Get Set

Scenery and staging for economical videomaking, impressive results.

When we watch a TV program or film we have an impression of total reality. We seem to be there where the action is, seeing everything as it’s happening. We don’t give a single thought to the mechanics of the production but accept what we see and hear as natural and real.

That’s as it should be, for a production team has combined various skills for a carefully contrived illusion. Through a cunning blend of controlled camerawork, lighting, audio treatment, script, performance, editing, costume, and makeup they’ve created convincing make-believe.

Scenic design-referring to variously as sets, settings ordecor-is one of the more important components of that creation.

A subject’s background directly influences how and audience reacts to what they’re watching. It affects their response to the subject, their interpretation of what’s going on-even what they’re looking at in the scene.

Rising to the Occasion

The skill and effort required to develop decor-devising scenery, decorations, furniture, draperies, and other set dressings-will depend on the scale and complexity of the production.

For a small production, the director might select a few items from available stock and devise a very satisfactory background without the assistance of a designer. But specialist training tells, and certainly for a production of any size, professional experience and know-how is needed to create optimum results.

What’s less obvious is the subtlety and sensitivity that underlies the craft of design. A skilled scenic designer may take a few unpromising items and weave visual magic on camera. Someone with less flair may construct elaborate, high-cost settings that appear on screen as little more than uncoordinated jumble.

Some aspects of design are so self-evident they can easily be overlooked. One of the first things to clarify is the program’s purpose, for that usually determines the overall style and staging approach.

A program involving a sympathetic discussion between two people discussing personal problems requires and entirely different presentation than a celebrity interview before an enthusiastic audience.

Let’s think for a moment about those television and video shows one seeings in which a simple, straightforward subject like a solo singer is presented within an elaborate, impressive decor.

The treatment we see on the screen isn’t inherent in the subject but has been decided on by the production group. Does this treatment really heighten the appeal of the program material? It may. But might it overwhelm and diminish the artist’s performance? That can also be true.

Music to Your Eyes

A singer whose beateous voice and vivid personality can hold an audience when singing on an empty stage may benefit little if sourrounded by an elaborate display of tall columns, imposing drapes, or intricate lighting.

On the other hand, it must be admitted that impressive scenic treatment can add a sense of importance or occasion even to the mediocre. But there are clearly no intrinsic merits in impressive decor as such. In fact, there are times when a simpler style can be more persuasive.

Over the years, various stereotyped conventions have grown up around different types of productions. If you try to use a new form of presentation it can seem strange and unorthodox.

We have, for example, become accustomed to newscasters sitting behind a desk in neutral surroundings or against a busy editorial office.

What would happen if we chose instead to have them sitting in an easy chair in a lounge set, apparently reading for a newspaper, with its illustrations coming to life? The information could be indentical but, in all probability, the audience would feel uneasy and we might find that the news message loses some of its authority.

If we watch a cooking demonstration in what appears to be an actual kitchen everything we see carries conviction. But present exactly the same demonstration in highly decorated, show-biz surroundings and the entire ambiance of the program changes. Instead of serious instruction showing the audience how to make a particular dish, everything has now become something of a stunt.

Many program types have developed a certain form of staging not because people couldn’t imagine other way of presenting them but because the traditional mechanics work particularly well. Game shows and quiz programs are examples of this. One might say they now only seem to look right when staged in the usual way.

Bang for the Buck

The succesfful designer is not only a creative artist but a resourceful craftsperson with feet firmly on the ground. Designers work with an understanding of the other allied studio operations contributing to the total production, keeping a wary eye of project economics.

Clearly, the aim is to make the money show. This is accomplished various ways:

  • Ensure that materials look effective. An expensive wall covering seen only in long shots may look no better on camera than less costly treatment. It may be worth camera-testing samples beforehand.
  • Don’t build more than necessary. A photo blowup may suggest distant features as successfully as actual construction.
  • Designers are human. They can create wonderful decor only to find the director’s not going to include a favorite feature after all. What the camera doesn’t see isn’t there as far as the audience is concerned. Best check exactly what the director’s actually going to use.
  • Some directors plan shots and action with meticulous care. During rehearsal they’ll modify ideas, but can be relied on to be systematic. Others only commit themselves when they actually see the shots on tape. The designer needs to be flexible and posess sufficient standby material to cope with unexpected variations arising during rehearsal.

