| by Jamila Sidhpurwala | No comments

Makings of a movie set – Interior design for films, TV shows and videos

The internet is going crazy with the recent announcement of F.R.I.E.N.D.S reunion. Speculations on what the iconic TV series is planning with the reboot is rife and thus it’s the perfect opportunity to discuss the finer nuances of this precious show! As we deal with design and interiors here at Cindrebay, let’s take a look at one of the elements in the show which has earned worldwide acclaim. You are right! It’s the beautiful interior sets which have become somewhat of an iconography and has a separate fan-base altogether! ‘Central Perk’, the famous coffee shop in FRIENDS and the two apartments were the constant backdrop in the sitcom and one which every 90s kid is familiar with. So, what are the makings of a good interior set design? Let’s find out!

(Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
(Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

1. LOCATION IS KEY

We can all acknowledge that in modern film-making, sets and locations aren’t just backdrops anymore, they are an inherent part of the story. Where the characters live, work or where the story unfolds is as important as the story itself. The aesthetic created in a movie should resonate with the characters and their personalities, the mood of the film, the genre and the general theme of the story-line. Great production design lends a realistic touch to the whole story, making it more believable. 

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A lesson in set design from FRIENDS

In order to achieve this, it is important to get the movie set interiors right, but also to get the overall location on point. For example, in FRIENDS, Rachel Green is a small time waitress, working at a coffee place. She shares her apartment with Monica in New York. This is finely portrayed by the messy street location outside Central Perk and in scenes where the cast can see what goes on in the apartment opposite to theirs. This conveys the density of New York, it’s holistic nature and the huge metropolis life. Like I said, Location is Key!

2. TRANSLATING THE STORY TO DESIGN

Designers need to study, analyse, nit pick and absorb the story perfectly to create an appropriate set. This is even more important in movies where the story is based in a fictional world. How the plot traverses in the length of the movie, the shifting mood of the film and the character arc of the protagonists is of utmost significance while designing the set. In this context, designing for a show such as FRIENDS or How I met your mother, which is based in real life is easier than designing a set for a show like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. In the latter’s case, the design is unprecedented and based entirely on the writer’s imagination. Bringing this imagination to life is an interesting yet herculean task for which professionals need to be hired.

Castle Black - Game of Thrones (Picture Courtesy - HBO)
Castle Black – Game of Thrones (Picture Courtesy – HBO)

Take for instance the gigantic task of designing the several descriptive cities in Game of Thrones. Winterfell, King’s Landing, Qarth or Mereen – these are fragments of the writer’s imagination, but play an important role in the story. It is as if, these are one of the characters in the story, their presence is so important! The falling of Bran Stark from the tower, the Watch on the Wall, the treacherous dungeons in the Eyrie Prison are scenes we can never forget. Recreating these over the top sets, some in real and some digitally enhanced, makes the saga seem genuine.

3. ANGLES AND FRAMES

It is important to remember that sets, however realistic, are still sets. It is a false environment which needs to accommodate heavy duty camera gear plus lots and lots of people. This means, that angles and frames need to be considered in layout planning, furniture and styling. In a camera frame, only the characters need to be visible to authenticate the story. Thus, space planning, camera settings and plot lines need to be carefully worked on extensively to create the right effect. Details like mirrors, glass and fake replicas are also important, because they can give away the made-up nature of the set.

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Still from How I met your mother in ‘Mclarens Pub’

Lighting and colors also play an equally significant role in set design. Duh! The pace of the story and the emotion in the characters reflect in the colors of the backdrop. Lighting plays a crucial role in depicting scenes from different seasons or times of day as well as to bring out certain sentiments in viewers. In terms of interior design, it becomes obvious to incorporate more space for this tech as well as play with illumination and hues to convey emotion.

4. KILL OR OVERKILL?

Every Director wants to do as much as he can to narrate his story. The same thing applies to designers. They want to do as much as they can in a project for the client’s sake and theirs. But, how much is too much? Where do you draw the line to save your set from becoming an overkill rather than a relatable environment? It is vital for designers to not overdo a set otherwise it can overshadow the characters, overwhelm the audience and gather smirks instead of smiles. A wrongly placed artifact, an over the top representation of the character’s space un-matching of their monetary status (in the film), unrealistic transition spaces and clashing colors on screen tend to take away a story’s authenticity. 

