How Film Set Construction Works


Film set of the movie Gladiator, being filmed at Bourne Wood. See more movie making pictures.
Ken Goff//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Filmmaking is art as illusion. The filmmaker's goal is to make the audience believe in the fictional world he has created. The world could be very much like our own or an imaginative fantasy land. But all of the elements of that world -- from the buildings to the cars to the contents of the main character's refrigerator -- need to work together to tell a story.

Movie Making Image Gallery

Since filmmaking is predominantly a visual medium, everything that appears on the screen plays an important role in telling us who the characters are and what their world is like. The human brain processes visual cues faster than verbal information, so if a filmmaker wants to tell the audience that the main character is a struggling artist, he doesn't need to open the movie with a voiceover saying, "My name is Vincent, and I'm a struggling artist."

Instead, the movie opens with a wide establishing shot of late 19th-century Paris. Then we see the exterior of a shabby apartment building in the bustling district of Montmartre. The next shot is of a dark, dingy apartment furnished with only a bare mattress and lit by candles stuck into empty absinthe bottles. There are open art books, discarded wine glasses and chicken bones scattered on the paint-splattered wooden floor. There are dozens of small, half-finished canvasses stacked three-deep against the walls.

Before we even meet Vincent, we know who lives in this apartment. The filmmaker has established a clear sense of place and a palpable mood through careful research, painstaking film set construction and creative set decoration.

How exactly does a filmmaker plan for and design all of the sets that are used in a movie? How much needs to be built from scratch and how much is recreated with computers? How many people work on set construction and what are all of their different responsibilities? Read on to find out.

Planning Film Set Construction

Location scouts chose to shoot "Chapter 27" in front of New York's Dakota, the site where John Lennon was shot. The film stars Lindsay Lohan, shown here, and Jared Leto as Mark David Chapman.
Location scouts chose to shoot "Chapter 27" in front of New York's Dakota, the site where John Lennon was shot. The film stars Lindsay Lohan, shown here, and Jared Leto as Mark David Chapman.
© Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images

Film set construction planning begins months or even years before a film goes into production. It all starts with the script. The script includes descriptions of all sets and locations that will be used in the film. These descriptions can be very generalized or highly detailed, depending on the screenwriter.

Often the first person to see the script is the production designer, who uses the screenwriter's scene descriptions to give an accurate estimate on how much the completed film sets will cost. The production designer will also look for places in the script where computer-generated (CG) effects would be more affordable than building entire sets. Based on this information, movie producers can create a budget and look for funding.

Once a director is chosen for the film, he will meet with the production designer to talk about the best way to visually represent the locations in the script. The production designer will hire a location manager who will scout out interior and exterior locations for certain sets. The rest will need to be built from scratch on a studio soundstage or backlot.

Research is an important part of the early stages of set construction planning, particularly for films that takes place in the past or the future. Large film studios employ full-time researchers to dig up architectural drawings, archival photographs and artist renderings of historical buildings and locations. If a movie is set deep into the future, researchers may consult technology experts and futurists who can work with concept artists to sketch out 25th century skyscrapers and supersonic highways.

The production designer also works with the director and cinematographer to establish color palettes, textures, lighting and composition that help tell the story visually. If you paint a set with bright colors, for example, it implies a light, happy mood. Flat, gray colors create a lifeless, sterile atmosphere.

The production designer uses research and color decisions to finalize concept drawings, sketches and even miniature models for each set that needs to be built. At this stage, it's important that the production designer work closely with the movie's producers to keep everything within budget. Time is also a crucial consideration. The production designer must make sure that everything can be completed on time with the projected amount of employees.

When sketches, drawings and models have been approved, they're handed to the art director. The art director oversees a team of draftsmen who act as the architects of the film sets. They use computer-aided drafting (CAD) software to create detailed, three-dimensional blueprints of the final structures.

In the planning stage, the art director needs to start ordering hard-to-find props like replica airplanes, hire sculptors and other specialty artists to create original works of art and contract with special effects houses to create digital matte paintings and other CG techniques to supplement the constructed set.

With the blueprints in hand, now it's time for the construction manager to start hiring all of the carpenters, painters, plasterers, riggers, model makers, scenic artists and stagehands who will physically build the film set. This is where artistic vision meets wood, nails and concrete. The goal is to bring the whole project in on time, under budget and in accordance with the specific vision of the director.

Now let's look specifically at the many different aspects of set design and set construction.

Aspects of Film Set Construction

Set designers found 1950s era vehicles for the filming of the latest Indiana Jones movie.
Set designers found 1950s era vehicles for the filming of the latest Indiana Jones movie.
© Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty Images

Set construction is the responsibility of the art department, which is typically the largest department working on a film [source: Skillset.org]. The art department oversees everything that appears onscreen other than the actors themselves. The responsibilities of the art department go far beyond simply building the sets, but involve the creation of a living, breathing, fully detailed world.

After the basic structure of a set is built, it needs to be dressed. The set dresser or set decorator is responsible for the furniture, wallpaper, carpet, appliances, the paintings hanging on the wall, the upright piano in the corner -- literally every object on the set. Set dressers need to have a talent for fashion and interior design, but also the ability to find objects that say something about a character and contribute to the story.

