Creating and controlling exterior sets is a commonplace challenge for production designers. We asked experienced colleagues to share their thoughts and lessons.
"The most important thing is to find a location that you can shoot creatively and logistically."
"To a large degree I work for the camera. I have to give the camera as much as much room as possible."
"I found that fundamental strategies could be employed to avoid an implosion of budget, time, and resources."
"Typography and climate are primary aspects, as these might well be key to the script's narrative but might also create challenges in the prep and build process."
September 3rd, 2022
How do you design a large exterior set?
Michael Hanan began his vocation in animation and soon became absorbed in visual effects. In his early career, he considered himself fortunate to have worked with Bill Creeber, Harold Michelson, Mentor Huebner and Richard Sylbert, who made him an art director. Michael's production design credits include TV series "Miami Vice" (1987-8), "CSI: NY", "Californication", "Salem" and "Tut". He has collaborated with legendary film director John Frankenheimer on various projects, including the film "Ronin". Other film credits include "Blow","The Punisher" and "Gods and Generals". Hanan recently designed the new 25-acre Disney back lot in Santa Clarita, California.
As with any set, I start by looking at a script. Generally, it’s pretty obvious what you’re going to build, and I often do a breakdown and take it to the first meeting with the director and producers. Even as early as the interview, I’ll say - this is a set.
You look at the action in the script and if it’s an exterior venue that will be used often, or a place that no longer exists (for example 17th century Salem), I point out to the producers that they should spend money on a build. I like to use one of my favorite phrases - “At some point, you can’t afford cheap”. By investing the money in a functional and controllable set, the production is protecting itself against expensive delays, and ensuring the completion of principle photography on time.
Once an exterior build has been agreed upon, the most important thing is to find a location that you can shoot creatively and logistically. A location that is supposed to look isolated can’t really be isolated - some portion of that set has to allow egress for 150-200 crew members, and you’ll need places to put actors, video village, etc. You have to balance pragmatism with aesthetics. If you are out in the middle of the Sahara desert in Morocco, you’ve got to figure out where to put the company, where the catering tents are, how to hide trucks. None of that stuff is easy or inexpensive, but it makes your shooting day go faster. The logistics of the shoot are part of your job, and that’s where the ingenuity comes in.
John Frankenheimer used to tell me: “If you can build a set right outside of my trailer I’d be perfectly happy”. In essence, sometimes it’s as simple as shooting in a parking lot and getting rid of all of the stuff you don’t want to see. Because that allows maximum shooting.
I have to consider how to make the location practical for exterior photography, so my next question is “where is the sun?”. I have a strong skillset with lighting, but I always request early conversations with the DP and share plans once the director approves the design. If the DP has a problem with something, I want to help. I’ll often add lighting to a set to create depth, and combine lighting into the build if the lighting crew can’t reach a section of the set. I also find out what lenses the director and photographer plan to use, and I lay the set out with those considerations in mind. You want the DP to be on your side, and you want to be on the DP’s side. The relationship should not be contentious.
Once a location has been picked, I return to it and set up story poles - verticals that mark distance, vertical height and indicate volume (my system is one foot red, one foot white, while marking the feet off in numbers). Once the poles are set up they help create a visual representation of the set in situ; they also provide a spatial understanding of the sets layout.
I try to design for weather and be prepared for worst case scenarios. For example, wind is very destructive, so you have to make sure the set is tied down properly, in whichever way possible. When I designed “Andersonville”, a TV mini-series about a Confederate prison camp during the civil war, I had to build a very large stockade. We were shooting in Georgia for 20 weeks, so we expected rains and possibly hurricanes. I dug a 2500ft long trench around the parameter of the stockade (the main stockade was 500’ x 800’), well below the finish grade level, and set all of my logs into it. Then I poured 3 feet of concrete into the trench, and those logs weren’t going anywhere. I also engineered the set for water drainage as we had almost ten acres inside the main stockade and you want to get rainwater off the set as quickly as possible so the main unit will able to shoot as comfortably as possible.
On exterior sets the finishing is very important. It’s all about the last thing - the paint - and you want to make sure the painters have the best materials to work with. I don’t like fiberglass or pulp paper for texture. It’s ok for a deep background but I wouldn’t want to have an actor’s head right next to it. I like plaster. It paints well, it looks like a solid material and it feels substantial. I also use real materials whenever I can.
