Also known as:
- scenic carpenter
- set designer
What does a Set-builder do?
As the name suggests, a Set-builder makes a ‘set’, an artificial environment or scene constructed from wood, metal, paper and/or whatever else is required to achieve the finished environment. Sets can be built in studios or out on location. Often, the set-builder will design and specify the materials needed for the set, based on the brief from the production company or photographer who’s managing/producing the shoot.
Any environment might need to be created from scratch: A tube station, a bedroom, a field of wheat, a glimpse through the doorway of a spaceship or a tunnel through a mountain. Set-building allows full control of everything - the physical space, colour, texture, movement of air, lighting, angle of shot and sense of time in that place.
Set-building and design is, or can be, the practical realisation of someone else’s idea. Sometimes the work is simple - finding the perfect cup, or piece of cloth for a background, a stone for a floor, or a colour for a wall. Sometimes it is much more complex – a complete recreation of reality, a room with the accumulation of years of possessions and patina that reflect the character of the occupant and the historical period, perhaps.
Set-building is always a creative collaboration.
Because of this, it can also allow for the rise for the unexpected - it can be a space where risks can be taken that would not be possible in a real environment.
The set is everything the camera looks at, apart from the human figure. Sometimes a set-builder will be required to adapt or transform an existing space, heightening certain qualities, erasing others, adding or taking away objects, furniture, walls and atmospheres.
Often, the brief from the client will involve a fairly typical domestic room with a style to promote. These rooms are built principally from ‘flats’, which are sheets of thin plywood mounted on a frame of softwood. These are screwed together, side by side, to form walls. The nominal flat is 8ft x 4ft but odd sizes are needed to form oddities like doorways, windows and pitched ceilings. Once the walls are built and the seams filed until flat, the finish goes on. This is more often than not wallpaper or lining paper painted with emulsion. A whole range of finishes can be given using common materials and imagination. Time saving is the name of the game, which is where being inventive comes in.
Frequently, tongue and groove panelling is specified in bathrooms. If this is to be painted the se-builder can save a lot of time by routing narrow channels into a sheet of thin MDF to give the impression of the gap left between the timbers. Where a bathroom requires a tiled wall for instance, the ceramic tiles are stuck to the flat with ‘hot melt’ glue.
What’s a Set-builder good at?
(You don’t have to be good at all these things…)
- Art: Having an eye for composition and framing (not necessarily the ‘hanging on the wall’ type, although you may need to do that too!) and understanding form, colour, texture and light and shade.
- Understanding people: Set-building, like any creative collaboration, at some point, will always be about the relationships you build, so being able to empathise and get along with people, whether they’re your co-workers, your team or your clients or customers, is important, as is your ability to stand up for your own views.
- Technical knowledge, ingenuity and skills: Set-building relies on a mix of traditional skills, ingenuity and new technology so having a good grasp of the manual skills of carpentry, plumbing, decorating and problem-solving as well as understanding the photographer’s tools (cameras, lenses, lighting equipment and computer hardware/software) will allow you to understand and interpret what is needed. You need to be inventive and find ways of achieving the ‘look’ of a multi-million pound loft apartment for a few thousand. This aspect is probably the most important.
- Collaboration: A bit like understanding, but being able to work well with others where you all contribute something is very important in set-building.
- Organisation and budgeting: You’ll need to be disciplined and able to prioritise tasks. You’ll need to be able to interpret a client’s budget and stick to it as well as being able to motivate yourself and work on your own from time-to-time.
What are the tools of the trade?
Depending on the size of the business you run or are part of, you may have a whole range of tools, such as saws, hammers, levels, power tools, pliers, glue-guns - in fact the whole gamut of a keen ‘DIY-er’! Too many to list, but remember they will be used regularly, so buying cheap tools is not the way forward.
You’ll work in other people’s work-spaces most likely, so you’ll need to be mobile and able to fetch the necessary materials as and when required. Many set-builders have large vans because of this. You may also need to be able to produce ‘flats’ off site somewhere, so having access to your own workshop space can be very useful, particularly if you have several projects/’builds’ on the go at one time and need space for things to dry or set.
