Set Designer

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Set Designer


At some point, there was likely a movie made where the characters were all speaking with accents, the signage over the shops was in French, and the cars were all 1940s roadsters. There were cows walking down the cobblestones, and the characters settled down for a baguette-and-brie lunch while they waited for the herd to pass. Guess what? The film crew did not take a time machine back to 1942 in France to film this movie. They actually only made it last year, in the middle of a major American city. So how come it looked like the French countryside? Ask the set designer!

Set designers set the stages for various productions, including plays, dance productions, operas, television shows and commercials, music videos and concerts. They can also be involved in designing museum exhibits, theme parks and theme hotels, and restaurants. Wherever the environment needs to be dramatic, and a certain mood, era, or cultural influence needs to be highlighted, set designers have a hand in the project.

Each production will require different kinds of attention. In theater, film, and television, the designer meets with the director, reads the script, and develops a plan for each scene in the production. Similarly, if they are working in restaurants or theme parks, they will meet with the owner or the franchise, to discuss their vision. Once they have met with the art director, costume designer, and lighting designer, the set designer can then set about creating sketches, models, and paintings of the way each area or scene should look. Some are involved in creating futuristic environments, and will work with special effects teams, while others recreate historical events. This involves a lot of research, as well as hunting at antique stores and flea markets for appropriate items.

Set designers usually specialize in one area. Some enjoy the drama of a life in theater, while others enjoy the normalcy of a career in designing commercial property. No matter where they apply their skills, however, all set designers are able to strike a balance between creativity and practicality. They know how to recreate moods, rooms, and entire universes because of their innovative approach to design.
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  Average Earnings  
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  Interests and Skills  
Set designers are generally interested in theater, film, and television production, and have a working knowledge of art, theatrical, and architectural history. Set designers should be safety-conscious, and work well and efficiently even under pressure. They should have a good understanding of the principles of interior design and construction, and be able to draw, paint, and make models. They should also be able to use design programs on the computer. Set designers should be creative and innovative in their designs, as well as practical, precise, and organized. They require excellent communication skills, and feel comfortable expressing yourself to respected directors, as well as to large groups of technicians.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Read the script and consult with the director
  • Discuss set or interior requirements with lighting, camera, and costuming departments
  • Analyze budget, labor, space and architectural restrictions
  • Research the architectural styles and building interiors appropriate to the time period depicted, including wallpapers, furniture, and moldings
  • Develop sketches or three-dimensional models of visions
  • Supervise the construction and painting of the set and props
  • Attend dress rehearsals to supervise the set make changes as needed
  • May be responsible for props
  • May maintain and repair the set pieces
  • Explore and experiment with new techniques and special effects
  • The typical day for set designer will vary, depending on the working environment. Each set designer will spend some of each day assessing the area, be it a stage, an outdoor space, or a theme restaurant. They will also spend some of each day researching architecture and traditions from relevant eras and cultures. They will meet with lighting designers, architects, directors, actors, and costume technicians. There is lots of opportunity for travel, especially for those designers who are involved with touring productions.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Set designers work in a variety of environments. Television studios, on film sets and outdoor film locations, small theaters, and huge concert halls. They design indoor environments at museums, galleries, offices, and public buildings. They can also be found involved with theme parks, restaurants, and other commercial venues.
  • They may work as freelancers, on contract to venues, theater companies, governments, and film production companies. They may be employed on a permanent basis with theater, television, and film production companies.
  • Set designers work in theaters, on locations, and in offices and design studios. They may find themselves setting up scenes outdoors. Their hours vary, depending on their employment situation. They can often work long hours, often 15-hour days for a week or more at a time, if they are involved with a touring company or a film crew. They will work more regular hours if they are in the planning - not the production - stage.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Set designers can find work with large theater companies, or they can open up a freelance set design business. They can become designers, stage managers, stage directors, and camera technicians. With the right experience and education, set designers can work as interior designers, exhibit designers, architects, or interior decorators. They may also choose to teach theatrical design in colleges, universities, private schools, or high schools.

  Educational Paths  
There is no set path to becoming a set designer. It is a good idea to start right away as a volunteer set designer with your school theater department or community theater. It is also helpful to start paying attention to the sets in movies, plays, and television shows. Pay particular attention to the props being used, the furniture, and how the stage set up.

As for formal training, aspiring set designers should consider a college diploma or a university degree in carpentry, furniture design, interior design or decorating. There are also programs in fine arts, theater, or theatrical design. One can also pursue a master's degree in fine arts, if they wish to advance to highly sought after positions within the field.

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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