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 December 19, 2017. 8 minute read. by: Stanley Obiamalu.

In film, every activity combined in harmony from lighting, to the acting and directing creates an overall seamless experience. But, no activity is more important than Set/Production  Design.

I received a very interesting email and in the email, I was asked what is my top priority  on a film set. While I ensure that no expense is spared and no effort is minced in all aspects of a film shoot, I am absolutely obsessive about my set designers or production designers. In fact, I probably work much more with the set designers before I start shooting than any other unit on a film set.

I take my set designers seriously because I know that without them understanding my vision for the shoot and what I want, I am going to have a less than satisfactory shoot.The set designers are the creative minds and skilled hands  who contribute to the imagination of the audience either directly or indirectly. And in all honesty,  there is no way any audience will enjoy what I am  showing them if the set is not designed to fit the idea that is being portrayed and that is why the set designer may be the most important unit of a filming project.

What is Set Design?
Set design can be defined in some hard to comprehend hard to pronounce one hundred and fifty word sentence but I would like to simplify the definition by describing two scenarios so, here goes: Imagine we sit down and watch a 2 minute long film together. In the film, the first thing you notice is; there are no back ground images or imagery, no animation, no white washed walls, just a barren waste land with nothing at just a  dull horizon, and nothing else.

Suddenly, a man “let’s call him Edward” Edward is  seen running away from something, he is obviously scared and he seems to be running as fast as he can but there is no one pursuing  and ten seconds later, after running non stop Edward drops dead.

We, wait for the next scene, anticipating that something else will happen to make sense of what is going on but nothing happens! Edward is dead, nothing is after him or at least, nothing we can see was  chasing him then the end credits roll in and we have come to the end of the film.

                                       ” The face you make when you’ve just finished watching crap”.

But, let’s imagine that there is a table, a chair, a letter written in red ink, a wine glass of black liquid  and a bottle of black liquid on the table where Edward is sitting and  then our two minute film begins with Edward  drinking from the glass. He reads the letter as he drinks from the glass and then, places the cup back on the table hurriedly, 5 seconds later after placing the letter on the table, he gets up from his sitting position and starts running screaming and flaying his arms wildly as he goes.

About seven seconds later, he drops dead and the end credits roll in. We, the audience can say that something made Edward run like a mad man. It may have been the content of the letter, it may have been the content of what was in the glass. No one knows but  we are  kept in suspense as to what caused the sudden death of Edward  and curious about why Edward  had to die, what he read in the letter and what happens next.

                                                    “When the film makes the popcorn sweeter”

So, we can say that set design is the sum total of elements or props that are placed on the film location which give meaning to the film being  made. It makes the film interesting, engages and arrests the attention of the audience and gives the film life.



What do Set Designers Do?
These two scenarios show us that without a properly and professionally set atmosphere, the story we are telling or selling is harder to believe. So, set designers are those special people who work to create the environment in a film, live theatre set, music video shoot, news room or live talk show.  The set designer doesn’t engage the actor or work on the costumes that the actors wear but they deal with everything else.


When I say everything else, I mean the props, the backdrop, the painting or color scheme of the background used, the flooring and everything visual after removing the actors and actresses from the set. In all honesty the skies is the limit in what a set designer can do on a set and their reach is highly dependent on the budget.

How to spot great set designers on a limited but good budget?
Connection –  I don’t know about the rest of World, but I have to connect creatively with whomever I am putting in charge of every element of the shoot that I am working on. So, make sure that the energy is right and you connect with your set designers, is not just professionally but on an interpersonal basis. I am not saying make your set designer your BFF, I am simply saying make sure you have rapport with your set designer.

Seeing is believing – When it comes to hiring a set designer don’t be fooled everyone is going to claim that they know exactly you want, they understand your brief, they understand your script, they are competent for the job at hand. But, I find that a lot of people pay lip-service while a few people come with evidence of work they have done and they are willing to show me. When someone shows off their works, its as good as screaming; “ I am confident in my work” and thats the kind of noise you should be hearing when choosing a set designer.

Research – Depending on the type of theme(s) that will be used on the set of a shoot, there must be some form of research done. This research gives the set designer an accurate description of props and other elements to be included on the set. Get your set designer to share his research with you and do some research yourself. Make sure you are both in agreement about the environment of the set you are working on.

Get a Sketch – This is where it begins on a blank piece of paper with a pencil so,  demand a sketch from the set designers. At SOS, at the pre- production stages of a photo shoot, a set designer must be able to show some sort of sketch as to what he is trying to achieve on your set. This not only saves costs by reducing the risk of spending on something that doesn’t quite fit the script, but it also helps you get the intricate details of what you want on a set and what you can do without.

Add on the EXTRA – Go out on the limb and buy some added props – A good set design unit is not a know-it-all, he or she is someone who is willing to implement in-put from the director whether it be a prop or a branded product. And a great director seeks perfection in his/her work so that he/she can get the best quality imagery for his/her video. I personally buy props that I believe will fit on my set. From wall paintings, to giant fans, to sets of artists Samurai swords. I have bought a variety of things to just boost the video I was working on without seeking compensation from anyone. My reward for my extra effort comes from a truly successful and brilliant shoot.

Great set design boosts the interaction between the audience and the actions being viewed, this is why the set design is not only integral to the overall success of the video shoot even the tiniest detail can contribute hugely to the imagination of the audience and how they receive your video. Set designers are the unseen and unsung hero’s of film and often the largest department of a film crew.

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