Prop masters are responsible for all the objects handled by the actors themselves or that interact with the actors. This can be everything from a whisk to a pistol to a peacock. On larger productions, the prop master might work with weapons masters or animal trainers who specialize in these areas. Some props are so essential to the character or story -- like the falcon in "The Maltese Falcon" or Indiana Jones' whip, that several versions of the prop are made or purchased as back ups.

Filmmaking is a business. Every film has a budget and the size of that budget dictates many of the most important decisions related to set construction. The production designer and the director have to figure out the best way to achieve their artistic goals with the money that's available.

A lower-budget film might re-create a turn-of-the-century Japanese village by shooting inside a re-purposed log cabin. A big budget movie, on the other hand, might build an entire village from the ground up complete with historically accurate architectural details, live oxen and a man-made river running through the center of town.

The budget also influences the amount of special effects that are used in a movie. In the newest "Star Wars" trilogy, for example, the production designer decided it would be cheaper -- and more visually powerful -- to build scale models of some alien worlds instead of creating them entirely with computers.

In the movie "The Last Samurai," on the other hand, the script includes a scene where the main character walks out of a bar and onto the streets of 19th-century San Francisco. The production designer knew it would be too expensive to build a large-scale replica of the historic San Francisco skyline, so he shot the scene with a green screen and filled in the background with a digital matte painting.

Now let's look at some of the specific job titles and responsibilities related to film set construction.

Jobs in Film Set Construction

Construction managers built a complete village for the production of "The Last Samurai."
Construction managers built a complete village for the production of "The Last Samurai."
© Ross Land/Getty Images

The production designer is the head of the art department, which employs the most people and takes up most of the budget on a feature film. The production designer needs to be a master of many skills: a filmmaker, an artist, an interior designer. He also needs experience in physical construction like carpentry, plastering, welding and painting. And, he has to be able to work with everybody from directors to producers to art department interns. Production designers have years of experience in the business, working up from art directors, set dressers and construction managers.

The production designer defines the film's artistic vision, but it's the art director's job to carry it out. The art director manages a huge team of workers with wildly different responsibilities. The art director leads a team of draftsmen who design the sets, then coordinates with the construction manager to actually build them. The art director works closely with the set dressers and props masters to realize the production designer's vision. The art director is also the contact for all third-party special effects work. Meanwhile, the art director has to consult with accountants and producers to make sure the production stays on budget.

For "Moulin Rouge," set designers created 19th century France, also recreated for the movie's premiere.
For "Moulin Rouge," set designers created 19th century France, also recreated for the movie's premiere.
© Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Construction managers are in charge of everything related to the physical construction of the film sets. He's part of the early planning process, helping the production designer decide how many sets need to be built and what they will cost. The construction manager hires all of the construction department heads and skilled workers and is responsible for ordering all supplies and negotiating the best prices. He is also in charge of transporting supplies to location shots and striking (taking down) the set after shooting is finished. Construction managers have years of film production experience as carpenters, painters, riggers, welders and plasterers. And most have construction experience outside of film as well. The construction manager has the tough job of being the liaison between the artists and the construction workers, a responsibility that requires excellent communication and interpersonal skills.

Set dressers or set decorators are in charge of assembling all of the design elements of a set that aren't mailed down. They need to work closely with the production designer and art director to track down all of the props, furniture, decorations and small physical details that populate the fictional world of the film. One of the set dressers main worries is continuity. If there are several scenes in the same location, then all of the set elements need to be in the same place. The set dresser works closely with the prop master to make sure that an actor's glass is filled to the same level for each take, or that a throw pillow doesn't mysteriously disappear from one shot to the next.

But these are only a fraction of the hundreds of jobs required to build a film set. For example, in the painting department alone, there's the department head, a supervising painter, regular painters and standby painters. In the art department, there are supervisors, assistants, standbys and runners of every kind.

The typical career path is to receive some kind of art or design education, then work your way up through the art department or construction department. The hours on film sets are highly irregular and long, but the work can be tremendously creative and satisfying.

For even more information on film production and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • "Art Department Overview." Skillset.org. http://www.skillset.org/film/jobs/productiondesign/article_4644_1.asp
  • "Art Direction: The Visual Language of Film." Oscars.org. http://www.oscars.org/teachersguide/artdirection/introduction.html
  • "Art Director." Skillset.org. http://www.skillset.org/film/jobs/productiondesign/article_4669_1.asp
  • "Career: Set Designers." CollegeBoard.com. http://www.collegeboard.com/csearch/majors_careers/profiles/careers/105457.html
  • "Construction Department Overview." Skillset.org. http://www.skillset.org/film/jobs/construction/article_1776_1.asp
  • "Construction Manager." Skillset.org. http://www.skillset.org/film/jobs/construction/article_4060_1.asp
  • "Oscar-Nominated Set Design." Architectural Digest. http://www.architecturaldigest.com/homes/features/2008/03/sets_slideshow_032008?showall=true
  • "Re-Creating the Feel of Pre-World War II Tokyo on a California Horse Ranch." Turrentine, Jeff. Architectural Digest. March 2006. http://www.architecturaldigest.com/homes/hollywood/archive/geisha_article_032006
  • "Set Decorator/Assistant Set Decorator." Skillset.org. http://www.skillset.org/film/jobs/productiondesign/article_4675_1.asp