I always design the whole set and then indicate where the split is between construction and VFX set extensions. I try to plan so the split is well above people’s heads, to avoid rotoscoping. I consider set extensions the same as traditional matte paintings, hanging miniatures or glass paintings. It’s the same idea with different technology. The bottom line is that you’re always going to shoot off the set, and you should work out various ways to avoid that problem. You can use vehicles, trees, anything to limit your set “shoot off”. You can also lay out the scenery specifically to accommodate special shots. There’s always green screen, of course, but I think a lot of that is lazy work - a “solve it later” mentality that leaves your set in the hands of people who have no idea about its original architecture and concept. If you are going to use green screen make sure you plan for it and conceive of what the precise visual guidelines will be for the final image.
I’ve had a couple of credits as a VFX supervisor, so I can talk the talk, but having said that you have to be very tight with the VFX supervisor. I think a lot of production designers are remiss in this. As production designers, we should have a totality of concept in mind. Otherwise we’re just well-paid art directors. Take that title and do it. Design that production.
Mara LePere-Schloop’s work as an art director garnered her an ADG nomination for "Django Unchained" and a win for "True Detective", for which she was also nominated for an Emmy. As a production designer, Mara has worked with directors such as Cary Fukunaga, M. Night Shyamalan, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, Phil Abraham, Alan Taylor among others. Mara was nominated for an Emmy for her design work on "The Alienist" and won an ADG Award for the show. Most recently she worked on the acclaimed Apple TV+ series "Pachinko" and completed work shooting the first season of "Interview" with the Vampire for AMC. Mara calls New Orleans, LA home base, where she lives with her funny and remarkably tolerant husband, Nick Jenisch, and their three remarkably stubborn dogs Mishka, Petunia, and Frankie.
I have been fortunate enough (some may argue naïve or crazy) to have designed three TV shows with substantial backlots: "The Alienist", "Pachinko", and "Interview with the Vampire". Each provided its own distinct hurdles, but I found that fundamental strategies could be employed to avoid an implosion of budget, time, and resources. I have no solutions to offer in regards to the loss of sleep and the stress-related side effects that backlots cause, but I can speak to those other hurdles.
Sometimes we find ourselves shooting in cities that seem to have no assets available (other than that a producer wanted to be there for some cryptic reason), and that someone, somewhere has made the decision that a backlot is necessary. Or on the flip side, we’ve ended up in a place where there are no appropriate locations to shoot at. Peeling back the layers of assumptions and decisions that brought about the idea of a backlot, and identifying whether there truly is an appetite or need for one, is often a surprising first step. The impact a backlot can have on a show’s budget and timeline is significant, and is a venture that cannot be embarked upon lightly.
These may seem like straight-forward questions, but I have been surprised in the past to discover they had not been considered:
- Does the scripted locale exist? Is it worth exploring a shoot in another place?
- Are there significant limitations to shooting on location, like the story taking place at night?
- Do elements of the set need to be manipulated for time or destroyed?
- Are the shooting day requirements so abundant that they makes a location untenable?
- Are there inherent costs or physical limitations associated with being in a location?
- Does the shooting schedule mandate a simplified production plan that precludes shooting at locations?
- Are there multi-season implications? If so, will the cost of the backlot be amortized over multiple seasons?
- Is there adequate time to build a backlot?
- Are there enough resources/crew to build a backlot AND the other sets?
- Does the studio understand the financial reality of a backlot build?
- What is the balance between potential set extension and practical builds? (This is a budgeting exercise and a conceptual black hole and is an ongoing conversation throughout the process)
Finding a place to physically build a backlot requires an understanding of the long-term needs of the studio: Will it stand for one season or ten? Is this an investment for the studio for other productions? Answers to these questions will also inform the type of engineering required for the set. The cost implications of having a set built for years or decades are significantly higher than the temporary fabrication employed by most set construction and take significantly longer to build.
On "The Alienist" there was a possibility that the show could run for as long as 6 seasons (it only made it through 2) and so it was determined to structure the set with a 30 year rating. This meant foundations, a steel structure and a build that was more like real world construction. On "Pachinko" and "Interview with the Vampire", due to site and time limitations, it was agreed early on that the sets would be erected on rented scaffolding, and were only meant to stand for one season. On a side note, at the end of both seasons, there suddenly was an appetite to either reuse (for another production) or fold and hold elements of the sets. These were problematic desires, as the sets were not built for either scenario. It should not be surprising to anyone reading this that the people outside of the art department did not comprehend the structural implications of their decisions even though the sets were discussed ad nauseam.
Working with the locations department to find a location that not only services the production, but also the construction and paint departments, is imperative. Things like power, water, drainage, parking, security, production support and ambient light or sound pollution are all things that must be considered.