Scenic Possibilities

Quite often, a project that at first appears prohibitively costly can be presented effectively with imaginative yet economical treatment

Even when scenic design is quite rudimentary, there’s no need for this to be obvious. It’s possible to use very basic effects and yet leave an audience with a sense of luxuty and delight.

Remember, the camera can’t tell the difference between a genuine gold bar, a gold-painted wooden replica, molded plastic, or a photograph. On the screen they’re all gold bars.

Again, the trick is to put the money where it will show.

Let’s imagine we have a program for disabled people showing how various accessories and gadgets can assist them. This could be tackled in various ways:

  • The least interesting would be to have someone beind a table, picking up each item in turn and talking about it. Requiring only a table and a neutral background, this would be an economical but dull way of presenting the material.
  • You might build several full-scale settings depicting a kitchen, living room, bathroom, bedroom, and hallway. This could be a major undertaking requireing an appreciable budget and plenty of space-unless you used a real kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and hallway.
  • You could use an open setting, showing the items on a number of scenic islands.
  • A series of abbreviated settings, just large enough to demonstrate particular items, could be very effective. A bed against a wallpapered flat, with a rug and a bedside table, appears to be a bedroom. Some treads against a brick flat appear to be outside a house. The camera shows a limited area and the imagination does the rest, yet the items we are concentration on are shown clearly and convincingly.

Of course, other factors will dictate which of these appraoches should be used, but this brief list of examples is a reminder of the possibilities, and that the most obvious treatment isn’t always essential or even the best.

Partial Settings

The small the studio, the more ingenious we need to be to create an impression of spaciousness, avoiding any sense of restriction on camera. A small studio teaches on discipline, to make the most of available space, to economize.

Because a studio is large it doesn’t necessarily follow that the staging will be costly. We might, for instance, take a large area in front of a streched cyclorama (a suspended cloth hung from a straight or curved track to form a background along two or more walls). With the aid of a few stock colmns and imaginative lighting patterns, we can produce very attractive decor for a ballet at comparatively low cost.

Most productions have brief localized scenes interleaved with others of greater length and importance.

While the action in a traditional theater play take place at length in a few locations, film and television drama tends to use brief action sequences in a number of locations. The latter appraoch sounds prohibitively expensive, but it can be handled on a modest budget with a little ingenuity.

If a carefully chosen part of the location will suggest the entire situation to our audience, why build more?
When there’s a lot of action, with cameras shooting from changing viewpoints, the setting must be sufficiently large to suit the treatment. But even in major drama productions there are a surprising number of brief scene where people move around very little and quite a small setting will suffice.

The technique is to imply the whole by showing a complete but localized part. Build up a section of the scene complete enough to suit the shot. The wider the shot, the more detail necessary.

In a restaurant scene, for example, a foreground table, screes, a palm, and a drape can suggest luxuty with no need for more elaborate treatment. A wider shot should show a larger area and require more extensive decor.

Seeing the door of a house, we assume the rest of the building exists. A ticket office, for instance, represent the entire foyer of a theater.

It’s fascinating to see how little in needed to create a convincing atmosphere. Sho2w someone holding a fishing rod, backed by a light blue cyc, and we have conveyed the idea of fishing. Add the sound of a river, and the audience is convinced. How necessary is it to add a grassy river bank, trees, or water reflections?

Two fugitives are being pursued across moorland. The the studio we see a close shot at ground level as they lie on the ground speaking, peering through tussocks of grass. That’s all there is in the studio-a few tufts of grass. How minimal can you get?

Realistic Aims

Because a video production employs shoestring staging the on-air effect doesn’t have to be crude and amateurish. The real way to beat low-budget restrictions is to design with imagination.

  • Think Laterally. If a scene calls for a verandah, don’t do the obvious and attempt to build one in the studio when a skeletal version would be more interesting to look at-and cost a lot less.
  • If pruse strings are tight, why try to build a room when furniture in an open set against a black gackground could be quite as effective on camera? Use black-painted or black-draped walls if a cyc is not available. Or use a real room.
  • Avoid features you can’t achieve. If a script calls for a setting that’s beyond your resources, work out how to get around the problem and yet convey the same ideas to the audience.

Suppose, for instance, the script describes how we’re watching a young girl at her first dance, neglected and shy, standing in the ballroom watching the dancer swirl by.

