Scenery

Set Construction, techniques and materials:

Throughout the years, from theatre to film, various techniques were used to achieve realistic looking sets that were lightweight, easy to handle and store. These techniques have been perfected over the years, especially with the introduction of newer, lighter materials that are designed specifically for scenery as opposed to ‘general building’.

The most notable change in recent years has been the reduction in manpower as this has often been considered the most expensive element in the ever-increasing need to reduce budgets.

We as designers are often asked to achieve scenes from period replications right through to futuristic settings often dealing with unique and unusual materials. It is for this reason that we choose well-used elements that can be utilized in unimaginable ways to create these scenes. Often hired and rebuilt in different ways, these elements are categorized below and are commonly used in our industry.

Flats:

Film sets are built to look authentic, they need to be lightweight, they need to be built quickly and they need to be cheap. Other considerations are being safe and easy to store etc. Wood is the most versatile of all materials, and as a result, the vast majority of sets are built from it. From the early days of theatre a technique was used to build ‘flats’ for the creation of scenery. All built around the same template, they can be joined together in numerous ways to create a lightweight wall of any size. The default size is 8’ x 4’ nowadays, however 9’ x 4’ and 10’ x 4’ are also commonly used.

A flat is a thin sheet of plywood with stiffening battens fixed to the reverse enabling it to be light, strong and easily fixed together with others. In the past, for theatrical use, these were often held together with pin hinges as the joins were less important and quick/safe changeovers were necessary. On a film set they are initially laid face down on the floor, nailed together, then raised off the floor for finishing. In both cases, they can be stored and transported easily and used again and again, making them ecologically very efficient. However, there was one problem. Whenever painted or papered, it affected the smooth front surface making them age very quickly. This was initially resolved by covering in hessian and lining it with wallpaper prior to painting or applying a surface. As the hessian wasn’t fixed to the face, the surface remained unaffected and the flats could be re used. The hessian, if damaged was replaced. The whole system was very effective but had one vital flaw, It was labour intensive and required the flattage to be stripped off from the last job prior to starting the build utilising valuable time waiting for the new paper to dry prior to the paint finish being applied.

As the price of manpower increased and materials improved the system has been modified.

Firstly, it is now possible to get quality scenic canvas in wider widths (as opposed to just 6’ wide) and the manufacturing price of this is becoming cheaper. Fillers are built to ‘fill’ areas not covered by the flattage, like above and below windows and door linings. These are all placed face down on the floor and strapped together, then covered in one whole canvas then painted. The canvas stretches concealing all the joins and giving a perfect surface all in one go. This is much quicker and can reduce build time by as much as a day on many sets. Once finished with, the canvas can be stripped off and thrown away leaving the virgin flats for future use.

Once the walls are constructed special techniques are used to keep them rigid. Long timber lengths made into an L shape are fixed to the back of the flattage. These prevent bowing when moving. The wall is held upright with a brace. These can be either nailed to the floor or held with stage weights (see studio floors). Nails used here are deliberately ‘not homed in’ leaving the nail head pronounced for ease of release later.

Ceiling Pieces:

Ceilings are usually built in one piece from a very large piece of canvas (usually 6 or 9oz) stretched over a wooden framework. This keeps them light and covers a large area. As they are so light and large they are often called ‘Windbags’ because they catch the wind whilst being carried between stages. It’s often not necessary to cover the entire area of the set as it restricts the lighting possibilities and as it is relatively light it can be moved easily whilst on the set with the aid of brooms.

Note: When ordering the canvas always allow enough to pull around and tension material from the back i.e.: add approx 30cm all around.

Special techniques are used to build the frame to prevent any part of the canvas touching it when it is being painted, similar to those used on a small artists canvas. The drying canvas pulls bar tight and can often distort the frame if tensioned too much so biscuits are used in the corners and care should be taken when stretching and stapling to the back. All of these methods prevent permanent brush or roller marks on the canvas after drying.

If one needs to fit say a light or ceiling rose it’s possible to fix a 3/4”plywood pad to the reverse by screwing it to one of the central battens behind. This is always best done with the ceiling piece down from the set so one can get to the back easily, and don’t forget to drill a hole in the centre for the power supply.

Note: When hoisting ceiling pieces with hand lines always drill a fixing hole through the outside perimeter batten. If fixed to the inner timbers they may break loose, because here the nails are fixed into end grain of the timbers. Further reading can be found in the book.