How to Take Control of Your Environment A step-by-step guide to building an awesome looking set.

Have you ever been in a situation like this before:

You’re scheduled to film an interview at someone’s house, so you show up early to get set up, you walk inside and…….

The place is a mess, the dogs are jumping on you, the baby is crying, the rooms are tiny, the lighting is terrible, and the next door neighbor is jack hammering his way through a major construction project.  Oh yea, and the interview you’re filming is about spending peaceful, quiet time with God.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had way too many projects that have been severely handicapped by a filming environment that was completely out of my control.  Sure, you do what you can to make the most of the situation, but at the end of the day the audience doesn’t know about the obstacles you had to overcome (nor do they really care), they just know that they’re having a hard time engaging with the story and connecting to your film.

After dealing with this problem over and over, I finally decided to take control of my filming environment.

Instead of being at the mercy of the next location, I bought some supplies, locked myself in the studio, and figured out how to create a realistic looking set.  I’ve improved this process each time I’ve done it and now I’m consistently producing final results (which is the only thing the audience sees) that look great and are totally believable.

The good news for you though, is that you don’t need a studio to do this, you just need a big, quiet space, a couple of bucks for supplies, and the instructional video below to pull this off.

(bonus behind the scenes video from the shoot)

(I recommend watching the videos because it includes more behind the scenes and some example videos, but if you prefer a non-video version, keep reading…..)


Step #1 – Compress the scene

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The first thing you want to do is put a lens on your camera and then determine where the person is going to sit or stand.  Once you do this, you’ll know how much of the background you are going to see, which will in turn determine how big of a room you need to build.  If you don’t do this step first, you’re going to end up wasting a lot of time and energy building a bigger and more elaborate room than what you need.

I highly recommend choosing a lens with a longer focal length for two reasons:

  1.  It will effectively “zoom in” and crop out most of the background.  The longer the focal length, the smaller the room you’ll need to build.  The goal here is to work smarter, not harder.

  2.  It will make the background blurrier which will make it easier to get away with things that don’t look perfect to the naked eye.

For this particular example I’m using a 50mm lens on a Canon C500 (crop sensor).

Step #2 – “Build” Two walls

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Building two walls and shooting into the corner will help add dimension to the scene and make it feel more like a real environment.

If you want to get fancy, or if you think you’ll use fake rooms on the regular you can certainly build the walls out of plywood and drywall and then paint them, but for this example I’m going to show you how to do a cheaper, more temporary solution by using a roll of seamless paper.

If memory serves me correct this is a 107″ x 36′ roll of cream Savage Seamless Paper that costs about $50.

For this set up we cut a long piece of paper and taped it to a PVC pipe that’s being held up by two c-stands and then we hung the rest of the paper roll from two more stands.  I had two volunteers pinch the seem together and put some gaff tape on the back to hold it together – it was VERY imperfect and didn’t look that great to the eye, but with a longer focal length and softer focus on the background it looks just like a normal wall joint.

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Step #3 – put stuff on the walls

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Filming against bare walls is a dead giveaway that you’re in a studio.  Place furniture up against the walls and hang some artwork.

Wait, how do you hang artwork on paper walls?

You do silly looking things like hanging it from the ceiling (or another stand) and then gaff tape it to the paper roll to keep it from moving around.  Basically, just do whatever you can to fake it.  Remember, with the background out of focus, you’ll be surprised how much you can get away with.

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step #4 – go beyond the frame

This is the most important step to making this whole illusion work.  As much as you can, you want the objects in your foreground and background to bleed off of the frame.

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This will create the illusion that the room continues beyond the frame and will subconsciously trick the viewer’s brain into thinking that you’re in a much bigger room inside of a real house.

Step #5 – Add a practical light

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Adding a practical light to the scene will add more energy to the scene (literally) and make it feel more alive.  This is another subtle addition that will make the space feel lived in.

Step #6 – Add layers to each object

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Years ago, Shrek taught us that ogres are like onions, and onions have layers.  Deep Shrek, deep.  You know what else has layers?

Everything that exists in real life!  

As you build out your scene add layers to everything.  When you think you’re done, add another layer.

step #7 – don’t make things perfect

Our brains have taught us that when things seem too perfect, it’s probably fake.  What might have worked back in the day when they were making Brady Bunch won’t cut it now.  Audiences are too smart, so insert a little imperfection into your scene to make it feel more real.

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Step #8 – avoid perfect symmetry

Even though our church offices look like an Ikea sales floor, nobody’s house actually looks like that, so avoid the temptation for everything to be perfectly symmetrical.

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Instead, use objects of different heights, widths, and colors to make the scene feel balanced and full and don’t be afraid to even put your on-camera talent a little off center, too.

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Well, there you have it.  What do you think?  Give this a try, play with different variations, and let me know how it goes!

Got questions?

leave a comment below

 

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  • Absolutely love this man. Its so often that when we think of set we think of this huge elaborate space. Will be using this soon. Would love if you could break down your lighting as well.
    Cheers

    • Definitely, I remember the first time I walked onto a hollywood movie set and couldn’t believe how tiny their sets were, they’d have little 5 foot nooks built out for just a specific shot. It definitely got me thinking differently about how to utilize sets.

      Here’s a rough little BTS video that I shot with my phone that shows the lighting set-up I used for this particular project:

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  • Elle White

    This is so helpful. Thank you! This has also lit a fire under me to figure out how we can implement a book light.

  • Mark Fansler

    No comments? I love this. What is the paper called that you hung up to look like walls?
    How do you keep from going out of gamut with the lamp in the shot?
    Do you have a lighting tutorial? I noticed you bounced most of the light off a reflector?

    Thanks