Gabrielle Kesign Design Consulting
Traditional and Computer Aided Design and Graphics
Los Angeles, California, USA, Terra, Solar System Sol, Milky Way Galaxy, Local Group, Virgo Super Cluster, Local Universe

How to be a Set Designer

Types of Set Design

I get many e-mails asking how to get into Set Design. First, you need to know there are several types of Set Design. If you want to be a Set Designer in features and television in Hollywood, be advised that the Set Designers union local has approximately 330 members and averages about 80% employment - a lot of good people are not working steadily. There is theater Set Design and Set Design outside of Hollywood. I am a union member in Hollywood and am not familiar with organizations outside of Hollywood, so can not advise you specifically beyond this region. In New York, Art Directors and Set Designers are the same, but in Hollywood, they are different classifications within the Art Directors Guild.

How to Get Your First Set Design Job, and the Next

I often say, "It's not who you know, it's who knows you." Put together samples, a variety of things. Then politely stick it in front of anyone you can, leave a resume and a business card. Call them from time to time to remind them. People in this industry have very short memories. I can't tell you how many people said, "Thank you. Your work was great. I'll call you the next time," and I never hear from these people again.

Get professional experience in anything related. Anyone can, in time, produce a Set Design. Someone without skill might take years, but in time, they can do it. You need professional experience to prove that you can draw what is needed quickly enough to keep a job. The competition is good too.

Learn what you can. Keep up the computer skills. I learned AutoCAD fifteen years ago and when I started, it was enough. Now they want VectorWorks, Maya, and Rhino. In Hollywood, pencil is still dominant and maybe 20% of us use computers. I do about 50% pencil drafting, even though I prefer CAD.

A Typical Day as a Set Designer in Hollywood

A typical day begins early. I usually start between 7 and 9, depending on the job. Since "Hollywood" is actually the entire Los Angeles area and is quite spread out (about 50 x 100 miles), I can spend from 20 minutes to an hour and a half or more getting to work, about 15-30 minutes longer getting home - add half hour more if it's raining or there is a major traffic accident.

I usually begin the day where I left off the night before. Somewhere along the way, the Art Director comes up and tells me there was a change and I start over a few times. Occasionally I go to the set or location to check on things or survey the existing conditions for changes. Depending on the size of the Art Department I may or may not make my own blue prints and copies. I usually work through lunch, especially if they are paying us a guarantee for more hours than we actually work or they provide lunch. A typical day consists of about 7-8 hours of drawing, 1-2 hours miscellaneous. I don't go to the set or survey a location every day, but if I do go to the location, that can take from a few hours to all day. Depending on the show, there may be an hour or two of research. The total for the day is 8 to 12 hours or more.

Education Requirements

I have a BA in Interior Design and an AA in Architecture. Other Set Designers have Architecture degrees, some have no degrees at all. I know a good Set Designer who once worked in aircraft design, others automotive backgrounds. There is no set rule. The more education and experience, the better. I should say that I know one who only had a drafting class and I never thought much of her skills.

I have been using AutoCAD for about fifteen years and think it's much better, if a little harder to learn, than VectorWorks. The Polar Express used a lot of Maya in addition to AutoCAD, but I haven't learned Maya yet. Photoshop and Illustrator or Corel Draw are good to know. VectorWorks is popular, and Rhino is often requested.

Although Set design is one of the last hold-outs for preferring pencil drafting, computers are very slowly catching on.

There are a few classes around, but not many. I took several classes ini Set Design, Art Direction, and Production Design at UCLA Extension. It's been a few years and I don't know what is currently available.

Most of us have large personal research libraries but a large show may buy books or use a research library.

Experience Requirements

There is no one field of experience required to be a Set Designer. It seems that every Set Designer has a different background and specialty. A lucky few manage to get a Set Design job straight from school, but most have professional experience of some kind. Many Set designers have an Architectural background. Some Set Designers have a background in Interior Design. I know one who came from Aerospace. People with product design backgrounds might design hand props. From time to time, someone gets a start designing vessels or vehicles and these Set Designers have a background in boat or auto design. Some Set Designers have a background in Set Decorating or construction. I personally had a background in Visual Effects Model Making and Prop Making. A few Set Designers got their start working on theme park design.

In any case, the more different skills that you can master and demonstrate professional experience in, the better.

Travel - Locations

Do Set Designers travel and go on location? Yes. Sometimes. I never have but many Set Designers do. Unfortunately for those of us in Hollywood, often shows will travel to distant locations and hire Set Designers locally. Usually if the Production Designer is hired from Hollywood, he/she is not allowed to bring along the Art Department crew.

It is not unusual for a Set Designer to travel to a local location for a few hours to survey the location and draw up a site plan and some existing elevations for the Art Director and Production Designer to use in planning the changes that will be made to the location. Usually the Set Designer will use his/her own car and be given milage. Sometimes a studio driver will take them to the location. These locations are usually within 30 miles of the studio.

Set Design Models

I was recently asked about materials for Set Design study models. Here is my answer:

Here, I am discussing study models rather than a realistic Visual Effects model. For a Visual Effects model, the materials may be different. Materials are often a matter of personal preference and desired outcome. When I say personal preference, often I am not given the choice and must make do, other times, I can use what I want. Many people use foam core, but I prefer museum board when I can. Generally wood and plastic are not used for study models, but sometimes it is appropriate. If a degree of detail is desired, you can use model railroad structure details of cast metal or plastic. When a model kit is available of the object, such as a ship, aircraft, building, then we often use these. Generally for a study model I use foam core or paper (by paper, I mean illustration board, museum board, card stock, and anything of that sort). Sometimes I use foam if carving rock work or organic shapes.

On a 1/4"=1'-0" model, a 1/16" thick piece of museum board is to scale with a 3" flat (typical for studio work), so I don't understand why people like 3/16" foam core which is not to scale. Foam core is softer and slightly easier to cut, but destroys X-Acto blade quickly. A word of warning, when using foam core, replace the blades before they get dull because they can go dull in mid cut and tear the edge of the foam core and some Art Directors don't like this sloppy look.

Still,. I like using foam core or Gater-board for the base. Gater-board is harder and more expensive, but more stable. Foam core does tend to come with a curve that can be hard to work with, and again, I don't understand why people prefer this material. Foam Core does take less strength in the hand to cut and is usually available. In a pinch, I've used show card which is black foam core and usually abundant once the Grips have arrived.

How to be an Art Director or Producton Designer

Most of the good Art Directors and Production Designers have a strong background in design. Architects have more respect, but may not be any better suited to AD/PD. I would suggest either Architecture or Interior Design as an education. In the real scheme of things, Set Design is more like Interior Design and there are more interior sets built and sets don't usually need to meet code which is more the responsibility of Architects.

Most AD/PD begin as a Set Designer, Illustrator, or Set Dresser. Very few people get a break and start as an Assistant Art Director or an Art Director or Production Designer after working as an Interior Designer (if you are very good and Interior Design a director's house) or some other design field. So you will need to select a starting place in which to learn the basics and even more important, meet people and prove that you can do the work.

There are classes in AD/PD and a few books.

So in summary, Interior Design would probably prepare your better, but you need to consider pursuing Set Design as a career first. Then learn all you can, put a portfolio together, gain lost of experience, then meet the right people.

Lesson 1

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