Scenery Copyright 2000 Robert C. Huber

We will begin with the technical discipline of scenery for two reasons. First, it is often the most elaborate and costly, and second because it forms a kind of backdrop against which the other disciplines are presented. Scenery is whatever you see besides actors when you look at the stage or screen. Whether it is simple or elaborate, realistic or fantastic, someone had to conceive and plan how it would look, and others had to bring it into existance. In the theatre, scenery is nearly always synthetic. That is, it is simulated or created on a stage for the purposes of the play. In film and television, scenery may be built in a studio, used as found on a location, or most recently, synthetically generated by computer.

Scenery Designers

Scenery or set designers are artists who are similar to architects and interior decorators. Their subject is the interior and exterior worlds in which people live. They must create environments that seem real and are appropriate to the story in the script. Like an architect, the scenery designer must have specific knowledge of the elements of houses and buildings such as doors, windows, floors, ceilings, roofs, and walls. Like interior decorators they must know about furniture, floor coverings, lighting fixtures, trim, wallpaper, paint, draperies, and all other decorative elements. Moreover, since dramatic productions may be set anywhere in the world during any time in history, the scenery designer must not only be familiar with current styles, but with regional and major historical styles as well. Not all stories take place indoors, so scenery designers must also be able to create such places as gardens, city streets, railroad cars, and desert locations. Not all productions employ naturalistic scenery, especially in the theatre. Sometimes the locations are futuristic, fantastic, or based on a style established by a famous artist. The plays of Elmer Rice are usually staged in the Expressionistic style, and the Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George is done completely in the particular Impressionistic style of the artist Georges Seurat, called pointillism--a picture made up of colored dots. Although movies and television have tended to be more realistic, the advent of computer generated three-dimensional animation has made fantastic settings more common. The films What Dreams May Come and Dark City (1998) make extensive use of computer generated scenery that could never be built in real life.

One of the major differences between scene design work for the stage and for the screen is the location set. It is sometimes more efficient and cheaper to shoot a film either completely or partially on actual locations in the real world rather than to simulate those locations with sets on a sound stage. This is especially true of outdoor scenes. There is an entire branch of the industry devoted to this process, including location scouts who find appropriate places, legal specialists who negotiate the rights to use them, and security personnel to keep passersby away while filming. Scenery designers who work locations that require little modification have been derisively called "doily-pushers" because they sometimes need do little more than rearrange an ashtray or two. But often extensive modifications need to be made including repainting, adding foliage, concealing signs, and even architectural changes. These are part of a scenery designer's duties. At other times the director may want outdoor scenes shot on a sound stage because of the total control of lighting and sound that this affords. In this case the scenery designer's work is nearly indistinguishable from theatre. One exception is the provision for wild walls, sections of wall that can be temporarily removed to allow for camera shots from a new angle.

During the research phase of a project, scenery designers may need to seek out visual materials from many sources, especially if scenes take place in other times and places. Libraries are a good starting place, but most designers accumulate research materials of their own over time such as books, magazines, and clipping files. Photo archives and old films are also good sources for the general "look" and specific details that a designer seeks.

The designer's creative work culminates in realistic color drawings of the finished settings called renderings. The rendering is a perspective view of the scenery as seen from the middle of the audience or from a long shot camera view. Renderings may be done in any media, but most often employ watercolor or gouache, colored pencil, and markers. Some designers prefer to make scale models in addition to, or in place of renderings. Models are especially useful to demonstrate how scenery is moved or changed during a stage production, or to plan camera angles and positions for a film. Models may be fully detailed and painted, or simple plain white models. A white model is made by photocopying scaled drawings, spray-gluing them to mat board or foamcore, then cutting out and assembling them. The designer is normally required to supply scaled drawings and plans of all elements of the set to ensure that the carpenters, painters and other craftsmen build the scenery exactly as designed. Scaled means that each unit of measurement on the drawing is equal to a larger unit of measurement on the real thing. For instance, 1/4" scale would mean that a seven-foot tall door in real life is drawn at 1/4" for each foot for a total of 7/4, or 1 3/4" tall on the drawing. Many well established and busy designers have assistants to do these drawings for them, but others prefer to do all such work themselves. These scaled drawings fall into the following categories: plans, elevations, sections, and details.

Plans: A plan is a view from above. A floorplan or groundplan includes the entire set.

Elevations: An elevation is a flat view from the front, side, or rear. It reveals the details of walls--the surfaces that the audience is most likely to see. A particular version called the painter's elevation is done in color to show the painting details of vertical surfaces such as walls and backdrops.

Sections: A section is a slice through an object to reveal details of its interior. A section of the entire set is useful in orienting elements in the vertical plane. Plans, elevations, and sections are commonly done in 1/4" or 1/2" scale.

Details: Detail drawings may be in any view, exploded, or in perspective. They help to explain complicated portions of the set. They are usually done in a scale of 1" or larger.

Obviously, the ability to paint and draw well is essential to a scenery designer.

In Southern California salaries depend on the kind of production a designer works on. In the stage world here there is no set salary for theatres under 99 seats--designers must get what they can. Those theatres with 99 seats are asked to pay a minimum of $1,000. The amount rises depending on the number of seats and sets to as much as $4,300 in theatres with more than 1000 seats.


The word prop is short for property. Props or properties usually refer to furniture and other small items that are used as a part of a setting. Historically these were items that were the property of the theatre, as opposed to costumes, say, that were owned by the actors themselves. Traditionally props are a sub-set of scenery, but today specialists are usually assigned to deal with them. The scene designer specifies the look of important props that are a part of the scenery, and a property person buys, rents, or builds them. In some instances, when the props are unusually numerous, important, or complicated, someone may be hired as a property designer to work with the scenery designer.

Props are categorized in the following way to assist in organizing them.

Set props are major items of furniture such as tables, chairs, sofas, and appliances.

Trim or dress props are smaller decorative items that are usually attached to the set such as curtains, pictures, books on shelves, and other knicknacks.

Hand props are those that are handled by actors such as magazines, eating utensils, cigarettes, and money. Some hand props like food, cigarettes, or candles that are used up in the process are called consumables.

Costume props are items that are considered a part of a characters outfit but are not clothing such as eyeglasses, parasols, wallets, watches, and weapons that are worn.

Property crews often have to hide consumables between performances because starving actors will sometimes clean out the prop candy dish or take home their pack of personal prop cigarettes. Care must also be exercised with food props to ensure their freshness and safety. Theatre lore is filled with examples of actors dropping from food poisoning in Act III after having eaten a spoiled chicken leg in Act I. Another area that calls for extreme caution is the use of edged weapons and firearms. Actors have been killed while horsing around with blank ammunition, and others like Jason Lee were the victims of weapons carelessly loaded with live rounds. There are prop rental businesses in Hollywood, New York, and elsewhere that specialize in providing safe prop weapons and the training to use them.

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