For more than 100 years, movies have been one of the most consistent trends of our culture. They’ve made us laugh, cry, smile, and root for characters we never thought we’d root for. But for everything that takes place on the screen, there are hundreds of people working. Their parts, both big and small, are cogs in the machine that is the filmmaking process. The movie set is where all of this collaboration occurs. The meeting of artistic minds is the epicenter from which all of the film industry revolves around.
How these sets work (whether in design or general operation) is often shrouded in secrecy to the viewer. Today, we will talk about what a film set is, the on set roles you probably didn’t know about, how sets are made and used and some of the most astounding movie sets of all time – until we conclude on how to get into the industry of film set design.
The dictionary definition of a movie set is: The enclosure in which a film scene is shot; includes scenery and props. While this definition is simple and correct, a set itself, and what occurs on it, is far more complex.
The film studio began becoming popular in America when Thomas Edison set up a location for Vaudeville and circus acts to perform in New Jersey in 1893. Since then, there has always been two main types of film set, the first of which is in a studio. This Studio approach was most popular in the mid-1940s, but had seen a resurgence in recent years due to the popularity of green screen and computer-generated imagery. The second type of film set is a genuine location, such as in a field. For example, the first ever film (Roundhay Garden Scene, 1888) took place in a garden.
If the film set is practical, it can take a long time for the location scouts to find a good place to shoot that particular sequence. A number of things are needed to be factored in when looking for a good film set location. For example, the quality of sunlight if outside and the space for a crew to fit in if inside. When considering film set requirement, there are many other things often not thought of by the general public. For example:
A movie production set is about cooperation and coordination. Therefore, small touches like the transport accessibility can come in helpful in boosting team morale over a long shoot. The main priority of a location scout is minimising difficulty for the entire cast and crew.
Speaking of team morale, let’s look at some more interesting things that go into making a movie set work that you might not know about.
The Prop master is in charge of, shockingly, the props. They are an integral part of the on set experience, as they lay out, position and organise props for filming. Prop masters also have lots to do in pre-production as well. The prop master, along with the other prop assistants (on a bigger budget film) will seek out the props for the shoot. They work with the set designers to ensure that each shot is as lively as possible for the audience. Prop Master Eliza Malona summed the ever changing nature of her occupation up perfectly in an interview with Creative Future. She said “I’m a master of props. But what are props? Props are…everything. It’s something different every day.”
With a curious name, the gaffer is essentially a lighting technician who works with the camera crew to make sure that when on set, the lighting works in tandem with each individual shot and does not hamper the visibility of a scene. The name gaffer seemingly originates from British slang for a hooked metal pole used in theatre to adjust the stage lights, which was called “the gaff”. So, by being the person who uses the gaff, they became the gaff-er, and work with film set lights.
Although the name sounds strange, the child wrangler is actually integral to the wellbeing of any children on set. The wrangler keeps them occupied while not filming, and ensures their wellbeing and fair treatment when on camera. The child wrangler is the foremost example of the delicate balance of things on a movie set. It highlights how small and intricate details come together to create harmony. Being a “wrangler” isn’t an uncommon job in film. For example, there are movies where python or dog wranglers are used frequently (my thoughts go out to the python wrangler for “snakes on a plane”).
For more information on roles on set, check out out article on film crew roles!
There are multiple stages to the process of making a film set:
The process normally begins with the set designers reading the script. Decisions are made in the team from this point. These are made with the help of the director and the writers, focusing on the best way to conceptualise each scene.
Drawings or sketches are made of the set next. In larger budget films, the sketches are often architectural and highly technical, whereas lower budget films must ‘make do’ with their environment more than ‘make’ it. In this scenario, they will normally use cheaper methods of design like basic designs or picture boards of pre-existing locations. This is normally because lower budget movies don’t have a dedicated set designer, and instead, the set designer is somebody working as multiple roles on set of a movie, usually including other movie set jobs including those with props.
Another step not often considered by those outside of the set design world is budgeting. This can massively factor into the decision whether to use a real life area as the set, or build one from scratch. Although the cheaper option, some locations (such as cafes or restaurants) can have fees to film in, in order to offset the cost of the lost business. To hear more about financing movies, take a look at our article.