I was lucky enough that all three backlots I designed stood adjacent to the studios where we were prepping and filming. This meant that our construction warehouse and paint departments had their facilities nearby. We have all experienced what remote locations can do to our labor budget due to travel time. Remote locations can also mean that satellite offices, storage, workshops, and of course restrooms need to be provided by production.
Considering climate for builds is not to be taken lightly. Building for "The Alienist" in the dead of winter, the excavating and foundation work took twice as long as expected because the ground was frozen. The finish work on the set required that we build enclosed scaffolding in front of every façade because the plaster and paint wouldn’t dry in the cold and wet conditions. Both were stressful curve balls that we hadn’t anticipated when we began.
IDENTIFYING SCOPE, SCALE AND APPETITE
Having a schematic to budget from is invaluable. Working with the art directors and coordinators to get a sense of cost and schedule early on allows the production to brace for the impact the backlot cost will have on the overall budget. This hopefully means you can avoid 11th hour disasters when numbers come in later on. Early budgeting is very rough, but it can help zero in on how much can be realistically built. Working with the team to itemize costs by facade or “city” block also makes it easier to add or subtract from the overall size of the backlot as scope and budgeting conversations continue.
Every shooting locale has its own standards and practices, and I’ve found that investigating those differences as early as possible helps identify possible labor and budgeting issues. Determining which department does what, and who pays for it, is a huge topic. Be it glass, flooring, tile work, awnings, telephone poles, or even hardware, these “small” elements can really add up. Ensuring that someone is accounting for the budget to purchase these elements, and is providing the labor to install them, is a big one.
In Budapest and most of Eastern Europe, construction companies bid each set - there is no carried construction. On any given show, you may employ up to 6 different companies to build the sets, and those companies are likely working on several other productions. The impact this has on the time it takes to get drawings approved, bid on, then potentially revise, can be dramatic. On "The Alienist" we ended up employing three different construction companies, and their three corresponding paint teams, to simultaneously build one of the backlots. Concerned about consistency of finish, I brought in a charge scenic and a handful of his painters to oversee the work for the various companies. This ensured that the set had a cohesive finish quality, which as we all know is the most crucial step in the process.
In Vancouver on "Pachinko", we were hurting from crew losses and availability due to COVID, so we fast-tracked the design of the backlot to allow for longer building time with limited crew. We were also hit with major construction cost inflation from shipping and supply chain issues in early pandemic days. On any set, but especially with backlots, these shifts throughout the process can have major implications on budget. Tracking shifts along the way and noting overages for producers ensures there isn’t "sticker shock" at the end of production.
In New Orleans for "Interview with the Vampire" we had similar crew shortages, so we worked with the production to prioritize a schedule that helped workflow and ensured we weren’t bottle-necking with output needs for all the sets at once. We were very lucky to work with an AD team and producers who were game for that.
DESIGN EFFICIENCY AND WORKFLOW
Employing a kit-of-parts methodology when building at the scale of a backlot can help cut down on prep time and costs. I often work with the art directors and set designers to come up with an inventory of doors, windows, and trims that can be re-used in a variety of buildings. This way the mill doesn’t have to produce a unique series of elements for each building. There can be takeoffs for the entire backlot to streamline production in the mill.
Getting a jumpstart on samples for finishes and understanding their incorporation into the build is also a great way to aid in log jams and delays. The sooner you arm your team with the expectations and desires of the look of things, the more time can be spent fine-tuning and streamlining those finishes. I’ve spent many a long night with the elevations of multiple-city blocks and a smattering of fan decks and reference images, creating an overall schematic that can be handed over to the team. As painful as those nights are, and as riddled with self-doubt as they can be, in the morning there are a lot of happy art directors and painters.
INTEGRATION WITH OTHER DEPARTMENTS
On all three backlots I spent considerable time working with DPs and gaffers to develop a lighting strategy. I've found that in the ground works stage, running PVC with outlets every 20’ or so allows for lampposts or other practical lighting that can be serviced with power or gas, and that lines could be subterranean and thus off-camera. Designing alcoves, alleys, and recesses in the facades allows for variation in lighting source, and designing the backlot’s perimeter to allow access for condors and other lifts is crucial. As with any set, having a sense of how the backlot will be lit is fundamental to be able to adjust color and texture.
