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by Patrick Storck

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Say you need an empty warehouse. Find one big enough to build one in.

Say you need an empty warehouse. Find one big enough to build one in.
There are plenty of locations all over this great world, and plenty of places that will be absolutely perfect for your movie. Unfortunately not all of them will be within driving range, and if you're on a budget where these things are a concern, as I assume you are, flying a crew all over the place is out of the question. Chances are, you will need to build sets. A lot of the details for the elements of a set will be covered later, like how to light, what you should do when designing the look, and so forth. This is just the basics.

The first thing you need is a place. If you have access to proper studio space, half of what you need will already be accounted for. If not, and I'll assume not, you're going to have to turn something into a studio. It will probably not be free, but it's not unheard of. Some options included garages, barns, warehouses, theaters, basements, gymnasiums, and airplane hangars. All have drawbacks and benefits that you can weigh depending on your needs and what's available. What you need out of them.

Space. You're going to construct at least one, but probably several rooms or environments, some of which may be connected, and you'll need the backgrounds for them as well. Even interiors will need some sort of faux environment outside the windows. You'll also end room outside the built environments for equipment, cast, crew, cameras, lights, and just about everything else. The more space you have, the better.

High ceilings. You'll need to light the scene, and light sources are traditionally overhead. Ceilings in normal rooms make it hard to light well from above, so t's a lot of cross lighting ad shadow killing. If you have a chance to get some strong and consistent light from above, go for it. For that, though, you'll need to build a lighting grid above your set. It might not need to be complex or expensive, but it will take up space. The more you have heading upwards, the better.

Outlets. You're going to be running a lot of lights, cameras, sound equipment, coffee machines, laptops, mini-fridges, cell phone chargers, monitors, heaters, fans, electronic props, and who knows what else. You can scratch things off the list that you won't use, but it's better to make sure the most extensive power needs will be covered just in case. You may also need to run the record player to play my broken record on the importance of outlets.

Controlled sound. Maybe you've found someplace far from traffic, gunfire, jets, and tugboats. Maybe every gust of wind outside doesn't rattle and whistle against the thin aluminum siding of your workspace. Awesome. If not, try and find cheap or free mattresses. Line the walls with egg-crate insulation, like in radio booths. If that's too expensive, thick blankets, quilts, pillows, or other fluffy stuff can work. If you need to build a false wall six inches from the real one, then stuff it with old shirts and gym socks, but it keeps external sound out, it's probably worth it. Make sure to get the inside walls of the building, but also the outside layer of your set. People not on the set being shot still breathe, cough, walk, etc. One shoe squeak from your cameraman as he moves along a nice pan shouldn't ruin the
Big enough for motorcycle stunts? Should be able to handle all your needs!

Big enough for motorcycle stunts? Should be able to handle all your needs!

Access. If you can only get in and out of the place between noon and five on weekends, that really cuts into usefulness as a location. If you can bring your set in, set up, but have to strike it and clear out every day, most of your shooting day will be set up and break down time, and a good chunk of your crew will be tired by shot one.

Ideally you can find a place that will serve as the shell for a customizable fantasy situation. Even if the scenario is mundane, it is able to be exactly what you want and need out of it. Some people see sets as a necessary evil. We can't get a police station, so we'll just whip up a quick one. That's the wrong way to look at it. If you have a chance to make sets, you gain so much freedom over location shooting. You don't have to worry about the time of day or weather affecting the lighting, because you fake exteriors. If you want to flatten the image for affect, play with rack focus, or do other fun camera tricks you can just remove a wall to pull back as far as you need. If you have a kill-fest going on, all of that fake blood is being splattered all over temporary walls.

Beyond that, you have freedom of imagination. You can paint the walls any way you need, warp things, construct things, go art deco, add tons of glass, make it exactly what the scene or character justifies. If you're doing a dream sequence and the person is claustrophobic, put hidden hinges on a corner, stand them in it, then let the room physically fold in on them. Try doing that on an actual set. The real world restrictions of brick and mortar, building codes, load bearing walls, and simple practicality don't apply to a thin and temporary environment. It doesn't have to be able to survive and earthquake, nor stay warm in the winter. If you have the time, energy, and money, building sets can be the most artistically satisfying and smoothly run way to go on a production.

Something to keep in mind, EVIL DEAD 2 was shot in a high school gymnasium. The interiors of the cabin were designed, organized, and constructed so that maximum control could be had. There was room for puppeteers underneath and around the sides as needed. Hoses were built into and run through the walls for massive blood sprays. From the ground up they created an environment that served the needs, rather than adapting to what they could find. If they had just filmed in a real cabin it would have taken longer, cost way more, and at the cost of some of our favorite sequences.

One last thing to mention, for the computer and HD / DV crowd, green screen. Chroma-key. Build one nice set, custom lighting, in-hand props only. Shoot your whole damn movie if you want. Go around and take reference photos, panoramic shots, wall by wall templates. Construct some 3D environments at high resolution. Add motion, changing bits like blinking lights, or keep them static. Zoom and rotate for the shot you need, render or capture a frame, set it as background, chroma key the characters in foreground, and you have no need to ever go location scouting again. Which is good. You'll be at your computer forever putting that all together.

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Patrick Storck
Patrick hails from Baltimore, MD, where playing by the rules is frowned upon. Only average things come from playing it safe.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Patrick Storck by clicking here.

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