How To Get Started In Set Design Without The Hassle

Lighting Set Design

Lighting Set DesignSet design can be one of the most underutilized aspects of stage lighting in many circles.

Sometimes it’s because people think it will be too much work, or else it’ll cost too much or not look great.  The great news is that none of those statements have to be true, and today, it’s easier than ever to put together a killer looking stage design on a small budget.

You can often design and build a killer set with basic lighting for considerably less cost than trying to fill the space with splashes of light in various colors, and it’ll look better too.

As the old marketing adage goes “Set Sells”, and to be honest, it can be affordable too!

How To Get Started With Set Design

Fabric SetYou can quickly and easily get started with set design by using fabric, plastic, cardboard and other hardware store supplies.

Since you’re going to be on stage with musical equipment, lights and people, you need to make sure ANY set you design is fire resistant!  The good news is that most fabric purchased from theatrical suppliers will be fire resistant out of the box, and many plastic and cardboard sets can be as well!

Another huge win for fabric sets is that they’re flexible, and if it doesn’t look quite right, you can pull or tug on it with a sandbag or some spring clips and make it right very easily!

Build or Buy?

If you’re only going to be using a  particular set design for a very short run, it may make sense to rent.  However, if you have the time to build a set, you’ll get the bonus of full creative control and it’s usually cheaper in the long run.

Atomic Rentals – Atomic is a big set design and rental company with a mind-blowing assortment of soft sets.

Mod Scenes – Killer, affordable plastic tiles that look awesome!

Cardboard Wall Tiles: Companies like Mio and Inhabit make wall tiles for interior designers.  The cool thing is that these white tiles take light in amazing ways, are pretty durable and VERY inexpensive! – Inspiration and basic how-to on set building, focused on churches.  So many great options and instruction on how to build really cool sets.

If you’re anything like me, those links really get your creative juices flowing and get you excited about designing sets and lighting to go with it.

If you or anyone you know is good with a sewing machine or some basic tools, you can get started today.

How to Get Started Lighting a Set

Set Uplighting

The great news is that a lot of sets bring texture and light colors into the mix, so you just have to simply accent it with lighting.

Start Simple

On the simple end of things, you can use a few non-colored fixtures to uplight and make the set simply visible to the audience.

If you’re on a really tight budget, some simple LED pars can do the job.

But oh, we can get into so much more than that!

Taking Your Set Lighting to the Next Level

When I sit down to figure out how I am going to light a particular set, I have a few angles of light that I like to achieve.

Step 1: Uplight

As we mentioned above, the most simple and easy angle of light to get on (most) sets is uplight.  Simply get some LED’s or even conventional lights to illuminate your set from below.

The first thing you’ll notice is that any texture in the set itself will be amplified from uplighting, and that looks really awesome!

Step 2: Frontlighting

If you have the resources available, the next angle to light sets with is frontlight.  Frontlighting a set with colors and gobos adds a really great effect, and offers you the ability to have more dynamic range.

Frontlighting, however, does offer some challenges.  You want to light the set from the front, but without putting colors and gobos on the people who are on the stage.  In order to achieve this, we need to get a little fancy with our angles.

You need to either:

a) Get your colored/gobo lights to the sides of stage

b) Get them in mid-stage position to miss the people on stage or

c) Start your set design above everyone’s head.  Whichever you choose depends on your particular constraints, but it generally looks better to do “a” or “b”.

Step 3: Add Downlight and Movement?

If you’ve completed the first 2 steps already, you probably have a pretty sweet looking set.  However, if you have the resources to take things to the next level, adding some downlight and/or moving lights pointed at your set will give you, even more options.

With set lighting, the sky is the limit and the more lights you can use to light it, the better the outcome!  Of course, there is a point where you’ve covered all of your angles and really don’t need any more lights…but let’s face it – how often do our budgets allow for that?

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