Thursday, September 12, 2013

Films: Set Design

One of my favorite films: Amelie. I want her apartment and her wardrobe and her hair. That is all.

This is going to be a bit wordy :)

Writing out the films that I watched this summer made me think about what I really like about films, aside from the entertainment value.

One of my favorite things about films is set design. Yes, that's right, not the costumes, not the dialog, not the actors, but the sets (not to be confused with "setting"). Of course I like all of the other elements as well, but set design is the one thing that I tend to pay attention to the most.

Set design is so important to the feel of the film. Costumes, dialog, acting... nothing without a great set. All of those things need to blend seamlessly together to allow you to lose yourself in that world, but I feel that the set is the base for all of those things.

Sometimes a set is just background for conversation, action or plot advancement. I forget what action movies I saw this in, but a warehouse manufacturing clothes was used for about twenty seconds of action. It was just a place for the cars and motorcycles to crash through before the next scene. 
Other times it can be interactive: supplying props and support character development. Props are easy to identify, it's any item a character uses or interacts with. Now, items that support character development can be harder to spot. Like in the film Requiem of a Dream, when they show the character Sara Goldfarb sitting in her chair watching TV, with a box of chocolates. And these are not very expensive chocolates, they look like the sort you would buy at the drugstore. You see that her room is very sparse, the only "luxuries" are the chocolates and the TV. This helps set up her story, without any aid of narration, to show what kind of person she is and what kind of life she lives. The chocolates are not just there for filler, this prop means something. They are not having her eat chocolates just because girls like chocolate or because they felt her hands needed to be busy or because they are being sponsored by that brand of chocolates.

Nothing in a set is on accident, a lot of people have to plan and find and make and place all those items! So much work and effort that is often overlooked. Many times, a set has to be low-key, it has to make sense but not stand out. When you see a persons bedroom, it has to match their character but not detract from the scene. Your brain has to register it, but not as something important... how interesting is that? To get into the characters, and figure out what their house/office/car would look like and why... that whole process is just so interesting to me!
The bedrooms fascinate me the most because they often have the most stuff in it, especially if it's made for a teenager. The film Juno is a great example. Look at all that stuff! And who can forget her hamburger phone? That plus many items crammed on her shelves looked like they found a lot of things from Archie Mcphee, which makes sense because their items are super quirky.

And because I pay SO MUCH ATTENTION to all the details, I can get a little nit picky. This example is ridiculous but... in the film Brave they have a scene with a fork. I just don't think that the fork had migrated to Scotland just yet at this time. So this (animated) prop is not historically accurate (according to the various history books I have regarding food). So I found this detail to be very distracting. I could be wrong because PIXAR does seem to do a lot of research when they do their films, but the fork is a late comer to the table and was not in wide use until the 1700's even though Europe was introduced to them in the 1500's I think. So I just don't think it would be very likely that a fork would be found at their castle.

I digress. Sorry.

Anyway! Next time you watch a film, pay attention to the background and see how often the scene changes and how much work is put into it. It's amazing!


  1. I love sets as well! I love the power over mood they can have. When I write, I make a big deal out of what places look like and how they are laid out (even if only in my head) so I can describe them accurately and know how each character lives and what their locations look like and how that reflects on them. :)

    1. I use to write short stories in High School, which I still have, but I am afraid to read them. Too cringe worthy! I'm not sure how I was on the details, I seem to skimp on those sometimes in my writing which is odd since I pay attention to them so much in film.

  2. As an actress, I totally agree with you. Especially for film. Film is a visual medium and no matter how good the acting is, if the sets aren't great, you won't buy a second of the story. Stage is a different matter since it's too hard to create elaborate sets for every play. I always wonder how much (if any) input an actor gives the set dressers and artistic directors of movies in regards to the props they use and what decor is in their character's spaces. I have also kept at least one prop or piece of set dressing from almost every play I've ever been in; it's a way to keep my characters alive after I'm done living them for a while.

    1. I think plays offer such a different feel because its LIVE and therefore seemingly more personal. The actors on the stage can react immediately to the audience, and so each performance is different depending on the type of people attending. So sets are still important, but they can be more simple and just give an idea instead of having to support the whole thing. I am NOT an actress by any means, but I LOVE going to plays.

      I love that you take a little memento! That is pretty cool way to remember :)