We could modify the situation so we have her standing outside in the night, illuminated by the light from a curtained window, with the tantalizing sounds of the dance ringing in her ears. This requires one drape frame and one lamp, against black drapes. To extend the scene we could udnercut or sumerimpose a series of stills showing photographs of a ballroom that represent her imaginings.

  • A cooking demonstration doesn’t require a working kitchen. Modular units can provide the bench. Running water from a tap can be fed from a hidden container; no main water supply is needed. The sink can drain into a bucket hidden beneath. Examples of the food can be prepared beforehand, and taken from a dummy of unconnected oven.
  • As a guitarist plays a haunting melody, and the background is filled with attractive abstract light patterns, the audience accepts them and listens. They neither know nor care that these patterns are simply reflections from a spotlight shining onto baking foil.
  • A storyteller sits on a log by the campfire, telling a tale. For the audience it’s all real. We know there’s just a bit of foliage hunt in front of the camera, and someone is gently waving a stick with a row of rap strips, attached over a lamp lying on the ground.

A Little is Enough

Even these few examples should be enough to show how we can create a lot out of very little. Each situation becomes a challenge, an oppotunity to devise convincing decor from simple, everyday materials.

You can recycle clean scrap material to augment or construct scenic pieces. Packaging, cardboard cartons, corrugated cardboard, or expanded polystyrene molding, for example, can be adapted in various ways, especially in the make-believe world of children’s programs

Renovated materials such a lumber or plastic sheeting, mesh, wire, fabric, rope, sacking, or angle-iron can be reused, formed into structures, painted, and decorated.

This is not garbage heap mentality, but making use of perfectly good resources, by using one’s imagination and anticipating oppotunies.

Some new materials aren’t costly yet are extremely adaptable. A roll of seamless paper, for instance, will nto only provide neutral backgrounds, it can be used for graphics, as table covering, to clas platforms, decorate and stick onto flats or panels, cut into sculptural forms, or made into roller blinds (pull-down displays.)

Second Servings

If we could reuse the same setting during a production yet have it appear quite different to our audience this would clearly represent a great savings. Happily, there are several ways of doing this.

The simplest is to have cameras shoot the set from different angles, including varying amounts of the background in the shots. What the audience sees will depend on the camera’s viewpoint and the amount of scene shown by the lens.

You can go further and make slight changes in the background or the sset dressing, reposition parts of the set, or rearrange the furniture to give the picture an entirely different feel.

Revamping (redressing) can be taken a lot further:

  • Change the furniture.
  • Reposition major furniture (e.g., move a room divider or wall unit).
  • Add or remove rugs.
  • Add or remove display posters, signs, or notices.
  • replace wall decorations such as maps, mirrors, or pictures.
  • Photographs of clocks, pictures, window scene, or plaques can be stuck to cutout laminates and attached to walls. At a distance, the camera cannot distinguish between a photograph and the real thing if thickness is not revealed.
  • Use reversible window drapes, venetian blinds, or shutters with different tones/colors on each side.
  • A wall’s appearance can change according to whether window drapes are open or closed.
  • Imply windows by hanging drapes or blinds from a wall batten.
  • For quickly removed rows of book use vertical boards with stuck-on printed card sheets, photographed book backs, or actual book backs.
  • replace minor set dressing on shelves; substitute dummy books with a horizonal board that has stuck-on shelf ornaments.
  • Hide a doorway with a notice board and a piece of furniture, a drape on a frame, or a folding screen.
  • Position indoor plants to break up the background.
  • Change apparent architctural features-attach/remove dummy fireplaces, doors, windows, or buttresses to the walls. A sheet of timer-finish laminate with the plastic-strip surround can be attached to a wall with double-sided tape to become a door.
  • A wall recess can be filled in with lightweight board, on which is stuck photographs or dummy replicas of a cupboard, bookshelves, or equipment.
  • Use a drape-frame to cover over part of the background.
  • Lighting changes can instantly transform a setting.

As the aforementioned possibilities suggest, set design involes a shrewd combination of sensitive imagination and down-to-earth outllok. Althrough staging is the fabric of illusion it must, above all, follow very practical lines.

The conflicting requirements inherent in set design are best resolved by patience and ingenuity.

Gerald Millerson is the auther of numerous books on television production, inspired by his career with the British Broadcasting Corp. Text excerpted from TV Scenic Design Handbook, reprinted with permission from Focal Press, 80 Montvale Ave., Stoneham, MA 02180

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