11 Ways to Improve Your Set Design and Give Your Movie a Big Budget Look

January 3, 2013

Set Design is the craft of creating a background or setting thru the use of matte paintings, props, set pieces, etc. that accurately represents the tone, style and characters of a specific story or scene.

Good set design can produce a realistic environment for actors to work in, and can immerse an audience into the world of the film; producing a more enjoyable and believable experience.

Too often, low-budget films neglect to properly set dress locations, or simply don’t have the funds to create an interesting or accurate back drop for a scene; thus, making the films look cheap and flat.

Below are 11 simple ways to improve your set design- allowing you to produce a bigger, more realistic look for your film, cheaply and effectively.

1. Hang-up Christmas Lights

Christmas lights add a lot – they take up real-estate, add color (if you use the multi-color lights), and are cheap (possibly free if you have some lying around the house or wrapped-up in your Christmas box.)

Christmas lights are great for dressing a college or high school character’s room, parties, bars, etc.

A downside to Christmas lights, as with any prop, is they don’t fit every scenario. But, when appropriate, they add a lot of value for little to no work.

Note: Don’t use blinking lights. They are distracting and cause continuity problems in post.

2. Use Tapestry

Tapestries come in various shapes, sizes, and designs, and are perfect for hiding large, bare areas, especially white walls.

Select tapestries that are congruent with the character’s personality and that match the overall color scheme of the setting and costumes; this will create a more aesthetically pleasing picture for the audience while contributing to the story.

Tapestries are cheap – typically $15 – $20. You can find them at almost any Target, Wal-Mart, or Fabric Store.

Smaller tapestries can be used on top of night stands or coffee tables to cover blank spots.

In a pinch, you can use a bead spread and/or blanket.

3. Add Clutter

Decorating a set is NOT like decorating a living room. Sets require more detail, more objects. An average living room on film would look barren and bland.

Add clutter – anything that will take up space (books, magazines, little novelties, candles, records, etc.)

When you arrive on set look around and ask yourself, “where can I add stuff? Where do blank spots occur?” Even better, ask yourself these same questions once you’ve framed the shot.

Most sets will have a desk or coffee table, or maybe you’re in a diner and the characters are sitting at a booth. Add as much clutter to the desk/table/booths surface as possible – it will bring the set to life and give your actors more to play with.

Also, clutter gives your set more depth; giving you the option to place objects in the fore-, mid-, and background.

4. Light Candles

Candles come in every color imaginable, allowing you to match the color pallet of the set.

They add to the atmosphere and mood of a set and scene, even if it’s not a romantic setting.

Candles work especially well when placing in the foreground. They add a blurry glow that looks aesthetically pleasing and interesting, while consuming more empty space.

Another advantage with candles, they act as a lighting source. You can light a scene with candles and have them in the frame with the actor – killing two birds with one stone.

Note: The same holds true for lamps. Place the lamp on the light stand, replace the bulb with a lower wattage bulb, and put the lamp in the shot.

5. Add Plants

I recommend using plants with long, droopy veins – they are more interesting. However, non-droopy plants look good as well.

Plants offer lots of options – You can wrap ornaments or streamers around them, place lights on or behind them (which adds depth to your image), or you can place them in interesting plant holders.

There a SO many different types of plants in the world. Select plants (if possible) that reflect a character’s personality, nationality, or past experiences.

6. Paint the Walls

Unfortunately, most apartments and homes have white walls. However, for $50 you can buy a can of paint and recolor your walls.

While this might take a little time, it might well be worth the effort.

Painting the walls gives you more control over the color palette of your set and the overall mood of the scene.

If you don’t need the whole location, you can paint only the sections you will be using. This will save time and money.

7. Hang Up Pictures or Paintings

Pictures, posters, or paintings all work great.

You must be careful selecting pictures and paintings. Sometimes, a picture or painting can be distracting and will stand out too much or not fit the character’s personality.

Most pictures, posters, and paintings will need to be cleared for copyrights. If a poster has a logo or brand name displaying it will need to be cleared in order for you to use them in your movie. Note: Do this before production; it will save you a lot of headaches.

8. DVDs/Books/Records

As stated earlier, DVDs, books, and records add a lot of clutter.

They create depth, especially if you place them in or on a bookshelf.

Every one reads, listens to music, or watches movies. If possible, select titles that will match your characters.

You can purchase large collections of DVD’s, books, and records for cheap at various markets such as Good Will or a local flea market.

Note: Books are especially cheap. Lots of used book stores will sell you boxes of books for huge discounts, especially if you’re not concerned with the titles.

9. Curtains

Most apartments are filled with boring, white venetian blinds. Cover them up or replace them with a colorful, interesting curtain.

You can make your own curtains out of fabric which may be cheaper in some cases.

10. Picking a Good Location

Location, location, location.

A good location will have built in production value, and if you’re really lucky you may not have to add anything to it at all.

For example, I was scouting locations for an action scene once and during the process we found a junkyard that had so much going on in terms of set dressing that we didn’t add anything and it looked great. The dirt and junk created so much value.

11. People

If you’re filming a party, bar, or store sometimes people can be your best set dressing.

Fill in big gaps or empty tables with people. Set them in the mid and background; this will make your room appear much larger and give the illusion that more people are there.

Set design is often overlooked, but when given proper attention can add a lot of value to your film. It can and will greatly improve the look of your film, immerse the audience into your film, and create a more realistic environment for actors, giving you better performances.

I’m sure there are tons of ideas I’m leaving out or looked over. If you have any simple solutions or tricks to help improve set design be sure and leave us a comment, we’d love to hear what you’ve got!

As always, if you find this article helpful, SUBSCRIBE at the top of the page and SHARE IT with your friends~ Alexander Shumake

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