On sets this large, access and egress becomes a critical element of design. I try to allow for catwalks behind every window and door so that the set decoration team and grips/electrics can reach each space. It also means that background extras can get to those openings. I like to get the directors and ADs into the mix early on to determine which spaces need on-camera shoot-off elements, or which balconies need to be occupied. It is almost always cost prohibitive to engineer or finish every space, so it is important to collaborate with the shooting team on favored opportunities.
Once the shooting crew lands at these sets, everyone wants to claim territory for their various departments. If you are using containers for the structuring of the set, placing them so that there are access points behind the set creates storage areas for crew. Keying folks into weather-proof spaces is a great way to make friends.
In the case of any backlot, a VFX producer will most likely be involved from the inception, and there will be a handover at some point. Whether a set is only built to a certain height, or finished to a certain length, set extension is almost guaranteed. Collaborative budgeting conversations start early, and then as the prep period evolves I like to produce illustrations, drawings, reference packages, and sometimes 3D models of what those extensions should look like. This helps the post-production team understand all of the intended world-building. On some shows I’ve been kept on after wrap as a consultant, to work with the VFX department for continuity of design. In those cases I can say whole-heartedly that the final product was much more fluid and cohesive.
SCHEDULING AND CHANGEOVERS
More than likely the set will be asked to wear a variety of hats, or play as a variety of locations. Sometimes changeovers relate to the evolution of time, or the sets' destruction. To avoid headaches down the line, having a plan for how the set will be manipulated, and when, should be considered during the initial design phase.
Sometimes those changeovers can be mostly cosmetic: swapping out signage, awnings, storefronts, and street dressing. Other times, refinishing facades or aging may be required, and in extreme cases entire facades may be replaced.
On "Interview with the Vampire" our characters journeyed through the decades as immortals. We let aging and cosmetic changes, as well as lighting innovations (we shot all nights because… vampires), drive the passage of time. In one time period, however, there was a major riot scene, complete with burning and collapsing buildings. We worked with the special effects department to incorporate fire boxes, and engineered our build for the collapse, even though the riot happened multiple episodes into the season.
On "The Alienist", our tenement backlot would alternatively play as Chinatown, an 1890s Jewish ghetto, or a generic street on the Lower East Side. We had a devoted backlot decorator and set decoration team, who often fabricated considerable changeover dressing for each environment. We also had a dedicated signage shop that churned out 1000s of signs in a multitude of languages.
Having an art director or multiple art directors devoted to the backlot to help track the incredible demands on personnel, time and budget is a necessity. Having an alert system to help assess potential disasters cannot be taken lightly.
After completing a show with a huge backlot I always mutter to myself… never again. But even writing this article has me salivating at the thought of another backlot adventure. Though they’re extremely challenging and can be daunting to even consider, being able to build an immersive world at that kind of scale is the stuff dreams are made of.
My first film was in 1981, and since then I have designed 26 movies, 3 TV series and been nominated for multiple awards including two Oscars for "Legends of the Fall" and "The Last Samurai". Being a production designer for films is one of the greatest jobs you can have. You get to research and travel the world, build new ones on stages and in foreign lands, all while collaborating with and being surrounded by incredibly talented people. I'm grateful everyday for working in this field.
If I had to advise a colleague embarking upon a large exterior set I would say make sure that you have levels, so that you're not looking across the field into the sky. You have to cut in levels in order to have the ground level, the middle level, the higher level, and the background - that's really important.
And especially if you're building a set where there's a great deal of life, you want to have things that fill the screen. For example on "The Last Samurai" we built at the top of the hill, but we cut roads down into the lower part of the Hill. We put the Buddha temple up at the top, and then we could look down the hill and see the rice patties down below. So you've got a whole sense when you were in the village of an entire world in every direction.
For "The Crucible" we built in this whole set on an island that had no bridge, which is tricky, and the National Guard just came and built us a pontoon bridge. That set again was very hilly and you climbed up into the town, so the older buildings were at the top and filled the background. A lot of people say, well, we'll just put green screen back there and I say, no, it's not worth it. It limits your ability to move around and I promise you, I can build two more flats and I can stop the set and you won't need a green screen.
When I was doing "Hart's War" we had a prison camp that was supposed to have two thousand people in it. The producers said, well, we'll just build four buildings. And I said, no, that's ridiculous - you need to be able to move around, people are chasing each other through the set. Those buildings were nothing to build - just 1x4s with doors and small windows. I told the producers that in the end, it's cheaper to build, because it gives the production immense freedom. You never have to think about where are you going to be, where the camera can't go. The camera can go wherever it wants. To a large degree I work for the camera. I have to give the camera as much as much room as possible.