If you remember that you’re often being asked to build something from nothing, you’ll quickly see that you need access to more tools and materials than if you were doing a bit of DIY at home. Good contacts in the building trade (for materials and extra expertise) will be useful and a mobile phone is a given these days.
Who does a Set-builder work with?
You’ll work with a range of other creative people, often most closely with a photographer or a production manager/producer and often with a team comprising, amongst others, your own assistant(s) or staff, an art-director, make-up artist, stylist, and a lighting technician and perhaps a set-designer too, depending on the size of the job in hand. Every aspect of the environment you’re being asked to create needs to be considered, so having people around you with an eye for detail is vital.
How do I become a Set-builder?
There are many different routes into the industry – but if you wish to be properly ‘hands-on’, you will need the traditional manual skills of carpentry/building over and above what might suffice for DIY at home. Often people who can fit kitchens and bathrooms can cross over into set-building, as those skills are directly translatable. If you are more interested in set-design itself, then an appreciation and understanding of theatre production is a useful background.
A common route into set-building is from being a photographer’s assistant, with an interest and the skills in being able to construct and create sets from scratch.
Most Set-builders work for themselves – i.e., they are freelance or self-employed. However, there are a few permanent jobs in larger, commercial outfits run by production companies. Sometimes these jobs will require some qualifications, but not always – check and do your research before you decide which route you’ll take. There may also be jobs as assistants to established set-builders that can give you a good way in to the business.
At school or college:
Learning traditional carpentry/building skills is a great foundation as well as having an appreciation of art, composition, lighting, design and trends, which can help with many of the creative aspects of set-building. A few places offer set-design or set-building courses at the equivalent of FE level and it’s worth considering traditional skills-based courses like carpentry, wood-work or construction. You can look for courses titled ‘scenic construction’ or ‘scenic art’ (RADA do some of these), which will give you useful foundations into set-building.
There are several places that incorporate set-building at degree course level, either on its own or mixed with film-making or another creative discipline. If you want to go to University, bear in mind that it is worth studying relevant A-levels or Highers and that these courses can be popular.
The advantage of studying either set-building or scenic construction is that many of those skills are directly translatable into domestic contract work, like kitchen-fitting, so you have a broad range of opportunity to fall back on.
Remember too that study at HE level is not just about skills and qualification, it’s as much about the experience of doing that with a whole bunch of others and making life-long friends and memories.
Straight to Industry:
You do not need any formal qualifications to be a set-builder, of course, and although study can teach you many things, sometimes experience can teach you as much and if you have the opportunity to assist an established photographer for a couple of years, that could be a good way of developing your career as a set-builder.
Jobs come up in all sorts of places – National and regional press carry job adverts for larger companies and sometimes set-build or set-construction jobs pop up there. Linked-In (and to a certain extent Twitter) can be good, so keep your eyes open and get friends and family to help look too. Word-of-mouth is probably the most effective means of getting yourself in the right place at the right time, but that means you need to be able to interact, socialise and build your own networks if you want access to a great many of these opportunities.
Build a Portfolio:
Although not a requirement, a portfolio can be really useful to show prospective clients what you can do and is the visual expression of you as a creative set-builder – it will have your best creative work in and give the people you show it to, an insight in to what makes you tick and how you approach things. You’ll need the photographer’s permission to include copies of the final photographs in your portfolio, but don’t miss out on the chance to add to it. A portfolio is ever-changing and can be a simple, professional book of some sort or a digital, online presence like a website or properly curated Instagram feed.
It’s important to have an excitement for what you do as it’s quite a competitive field, and you’re always only as good as your last job, like so many other creative endeavours.
Join photography groups on social media platforms, interact with others – there’s loads of free opportunities out there for mixing with like-minded people. Look at others’ work that inspires you for ideas (but don't copy!) and stay curious.