Next, the designers will scout the location of the set by visiting the in-progress build or the unhired area for filming. They take photos to show to the Director of Photography and gaffer in order to begin planning.
Now, the filmmakers and set designers will collectively think about how to use the set, the different lines of sight that the camera will see and any possible reflections in windows or on surfaces they might encounter. At this stage, they’ll also make a final storyboard for the camera operators and director. This it to get a more definitive visual plan for the scene. Here, things like where to draw the line for the 180 degree rule (a rule in film that means the camera will mostly stay behind an imaginary straight line when filming a dialogue scene) come into play.
Finally comes the shoot on set. The runners and grips prepare this area, as they are the assistants on set. Normally, some small unforeseen aspects may need to be worked around. Green screens are put up (if needed) on windows in order to be keyed out (edited) in post-production. Movie set catering is needed, especially if the days are long. Often breakfast, lunch and dinner will all be available. After use, the set may be left standing until the end of the shoot in case any reshoots are requested by the director, editors, or studio.
In the history of film, we can discuss many sets as being groundbreaking, or simply a feat in filmmaking. In this section, we are going to discuss the sometimes overlooked genius behind some of film’s most jaw dropping sets.
Directed by Christopher Nolan (featured in our picks for the best director of all time), one of the most famous sets of the modern era is Inception’s amazing spinning corridor set from the end of the second act of this 2010 epic. In this scene, Joseph Gordon Levitt (in a dream) fights two henchmen in a corridor that is spinning 360 degrees. This surreal set isn’t a feat of CGI, but one of practical effects. The corridor did in fact spin, and the actors all fought inside this prebuilt corridor set inside an airplane hangar in London.
According to director of photography Wally Pfister, the scene required over 500 crew members to complete and took 3 weeks to shoot. This scene is a joy to watch and like any great set, makes you wonder how on earth they did it, only to leave you more in awe at how they did.
The set of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 film is so unbelievable that watching the sci-fi masterpiece today, you would never know that it was made over 50 years ago. The intricate set was made almost entirely without special effects. Instead, Kubrick and co. relied on their pioneering camera effects and large scale practical sets to make an astoundingly real space experience. It features sequences on the moon, a spinning spaceship, and total zero gravity spacewalks that could have been made yesterday.
The most obscure yet vital aspect of the set creation on 2001: A Space Odyssey was that the panels. The interior spaceship design was not made by prop masters or even set designers, but genuine aerospace engineers. This means that the sets are not just a visual feat, but a technically impressive look into the future too.
The famous colosseum-like arena structure was one of the most ambitious sets that a studio created until this point. It covered 18 acres, and was the largest set ever built at the time. In fact, it took took 1000 men a year to construct by digging it out of a quarry.
36,000 tonnes of sand was used to enhance the believability of the biblical-era environment. With 76 horses being imported from Yugoslavia and Sicily for the chariot race scene, animal wranglers were also necessary on set,
The job of a set designer, luckily, has many career pathways. If you want to train academically, many universities offer degrees in assisting subjects such as fine art, 3D design or architecture.
Being a set designer can be also achieved by demonstrating a particular creative prowess and vision. Those that go on to do set design often find this role from working on set in an alternate capacity. Examples of this could be as a runner, director’s assistant, or a more hands-on role like a grip.
Skills in theatre set design often translate to film, and vice versa, while both are very different mediums, the importance of a set in each is integral. A film set creates tone, atmosphere and most of all, builds the world around the character. A powerful mise en scene grips the audience, and lets them into the film set themselves, as if it were the real world. If you have an interest in filmmaking, have a look at our favourite filmmaking books.
Movie sets are both exciting to watch and get involved in. There are many intricate roles that work together to create them, and the outcome is stunning to see. I hope that this article has given you an insight into some on set roles, and how sets are created. It may even have given you some scenes to look up if you haven’t seen them before! For more amazing films, check out our top picks for Oscar-winning short films.
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