Mastering Set Design on a Budget

Mastering Set Design on a BudgetWhen it comes to creating believable, relatable, and realistic characters on screen, there’s more to it than simply what’s in the script, or the face of the person doing the performance.

So much can be learned about a person on screen simply from what’s laid out behind them. Rather than relying on tedious exposition to tell someone’s story, why not let the visuals do the work for you?

One of the most pervasive rules in both filmmaking and writing alike is that excessive exposition is poisonous to any story — so finding alternative ways to demonstrate backstory and other small details is important.

Is your character a slob? Are they nit-picky? Do they have a morning routine they follow religiously, or do they snooze their alarm only to constantly be late to work? What kind of clothes do they wear, and how does that feed into their personalities?

Hypothetically, which is more effective?

  1. Vocally informing the viewer: “[The main character] likes to dress nicely, even when just grocery shopping. You now know this, because I told you.”
  2. Showing the character in question wearing glittering heels and a mink scarf while comparing apple prices. On top of that, are the apples organic? Are they pre-sliced? Is there caramel or peanut butter in the basket to combine with them?

With so much weighing on the importance of set design, the thought might be adding more and more stress to the director’s already weighed-down back.

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How are you supposed to juggle everything on top of designing and budgeting a compelling set?

How can you make sure that along with the performance by your actor no matter the scene, the set behind them is telling an equally powerful story?

Utilize Things You Already Own

Not every scene has to be set in an authentic medieval castle, an expensive city high-rise, or a pricey hotel room. In fact, many easily accessible places can be made up to look like something else entirely.

For example, a classroom could be redecorated to look like an office space. A dining room could be a bed and breakfast. A home office could be the president’s oval office.

It’s not the actual authenticity that matters, it’s how believable the scene is, and how your actors interact with it.

Budget Accordingly

Returning to the hypothetical grocery store scene I mentioned in the introduction, how is one supposed to come into owning a pair of show stopping heels and a mink scarf, without taking out a second mortgage? There are a few options to consider:

  1. Spend enough time at your local thrift store that you’re essentially an employee. Clothing, furniture, appliances, even if they’re non-functional, will add some weight to your backdrops. Not to mention, everything can be reused in different scenes, as well as different projects.
  2. Stalk online shopping marketplaces like Craigslist or Gumtree, where you can find secondhand objects for far less than the original price. Also consider learning how to sew (or hire someone who can), who can give new life to old pieces of apparel or furniture upholstery for cheap.
  3. Don’t be afraid to MacGyver things off camera to make the set more realistic. If you need to light a rave scene, don’t rush out to buy strobes, just use some old Christmas lights. If you’re looking for a warm fiery glow to set the mood, don’t light 100 candles around the room, just switch out the lightbulbs for something more orange in color in your desk lamp-turned-spotlight.

On top of what turns out on film, editing can have just as big of an impact on the story being told. Though you don’t need to lay down a lot of cash for a functional video-editing software, it’s still important to look into your options, rather than simply relying on the basic programs offered when you buy a new computer.

Emphasize Personality and Story

Is your main character a father? Show him interacting with his son, teaching him how to shave or perfectly coif his hair, indicating a tight relationship.

Or, more simply, show multiple shaving instruments strewn around the bathroom sink, and maybe even some bandaids.

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Is he a bachelor looking for love? Show him stuffing dirty dishes under the sink right before a date comes over, because he didn’t have time to run the dishwasher. Afterwards, maybe leave the dishes there as a visual easter-egg in future scenes.

Not only do characters come to life through the immediate objects around them, the overarching world is just as important to keep in mind. In a dystopian setting, the grocery store mentioned previously probably wouldn’t be stocked full of fresh fruits and vegetables. The streets would likely be littered with trash and other debris, and characters might be covered in dirt.

The cleanliness of the environment, the type of interactions that go on even away from the main narrative, the things the audience sees subconsciously behind all of the action, all tells a story of its own. The big question is, does it complement or contradict what’s shown at face-value?

Designing your set is just as important as writing the script, casting your characters, and slaving away during post-production.

What goes on in the background of a scene can either make or break an emotional moment, a conflict, or an overall setting. The backdrop allows the viewer to suspend their disbelief, and from such details, great films are born.

After all, one doesn’t need a big budget for fancy props, flashy CGI, or big-name stars — a successful film only needs a believable, well-rounded story, with every aspect incorporated and working in uniform to achieve that.

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Mastering Set Design on a Budget
To set the mood of a film and it's characters you need to show the audience, not just tell them. To craft a great story, learn set design on a budget
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  1. […] Woman, the set that actors perform around plays as much of a role as they do. The environment created by scenic designers helps set the tone, the era and the overall vibe of each […]

  2. […] crew down to the nearest grocery store and film the scene there. The alternative would be to hire a set designer and have them create all the trappings of a grocery store. That would include, of course, buying […]