Want Your Set Design To Look Good And Be Cheap?

For independent filmmakers it can be hard to try and figure out how to have nice looking production designs without breaking the bank.

I have a creative eye and am usually captivated by unique designs. Wes Anderson has a distinctive style, his films are quirky, symmetrical, colourful and nostalgic. When it comes to design he knows how to make it appealing to the audience. Jim Jarmusch is another great example for his visual style, he’s original and cinematic in his storytelling which I love. But the thing is, these guys had a pretty decent budget. But this doesn’t mean you can’t create a great set, it just means you might have to think more creatively.

It’s important to think thoroughly about your set, even though it’s what might be in the background of your film, it still shows so much about the characters, who they are, illustrates the setting and visual style of the films overall look. So how do you afford to have a great set on a really low budget?

1. Location scouting

You won’t be hiring a professional to help you with your film locations, so do it yourself. No one knows the vision as well as you do, so going the extra mile to find locations that would enhance your production design will be a huge help. Make sure you get permission first, you don’t want people to get annoyed with you. Also, another tip, if you are a film student and you want to hire out a place, make sure you mention you’re a film student because they might have a discount or even give you their location for free.

2. Plan and organise

This is super important! Planning makes things run smoothly and efficiently, and you won’t be wasting time. This might mean you have to sketch designs out visually, write down things that you may want on your set, and create a vision for yourself and your crew. Recently, I was involved in a 48hr film project and the crew and I had some creative ideas, which meant a lot of prepping in a short amount of time. I hand sketched and painted drawings, we even made a puppet for the film. It was original, added depth to who the character was, and made the shots look aesthetic. Preparation pays off.

3. Don’t make your set design look boring, no no no.

I’ve seen short films that are shot in boring looking rooms and even plain backgrounds, it’s almost as if the actors were just plonked there. Let me tell you it doesn’t grab my attention. All it takes is a little rearranging, cinematic lighting, a few more props and detail. There’s two main things that are important:

  • Lighting, it sets the mood and atmosphere, it can be natural light or sourced lighting like a lamp, but if it’s not thought out properly it can make your film look bad or great.
  • Aesthetics. Challenge yourself – what type of look are you trying to go for? What emotion do you want the audience to feel?

A lot of it is DIY (do it yourself), and that’s where your friends come in handy. Ask them if you can borrow their belongings to use as props or ask if they would know anyone, sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Keep in mind, not all sets need to be eye catching or detailed, you may want to have a minimalist set because it matches the story, and that’s completely okay.

4. Check out the Op shops and the dump.

Sometimes you can find treasures when you’re patient enough to take a look at thrift shops. You can get everything from your wardrobe, furniture, vintage things, picture frames and trinkets for a reasonable price.

5. Create and build it yourself.

Maybe you need something really iconic in your film, like a cave, a tunnel, feature wall or a gothic looking window pane. The only way it’s going to get brought to life is if you make it yourself. Do some research first, think about measurements, the type of texture and surfaces you want, experiment and get crafty!

You can achieve great things with precise planning and a clear vision, don’t let a small budget limit what you can do, beat that by finding creative ways to create the production design you want.

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