Still from Student of the Year by Karan Johar depicting an unrealistic Cafeteria in Indian colleges
Still from Student of the Year by Karan Johar depicting an unrealistic Cafeteria in Indian colleges

Bollywood sometimes tends to do just that. The overkill in the set design, the complete removal of the character’s back-story from his present day environment, the lack of relationship between a scene and the setting is cringe worthy sometimes. 

5. ATTENTION TO DETAILS

The most important part of a set design is the attention to detail. For a completely immersive movie experience, it is important that the set speak volumes about the character’s life, his/her situation, the complexities they deal with and their past-present-future. As the set cannot directly speak, the finer nuances have to do the work for them. A brand new set, cannot look brand new if the character is an ageing alcoholic with a slob personality. Similarly, an abandoned mansion in a horror movie has to have signs of neglect. A rich workaholic’s condominium should look appropriately organized or dirty depending on the character’s nature. 

Scene from Gully Boy where the set expresses the poverty stricken life of Muraad (Picture Courtesy: Scroll.in)
Scene from Gully Boy where the set expresses the poverty stricken life of Muraad (Picture Courtesy: Scroll.in)

How do you achieve this? A character can come to life with the right makeup and styling. Similarly, the set needs to be polished and treated to suit the age of the house/office/restaurant etc. It needs to be touched upon physically and digitally (with lighting and filters) to suit the scene. Graffiti, stains, signs of ageing like broken tiles, hanging fixtures, or perfectly clean showpieces, a stacked library, dead plants or an aquarium etc. are ways in which production designers make the movie sets talk!

6. THE LAWS OF LOGIC

Physics plays a powerful role in attesting the story, a field of set designing Bollywood unfortunately takes for granted. Barring the intentional over the top sequences in Bollywood like fight scenes or flying cars, even the smallest detail in physics need to be taken care of. For example the tectonics of the moving staircase in Harry Potter or the vertical transition at the Wall in Game of Thrones is an imaginary built, but it still seems plausible as they are within the range of physics. Also, playing upon the suspense in the audience, by showing something larger than it is is also acceptable, for example a person falling endlessly from a building balcony or jumping across huge heights. 

Still from CID supposedly in a Forensic Lab
Still from CID supposedly in a Forensic Lab

However, tweaking sets unrealistically or even not doing enough to express logic can spell doom for the movie/show. As much as abundance affects a scene, so does callousness and inadequacy. The intelligent audience of today, doesn’t just watch a movie, but questions it. They try to find loopholes and gaps in the character arcs and set designs. Thus, to make a believable world, a deep study of an existing set (if the story is a realistic commentary on society) or a deep study of the fictional world as in the case of Avatar or GOT or Harry Potter needs to be carried out. 

Set of 'Ki and Ka' designed by Goiz Argi (Designer: Rupin Suchak)
Set of ‘Ki and Ka’ designed by Goiz Argi (Designer: Rupin Suchak)

Set designing or production design has become a highly coveted area of specialization for architects and interior designers. The content hungry world of today is looking for newer and more lifelike movie experiences. The budget for creating sets and the amount of work that goes into it is magnanimous. The ever growing bank of content, online, on TV or in the theaters, makes this field even more relevant. It is also exciting for a designer, to get a chance to create an iconic design, which will not just be experienced in one city, by one user, but caters to a Worldwide audience and is remembered forever!

Author: Jamila Sidhpurwala

Jamila is one part artist, two parts foodie, and all parts traveler. She is a patron of good art and design and loves to immerse herself in books and music. Simplicity and minimalism is her motto as an architect. A writing enthusiast, she surrounds herself with all things creative. She actively shuns all “ists” and “isms” and firmly believes in a “no – label” world! She isn’t afraid to take risks, speak her mind, push forward and challenge preconceptions. She is currently pursuing Masters in Architecture at the University of Liechtenstein.

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