Set Designer

The Job and What's Involved

Set designers are responsible for the visual aspects of a theatre, film or TV production. In film and TV they are often known as production designers. Their work begins at the start of the production planning process, and ends on the opening night or when filming/recording is completed.

The work normally involves:

  • Studying scripts and discussing ideas with the director.
  • Researching historical, contemporary and futuristic details for the production.
  • Communicating ideas to costume, make-up, props and lighting designers.
  • Producing sketches and scale models to create a 'storyboard' of the proposed set.
  • Using computer-aided design (CAD) packages to make detailed technical drawings known as 'ground plans' and elevations of final designs.
  • Estimating and keeping the costs of the set within budget.
  • Supervising set building, decoration, props and furnishings.
  • Making any adjustments needed during rehearsal.

Set designers work closely with the director of the production.

Designers working in theatre and TV might work alone or with an assistant. In larger TV productions and in film they would manage a team that might include art directors, storyboard artists and model makers. A film/TV set designer must also work closely with the director of photography and lighting designer/director.

This means close collaboration with other creative and technical staff, including the construction and wardrobe staff, stagehands, prop makers, scenic artists, and lighting and sound teams.

Hours can be very long and the job often involves working unsocial hours and weekends.

The working environment varies between film/TV studios, property hire companies, theatres and theatre workshops, design offices, and on location working indoors or outdoors.

Freelance designers may experience very busy periods of employment followed by quiet spells, at which time they may work in a related area such as model making or teaching.

The work may involve a great deal of traveling and long periods away from home.

Earnings in theatre start at about £18,000 and go up to about £23,500 per year. Freelance designers are paid per production, ranging from around £1,000 to £6,500 depending on the size and scale.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Employers of stage designers include regional and national theatre companies, and opera houses based throughout the UK. There are also opportunities to work in touring, repertory, community, theatre-in-education or fringe theatre companies.

Set designers for film and TV apply as freelancers when new productions are announced. In TV they may have longer contracts e.g. on serials or 'soaps'.

Theatre designers can advertise their services on The Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) website. Specific job vacancies may be advertised in The Stage and on specialist job websites such as www.stagejobspro.com, www.broadcastfreelancer.com, mandy.com and www.theknowledgeonline.com.

Education and Training

Entry is very competitive. Getting involved with student or low-budget independent films or amateur or fringe theatre will help designers to generate contacts and acquire production experience. In film, an accepted route is to start as a runner in the art department. A design graduate may start as an assistant. In theatre, new entrants often assist experienced designers as props makers or model makers.

Most set designers have an art-based BTEC, HND or degree. Many universities, colleges and drama schools offer specialised courses in theatre design, performing arts (production) or design for film and TV. Other useful subjects include interior design, fine art, 3D design and architecture. The SBTD website has a list of courses, mostly focusing on theatre design. The Skillset website has a database of courses relevant to film and TV.

A degree course provides opportunities to build up a strong portfolio of creative work, which is essential when seeking work in the industry. However, a portfolio is also important at the stage of applying for a degree.

Entry requirements for degree courses are usually at least two A levels, a BTEC National Diploma/Certificate in a relevant subject or equivalent, as well as five GCSE's (A*-C). For an HNC/HND, candidates normally require one A level. The Diploma in creative and media may be relevant for this area or work.

There are also some apprentice-style programme's, such as the FT2 New Entrant Technical Training Scheme and the BBC's Design Trainee Scheme.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Theatre designers train on the job, often as assistants or model makers, or by making or sourcing props and costumes. Some may start out designing for small companies, where they are expected to make everything they design.

As with many performing arts and media roles, it is important for set designers to network and build up contacts in order to progress. In addition, it is crucial to build and keep updating a portfolio or 'showreel' DVD of design work. It can be useful to join associations like the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) or the UK Screen Association.

Since most designers are freelance, they are likely to have to fund any further formal training themselves. Some may go on to learn specific technical skills, e.g. computer-aided design (CAD); others may choose to study a postgraduate course in a specialist area.

Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Stage or set designers should have:

  • Imagination, creativity and the ability to present ideas to others.
  • The ability to communicate ideas through technical drawing and model making.
  • Excellent visual awareness and spatial design skills.
  • A good working knowledge of the visual arts and production processes.
  • An understanding of technical processes such as camera and lighting.
  • Good communication, presentation and networking skills.
  • The ability to work with others, at all levels, as part of a team.
  • Ability to solve problems, be resourceful and adaptable, and work to deadlines.
  • Excellent leadership and motivation skills.
  • Perseverance and patience, particularly when looking for work.
  • Drawing board and/or computer-aided design (CAD) skills.
  • Knowledge of relevant health and safety regulations.

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Your Long Term Prospects

Career progression can take several years. In the film industry a designer might progress from art department trainee to draughts person, assistant art director and art director before becoming a production designer.

For freelancers employed on a job-by-job basis there is no formal career structure. Career development is dependent on working for bigger and more prestigious productions and gaining experience and skills along the way.

Get Further Information

British Film Designers Guild,
Flat G, 344 Finchley Road, London NW3 7AJ
Tel: 020 7794 0017
Website: www.filmdesigners.co.uk

Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph
and Theatre Union (BECTU), 373-377 Clapham Road,
London SW9 9BT
Tel: 020 7346 0900
Website: www.bectu.org.uk

Creative Choices
Website: www.creative-choices.co.uk

Equity, Guild House,
Upper St Martin's Lane, London WC2H 9EG
Tel: 020 7379 6000
Website: www.equity.org.uk

FT2 Film and Television Freelance Training,
3rd Floor, 18-20 Southwark Street,
London SE1 1TJ
Tel: 020 7407 0344
Website: www.ft2.org.uk

Get Into Theatre
Website: www.getintotheatre.org

Independent Theatre Council (ITC),
12 The Leathermarket, Weston Street,
London SE1 3ER
Tel: 020 7403 1727
Website: www.itc-arts.org

National Council for Drama Training (NCDT),
249 Tooley Street, London SE1 2JX
Tel: 020 7407 3686
Website: www.ncdt.co.uk

Skillset, Focus Point, 21 Caledonian Road,
London N1 9GB
Tel: 08080 300 900
Website: www.skillset.org

The Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD),
4th Floor, 55 Farringdon Road,
London EC1M 3JB
Tel: 020 7242 9200
Website: www.theatredesign.org.uk

UK Screen Association, 47 Beak Street,
London W1F 9SE
Tel: 020 7734 6060
Website: www.ukscreenassociation.co.uk

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