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What would the movie Moulin Rouge be without its extravagant theater and giant, bedazzled elephant? Or The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies without the lush pastures and hillside houses of the Shire? 

Set design is a powerful aspect of film and theater production. It’s a key component to conveying the physical location of a story, of course—but it also plays a role in setting the tone of a movie or play and helping the director achieve his or her artistic vision. 

Want to learn more about what set designers do, what they earn, and how to break into set designing as a career? We cover it all in this guide. 

What Is Set Designing? 

Set design (also referred to as scenic design) is the creation of scenery and props for film, TV, or theater productions. In any type of production, the set design plays a critical role; it offers context for the location, mood, and time period of the story. Set design also takes into consideration the overall artistic style of the show or film. In other words, it sets the tone for the entire production

The scope of set design can vary based on the specific project. For example, some movies are filmed completely on a sound stage, requiring set designers to build entire towns—or worlds!—in an enclosed space. On the other hand, some movies and TV shows are filmed on location (for example, at an existing school, park, or house). Even in that case, however, set designers may be required to create props or modifications to alter the appearance of the real-life setting. 

Designing sets for the theater is significantly different from designing sets for TV or movies. Theater sets must represent the artistic vision of the production while keeping practicality and logistics in mind. While a movie allows for nearly unlimited sets, theater productions are limited in size and time, so they typically only allow for a couple of set changes. 

hobbit house
Source: unsplash
Hobbiton—the set for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies—is located in New Zealand. 

What Does a Set Designer Do? 

A set designer creates the scenery for a movie, TV show, or theater production from start to finish. This involves reading the script, determining what types of locations need to be visualized, and bringing each of those locations to life through backgrounds, lighting, and props. Throughout the process, set designers work closely with the director and technical crews to make sure the scenery aligns with the overall creative vision for the project. 

A set designer job description might include the following responsibilities: 

  • Read and interpret script to gain insight into locations, mood, and atmosphere
  • Create set and prop concepts that capture the artistic vision of the production
  • Sketch and design sets by hand or with computer design software
  • Research time period-specific details for inspiration and accuracy 
  • Order materials for set construction
  • Build and photograph scale models 
  • Present those models to the director and make adjustments until final approval 
  • Provide cost estimates and keep designs within budget 
  • Construct sets and props 

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How to Become a Set Designer

Set designers must have an eye for style and design, as well as knowledge of design software. But the path to gain those skills can look different for everyone. Typically, however, most aspiring set designers either pursue a degree from a college or university or jump straight into real-life industry experience. 

filming
Source: Unsplash
Set designers work closely with film directors to visualize the settings, tone, and atmosphere of a film or TV show. 

Do You Need a Set Design Degree? 

Earning a set design degree is not a prerequisite for pursuing a career in this field—but it can be helpful. Some colleges, universities, and film schools offer programs specifically for set design. Alternatively, you could opt for a degree in interior design, fine art, or architecture. 

Whichever program you pursue, make sure that your courses cover both artistic and technical skills. Incorporating math and computer design classes (for software like AutoCAD, Maya, and Photoshop) into your education will ensure you can create realistic, proportional, and visually effective sets. 

It can be beneficial to attend a set design program in a large city, like New York or Los Angeles, as you’ll have more opportunities to network with professionals in the industry and to apply for internships at local production studios. 

Can You Substitute Experience for a Degree?

If you want to learn how to be a set designer without pursuing a degree, it’s possible. Generally, this path requires you to start at the very bottom—for example, volunteering to design sets for a community theater or working as a production assistant for a small-scale film. Through each opportunity, you will gain a little more experience, and soon enough, you’ll have a portfolio of work to show potential employers. 

As you evaluate opportunities, keep in mind that this doesn’t have to be a linear path. You may begin by working in costume design, and then switch roles to become a scenic artist, and then eventually move over to set design. This will also help you expand your network, which can lead you to new opportunities. 

Set Designer Salary: What to Expect

The average set designer salary can vary based on the type of production you design. However, most professionals make between $40,000 and $80,000. Glassdoor estimates the average annual set designer salary to be close to $58,000, while Salary.com reports a bit lower, at around $52,000. 

In some rare circumstances (think: the innovative set for the musical Hamilton, which features a pair of rotating turntables on the floor of the stage), designing sets for some productions may come with royalties. In these cases, earning potential can be much higher than average. 

How to Find Set Designer Jobs

Like other jobs in the TV, film, and theater industries, most roles aren’t simply posted on online job boards. To create a career in set design, you must be prepared to start from the bottom, curate a portfolio, and network your heart out—and eventually, you can work your way to the big screen (or stage). 

Movies and TV 

For many aspiring artists, the first step to landing a set designer job is to find an internship. If you are working toward a college degree, try applying for internships at movie or TV studios during the summer. You’ll gain valuable experience and industry contacts—both of which will be helpful when you begin looking for full-time opportunities. 

If you aren’t pursuing a degree, you may still be able to apply for internships, but also keep an eye out for entry-level jobs, like an assistant or junior scenic artist. Once you have a foot in the door, you can begin building your portfolio and working your way through the ranks. 

And, as you expand your portfolio, you will be able to use it to showcase your work to film directors and production studios. While some studios take on full-time, year-round set designers, many prefer to hire set designers on a freelance, or per-project, basis. This means that to find set design jobs, networking and self-promotion are key.

Also keep in mind that while you may be able to find set designing jobs in any area, there are generally more opportunities in cities such as New York City, Los Angeles, and Toronto. 

sound stage
Source: Unsplash
Some set designers create scenes entirely from scratch within sound stages. 

Theater

Instead of TV or film, maybe you have dreams of becoming a set designer for the pinnacle of theater: Broadway. 

Many theater set designers start by volunteering at community theaters or school theater programs. Working in a volunteer capacity allows you to gain experience and develop your artistic style. Then, similar to TV and film roles, it’s all about building your portfolio and growing your network. 

In the theater industry, most set design jobs are freelance, although some theater companies or opera houses may offer full-time jobs. 

Let Your Design Skills Take Center Stage

Designing sets is a unique and exciting form of art. Essentially, you get to combine fine art and technology to create an entire world—a world that plays a critical role in establishing the tone and style of a TV, film, or theater production. If you have a passion for storytelling and an eye for artistry, consider a career in set design. 

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