And in the film you can see the beautiful opening shot around the camp and you see the guys walking in the snow, freezing. You could have done it as a green screen, but you would have never gotten the actors' reactions, their freezing faces. It's the kind of acting that nobody can fake.
I make sure the DP and I are best buds. I'll often scout with a DP before I scout with the director, because I want to give them a sense of what I'm thinking of. If there are things that the DP finds too difficult or not cinematically satisfying, then I won't show that to the director. I try to make things flexible for the DP. On "Legends of the Fall" I built the main house so we could shoot inside while the light was bad outside. That saved us having to drive to the stage, which was two hours away, and where you wouldn't have anything out the windows except blue screen.
Nobody on the production had thought of doing that. They said it was crazy idea, but I said it will work because you could always have a correct relationship between the inside and the outside. You wouldn't need to waste time on stage trying to match the light from location.
So DP John toll and I stood all day to watch how the sun moved through the sky, from sunrise to sunset. We spent maybe four days plotting the house so that the light would be on it in the right way all day long. A lot of people wouldn't take time to do that, but it was the key to making sure that set turned out as well as it did.
Steve Summersgill is an English production designer who has had an extensive career in production design and art direction in film, television & commercials. Steve's art direction credits include the TV show "Game of Thrones" and films "Grand Hotel Budapest" by Wes Anderson, "A Hidden Life" by Terrence Malick" and "Inglorious Bastards" by Quentin Tarantino, among others. As a production designer, his most recent work includes the acclaimed television series "Industry" for HBO, and the upcoming biographical drama "Emily" by Frances O'Connor.
When embarking on a any large scale exterior build, usually the first thing you would do is have a preliminary scout to see whether or not the location is suitable, both aesthetically for the story but also from a practical stand point.
Typography and climate are primary aspects, as these might well be key to the script's narrative but might also create challenges in the prep and build process. For example, consider if the set is required to be situated in arid desert, close to water, in a dense forest or in the middle of a tourist destination - there are lots of factors to that run parallel with the design process.
On "Inglorious Bastards", the positioning of the farmhouse was determined to the scripted action not only for its paradoxical serenity and remoteness, but the landscape also provided huge cinematic scope.
How to access the hill summit was a big consideration, along with the sun path and the proximity of the forest to the farmhouse. Production designer David Wasco and set decorator Sandy Wasco provided plenty of reference of French farmhouses, and once they landed on a final design I drew-up the working drawing, which we then made into a scaled white card model.
The house itself was built from the foundations upwards, crafted with real materials along with functioning fireplace and chimney. We cultivated the surrounding grass to make sure it was long and verdant for the escape scene, which was an essential directorial request. There were herds of cows which roamed at their own leisure, milling outside the farmhouse windows, that had to be omitted because they got in the way of shooting. We also built a cross section of the house on a stage, in order to pan-down under the floor and show where the family was secretly hiding.
Larger scale studio builds can sometimes make it easier for the technical crew to physically shoot the set, keeping it ‘onsite' and contained. On Disney’s "Aladdin" we built the entire city of Agrabah as a composite backlot set in Longcross studios, UK. The build was more like town planning with its alleyways, markets, three story riads with a grand palace entrance… We even built a full-size dying tannery.
The set needed to work for various scenes, but also two very precise pieces of choreography which featured at the opening of the film - 'Arabian Nights' and a song titled ‘One Jump’. The camera quickly follows Aladdin through the meandering alleyways, over and up walls, and through windows. Working closely with the choreographer, stunt and camera department, we were able to understand what was required for the actors to be able to move quickly and safely through the set, similar to an assault course! Once the floor-plan was decided I was able to model the streets and buildings in Blender, and use it as a visual aid for team conversations, creative developments of the build also as a bridge to VFX.
For the film "Emily", which I recently designed, we managed to find an existing Georgian house that we were able to retro fit and remodel for the story, both interior and exterior. We used original artifacts and replicated the geography of the Bronte’s parsonage at Whernside Manor, the house which was the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. We chose the exterior landscape around Dent to give the feeling of untouched wilderness that Emily would have experienced. There was a lot of exterior running sequences over expansive areas of moor land, so by using maps and surveys we were able to create scaled drawings which aided directorial blocking and lighting.
The exterior of the house required an enormous amount of hard work with landscaping and the suggestion of a cemetery: Dead trees and telegraph poles were removed, new trees and hedges were planted, along with the remodeling of dry stone walls, pathways and exterior outbuildings.