Set Builder

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Set Builder


From a wild west ranch to the planet Mars, set builders build appropriate sets for television, advertising and printing establishments, motion picture productions, theater and stage productions, and other live or recorded productions. Sometimes called grips, they move and set up camera tracks and scenery and other necessary set building features. They are the jack-of-all-trades who do things like moving big set pieces in between scenes, propping up phony set walls, and holding the ladder for the lighting people. A set builder reports directly to the set designer or key grip. Set builders usually do some production and administration work along with the construction.

In the set building department, one task is maintaining records to ensure that the inventory of equipment remains stable. Set builders are responsible for checking out, renting, or requisitioning all equipment needed for production and construction of sets. Set builders work as constructors, doing lighting as well as administrative work. Once the lighting technicians have placed, aimed, and adjusted the lights, set builders may set up the equipment used to cast shadows necessary to achieve desired effects. If placement of the camera requires moving the walls of the set, the set builder will rebuild and perform the manual work. Set builders may also unload the parts of the set that come from storage and place them for the carpenters or prop-makers to revamp. Also, whenever the sets need to be reassembled from storage, the set builders do it.

Film sets are often built from scratch and thrown away when they are no longer needed. On feature films, set builders usually work in groups. Film sets are often quite flimsy -- instead of nails, set builders use a lot of staples, plywood and glue. Set builders often build hanging scaffolding above the perimeter of sets upon which lights used in the photography are placed. They also construct stationary and rolling scaffolds for platforms to hold the sets, the lights, and the camera. When a backing or a large painted background is required to simulate a view through windows and doors, it is the set builder who installs it. After the photography is completed, the grip crew is responsible for dismantling the backings, sets, and scaffolding.

Set builders must also estimate construction costs and try to work within of their budget to maintain income and expenditures. A clerk is usually assigned to this department to help with the administrative burden, including keeping accurate records of the daily building personnel to ensure proper payroll for the department each week.
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  Interests and Skills  
Set builders must be solid team players. They should be able to adapt to a variety of production styles and deadline requirements. Set builders must keep up with changes in technology and in the industry. They often move heavy equipment and set up difficult sets. The work is most rewarding for those who enjoy working with tools and equipment on tasks requiring precision.

Set builders should also be really comfortable with heights. Setting up scaffolds is always done at a considerable height. Finally, they must be able to perform in pressure situations, fix problems immediately and be able to meet stringent deadlines when filming is behind schedule.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Build sets from scratch or modify already existing sets
  • Move big set pieces on and off stages and set in between scenes (quietly in live theater)
  • Prop up phony set walls and background scenes with staples, glue and other quick-fix adhesives
  • Negotiate with producers and directors to determine grip equipment needs
  • Set safety standards on sets and stages
  • Maintain administrative and inventory records
  • Set up and dismantle sets quickly and safely
  • Build hanging scaffolds for lighting
  • Provide their own tools normally used in the trade
  • Due to the physical nature of the job, set builders must be strong, in good shape and have the ability to work with their hands. As the workweek in the film industry is irregular, some set builders work an average of only one or two days a week. However, the hours are always long (approximately 12-18 hour shifts) on these workdays, which may sometimes include weekends. Consequently, set builders must remain flexible in their work availability. The work ranges from indoor set and theater work to outdoor location work, which will include working in all types of weather.
  • There are various occupational hazards are connected with this job. Sometimes sets fall on builders causing considerable damage and lights and light fittings can also fall. Occasionally set builders bump their heads against low hanging fixtures or trip over the many wires that lie on the floor during filming or suffer minor cuts and bruises. They normally bring their own tools to the set and wear safety shoes.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Set builders are employed by television and radio stations and networks, recording studios, motion picture and video production companies and by theater and stage companies.

  Long Term Career Potential  
What does the future hold for set builders? A set builder usually starts as part of a basic crew and then works up through various levels to key grip or set designer. Studios usually promote from within, although there is a lot of interchanging between studios, depending on how many productions are going on. Advancement is a slow process and may take many years since openings are few. Advancement really comes in the form of an increasing pay level, based on growing professional status and recognition.

  Educational Paths  
There are no standard educational training requirements for becoming a set builder. Education and training in carpentry and rigging are helpful. Volunteering and apprenticeship work are always great methods of gaining experience along with making the right connections. Learning directly from set builders and grips is the most valuable experience one can gain.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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