Landscapes

Landscapes can quite obviously cover a vast array of alternatives, so research or a photo reference, is always the best place to start. There are some basic rules of perspective that need to be followed in order to achieve anything realistic. The most important of these by far being the horizon height. Even where no horizon is visible, this rule should be followed.

In order to achieve ultimate distance the horizon height should be at a similar height to the camera. Anything other than this and your set will look like a set, as opposed to an attempt at reality.

The easiest way to achieve this is simply to paint it on the cyc, if available, or alternatively, paint, or rent a backdrop. The latter can reduce many of the lighting options for the DOP as the sky and land are effectively on the same plane, making it difficult to adjust the light independently. That effectively puts more emphasis on the scenic artist’s talents. There will be a noticeable difference of colour between the floor and painted cyc. This is because the light reflects from vertical planes differently to horizontal planes. Add to this the complications of hiding plant pots or roots against the backing, and you’ll soon wish you’d built the whole thing on a rostrum, ideally a ramp, getting seamlessly from floor level up to horizon height.

I find the most visually accurate and cost effective method is to separate all the elements within a ramp, as in the diagram.

The foreground floor can be on the stage floor, allowing safety or the actors. A small ramp can lead the eye up to the next raked rostrum, the back of which can be easily accessed and dressed (potted plants can be placed between the rostrums therefore hiding the pots). Together with the next raked rostrum, this could be where the dressing could be reduced in scale, enhancing the perspective effect. The final or horizon can then be painted on the cyc. This allows for access and lighting, without damaging the set dressing. If required, one can achieve more ‘distant atmosphere’ by hanging a grey ‘scenic gauze’ at the last ramp accentuating the perspective.

Forests and Jungles:

There is a common misconception that green is the best place to start when designing a jungle or forest set. In reality very little light gets into rainforests, and one is often better off starting with black as a base colour for the scene. This would then have the effect of enhancing any light, paint or greenery used. Renting large plants can be expensive so it’s wise to use as much scenic artist work as possible (see scenic artwork later in this book). Also as trees are generally big and tall, one sees the trunks, but the branches are often a lot higher than eye level and it’s these that create the light-reducing canopy. This canopy can sometimes be seen in the far distance, and if so, can be scenic painted thus avoiding hiring large trees.

Greenery hire companies sometimes have a supply of large pre-carved polystyrene tree trunks that are an ideal starting point, as real trunks are far too heavy or too skinny for a large forest, plus real ones come in a large pot requiring dressing out. Just a couple of large fake trunks can set the whole thing off with the rest of the trunks being done with simple 2 dimensional cut outs. Prior to all of this though, you should hang all the top branches in the studio rig. This task is made much easier with a clear floor space, and once hung, the set can be roughed in, first with the trunks, and then with the hired greenery. Building the set on a rostrum again helps as it enables one to hide the plants’ pots through the rostrum floor. However, just tipping plants on their sides is also fairly effective, though the plants don’t like it. If plants are real it may be worth renting ‘grow lights’ to keep them alive during the build, and of course, don’t forget to water them!

Fields and grass:

Grass is hard to replicate with a short build time and I would recommend using the real stuff as opposed to anything fake, even though the fake is improving greatly. Marsh grass is fairly straightforward and available to purchase in ‘clumps’, which can be easily dressed in. If this is initially laid onto polythene it retains moisture and makes tidying up easier. Real turf can be purchased on a soil free roll now although I tend to prefer the separate sods as they can be dressed around tree trunks and plants more easily for realism. Try to allow time for the grass to settle and consider getting grow lights, and possibly a fan, to keep the air moving. In as little as 24hrs this should start recovering and look quite effective. I once built a set for some stills using real grass and it grew so much over the two-week period we actually had to mow it! If flowers are required I would recommend using fake ones as they look great and are very resilient to abuse.

Long established grass like hay or crops can present their own set of problems in a studio. Once I created a cornfield and not only had the dilemma of where to source the corn (it was as usual out of season) but how, once sourced, to stand it up on a stage as if it were growing. It was sourced with the help of a farmer who suggested I might try ‘thatching reed’ which was being stored in a barn located just 2 hours’ drive from the studio. I bought the whole stock for that year! When dressing in, we sandwiched the reed between thin plywood strips at its base, and stapled the strips together giving us 8’ long ‘runs’ of standing reed. These were then supported with timber on the floor giving us the impression of it growing, see photo below;

Deserts:

There are numerous different types of desert, and generally the same perspective rules apply from earlier in this chapter. Sand is a relatively cheap material but moving it is expensive. As a result your design would benefit from some alternative method to create sand dunes. Sand, being wind blown, creates some amazing real life shapes especially when seen in the distance, and this can be hard to replicate with scenery. When ordering sand, specify ‘dry’ as the usual wet builders sand never dries out properly, and it also changes colour as it dries. I’ve found it cheapest bought loose in 1 x ton sacks. These can stay on stage close to where it’s needed.

For sand dunes, I once experimented with plywood formers profiled on the ridge and base, wrapped and stapled with canvas. Once painted, these stretched perfectly into attractive concave shapes providing very effective dunes. However the overall size was restricted as one needed to paint the canvas without treading on it. This method saved huge amounts of sand, as it was only needed for top dressing. Sharks tooth gauze is another possible material as it’s very stretchy providing a similar result, but the formers become slightly visible and any marks inside will show up.

Other, more traditional methods for creating dunes involve polystyrene carving, and solid wood with formers and cladding in plaster or sprayed composites etc. The latter method is very labour intensive, but makes it suitable for walking on over high areas. Ripples can be achieved last thing with a specially made wooden rake. It is claimed that ripples can be achieved by leaving a fan running overnight but I’m skeptical here because of its reach, and the fact that someone will inevitably walk over it the following morning, negating the whole effect. It’s a good method for small areas though.