is A Set Designer?

Set designers at work

A set designer has complete control over these creative aspects. They will start working on a film before production starts and finish during the opening night. Their influence on a film is huge and can determine its reception. 

Portraying the setting, period, and themes of a movie is a long and meticulous process. Much time and hard work is needed to get each of them right and do the film justice. 

What Does A Set Designer Do? 

Set designers for an advert

The roles this person will need to undertake are extensive. To cover every single one would be impossible and varies from film to film. Now you know a little more about what set design is, it’s time to delve deeper. So, what does a set designer do? 

A set designer has say over the backgrounds, lighting, props, and much more. They have a huge influence on film and are imperative to its success. Working with producers, directors, wardrobe, prop masters, and more, a set designer has to communicate with many involved parties. 

Here’s a list of the most typical duties involved in a set designer job description: 

  • Study script 
  • Producing plans, models and drawings of the set 
  • Research details of the period and location 
  • Manage movie set budget 
  • Make a production schedule 
  • Oversee building and decorating
  • Communicate idea with costume and make-up
  • Meeting and commissioning set design companies 

This only covers a few of the main responsibilities of this role. The requirements of them will be different for each film. 

How To Become A Set Designer

Now we’ve covered the main points of what a set designer does. If you’re considering this role as a career, there are a few other things you should be aware of.

Like many careers, there no perfect way to enter this role. Education and experience will massively impact your path, let’s take a closer look at these influences. 

Essential Qualities 

Set designer at work

Before taking a closer look at education and experience there are a few essential qualities for becoming a set designer. 

You should have a strong passion for movies and design. Undertaking a project on the scale of a feature movie is a huge task. Your dedication and passion are crucial to motivate you and convey the essence of a movie. Simply having an interest in film production or an interest in art is simply not enough to make you into a successful professional. 

You also need numerous other skills like being confident in working in a team, problem-solving, creative thinking, and communication to name a limited few. Before trying to enter a career, undertake extensive research first. You need to make sure this is the perfect job for you. Even though we have covered the basic duties, the reality is much more comprehensive. Make sure you’re confident you know exactly what the role involves first and foremost. 

What Qualifications Do You Need To Be A Designer?

Degree

When thinking about how to become a set designer, gaining related qualifications can be a great way to start your journey. Whether it be through college or university, these courses can not only make you more prominent with an educational background but give you hands-on experience of what the role entails. 

Set design, theatre, and scenic design are the most directly relatable courses. However, qualifications in fine arts, lighting, interior design for example are still very relevant. These courses will still give you the basic skills needed. 

Through gaining these qualifications, theatre or production companies may offer students internships. This is the best possible way of gaining the necessary skills. Experiencing the production process for yourself will let you gauge if this is the perfect career for you. Moreover, working directly with set design will help you gain specific skills. Finally, this may open the doors to your future career.

If you impress the production company, they could offer you a career at end of your studies. Either way, internships are a great way of developing skills and networking. 

How To Become A Set Designer Without Qualification

Even though gaining related qualifications is the most common method of entering a career as a set designer, it certainly isn’t the only option. 

Acquiring Other Training 

Set designers at work

Maybe college or university isn’t for you, but there are other options to gain education on the subject. Volunteering, apprenticeships, and internships are just as viable as qualifications for gaining the necessary skills. Sometimes, these more hands-on experiences can provide you with more valuable knowledge. 

You want to volunteer for anything related to set design. Volunteering highlights your passion for the subject and shows employers your dedication despite a salary. This could be at your local theatre or even helping make sets for the local primary school play. Whatever opportunities you can find, take them. 

Likewise, any apprenticeships or internships will aid you greatly in developing this career. Museums, motion picture companies, and theatres are the most common places to find these. They will all provide you with relevant knowledge and give you that all-important experience. 

Entry-Level Position 

Set designer helping with equipment

Like when entering many careers, an entry-level job can give you the start you need. This will be a usual method even among aspiring set designers with qualifications. Even doing basic tasks, if they are related, you’re gaining relevant experience. 

This is a perfect way of gaining connections within the industry. The more people who know who you are and your passion for set design, the more likely they are to refer you to someone. Potentially even better, your entry-level role could lead directly into a set designer position. 

Organisations & Networks 

International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees

Joining an organisation or network within the film industry can also be a perfect way to network and find out about opportunities. For example, the Alliance of Theatrical Set Design Employees is a prominent example.

Of course, for many, you already need a career in the industry. Despite this, this is still something to consider and another way of improving your chances of finding a good position. 

Create A Portfolio

A set designer's portfolio piece

So, say you’ve got relevant qualifications, extensive experience, and have started an entry-level role. You need to be able to prove your knowledge and skills. Keeping a portfolio of all your work and achievements is essential.

You need to be able to provide potential employers with a view into your previous work. No matter how small, you should include relevant projects or experience related to set design. 

Where To Find Set Design Jobs

Set designers at work

You’re nearly all set for pursuing your career in set design. The next step is finding set design jobs. 

As we previously discussed, internships, apprenticeships, and entry-level roles can be great for finding opportunities to directly enter into a set design career. Even though this is ideal, it’s not an opportunity that is often presented. 

Similar to many roles, online resources can be great for finding job opportunities. Set designer roles for smaller projects can be posted on numerous casual job hunting sites. However, for more prestigious roles there are websites focused on film industry roles. Showbiz jobs and Stage 32 are two examples of career sites targeting the film industry. 

Set Designer Salary

set designer salary

By now we hope you’re aware of the fact that the role of a set designer is made for someone with intense passion and drive. Even if this is true in your case you might still have a burning question, how much do set designers make? 

Even despite your passion for set design, of course, salary will still come into play when making an informed choice about your career. However, the average salary of a set designer depends greatly on the scale of the project. As well, with most set designers being freelance it’s hard to provide you with an average. 

The Independent Theatre Council suggests that for a freelance set designer in the UK the design fee is on average £2,646.50 and fees of £518.50 for the weekly building of set and other duties. For America, the U.S. Bureau Of Labour Statistics states the average wage for a set designer is $61,020 (2018). 

As you can see, set design salary can alter dramatically from project to project. Having a portfolio of successful, large-scale projects will give you the best chance of receiving the highest possible salary. 

Now You Know How To Become A Set Designer

Set designers at work

We know that’s a lot to take in, but becoming a set designer is no small feat. It is a much-desired role by many, thus the competition is high. Having relevant experience and a portfolio can make you stand out from the crowd and become a prominent contender. There is no right way of becoming a set designer, consider the options we have provided in this guide and think which is the best route for you to take. The road to entering your final career may be long, but if set design is your passion, it is worth every painstaking step of the way. 

There are many recognisable set designers in the film industry and maybe you’re the next. Either way, we owe them an appreciation for how they bring alive the narratives of a film. Without them, movies would be lifeless and boring. 

And… CUT! That’s the end of our guide on how to become a set designer. Here are a few more articles that might interest you: Movie Sets 101: Film Set Design & Famous Movie Sets, Film Production: A Guide On The 7 Stages Of Film Production, How To Make A Storyboard For Film In 4 Easy Steps: Our Guide.

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