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My set design school
Building sets is serious business. It takes time, resources and the collaboration of many artisans to build them. But there exist few rewarding feelings of accomplishment like walking through finished structures that you first envisioned on paper. Designing sets for stage or film is a lot of fun. Throughout my career many have asked me how I got involved with set design in the first place. You just don't wakeup one day and say -"Ah... what a great day! I think I will become a set designer!" I frankly can't remember when I did my first set; I guess I grew into it. But to tell you how I will have to take you back to my home in Puerto Rico.
When I was four years old my parents returned home. Home was a "barrio" (hamlet) among many other country barrios centred around the small but industrious town of Las Piedras, in the Eastern part of the Island. The name of my barrio was Boqueron and it was a small community surrounded by low green hills with a magnificent distant view of the peak of El Yunque tropical rain forest. El Yunque (which means 'an anvil' in Spanish) is to us something like what Mount Fuji is to the Japanese.
Growing up in Boqueron was to me like living in paradise. Summer weather all the year, beautiful blue skies dotted with fluffy cotton clouds, an easy going community where everybody knew your name and where all the kids rode bikes to school; a place where the traditional Spanish costumes of the nineteenth century blended affably with the modernity of the twentieth. In typical Puerto Rican fashion, life in Boqueron was that of live and let live -clean, wholesome country living.
Even in matters of religion there was a calm status quo, with the barrio boasting several "capillas" (chapels) within a few minutes walk of each other: one for the Catholics, one for the Pentecostals, and one for the "Espiritistas" -a combination of Catholism and African mysticism that communicated directly with "the spirits" via a 'medium' (like the ancient Greeks). I grew up Pentecostal (which is like growing up in the army but with better music) and can boast over fourteen pastors on one side of the family; the other side was unashamedly heathen and I became an expert at walking the fine line between both worlds.
Some of the best lessons in life I learned growing up in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans are a nation of 'do-it-yourselfers.' Everything appeared to be in a constant state of construction and change. In fact, half of my family was in the construction business. So working my way around power tools, construction sites and architectural blueprints became second nature and today I can design and build a house from the ground up. Plumbing, electrical, terrazzo floors, tiling, painting and carpentry -you name it, I can do and still do it.
My first construction projects however were miniatures of wood and cardboard. But even back then I always thought big. My most ambitious model (64 feet square) was the construction of an entire medieval city with towers, keeps, palaces, churches, houses, markets, ponds, stables, tree lanes, etc, and six hundred miniature men-at-arms, all painstakingly painted in exacting detail. No other kids had more ferocious battles than my brother Ricky (age ten) and I (then age fifteen) assaulting the walls of our fantasy city. In the end, after many months of desperate sieges and hard fought campaigns, I burned it. It was a glorious!
Theatre sets, Puerto Rico
At about the same time I was battling down walls, I was designing and building sets for my own theatrical productions. After making simple pencil sketches, I would proceed to make architectural blueprints, then I would construct a model of the set and set pieces, and finally, after several meetings with my crew, we would proceed to construct and paint the finished set. Naturally, I also devoured any book on set design I could lay my hands on to improve my education on the subject.
I was able to indulge my theatrical aspirations because we had a captive audience. Pentecostals love live theatre -they are also shameless exhibitionists. In many ways, the Pentecostal service is like a live variety show -lots of singing, more guest singers and bands, live comedy, wonderful story telling by 'traveling missionaries', colourful sabre-rattling sermons, political reporting, and more singing. It really was a lot of fun, especially when you have a strong irreverent streak in you (my father's fault -though it was his side of the family that were the religious ones). By comparison, our Catholic counterparts didn't stand a chance -though they soon caught up with the singing!
I was, in many ways, in the perfect environment to put on a show. And as long as the show had a religious stamp, I was in. All we lacked was a source of published plays so I began writing my own. Soon I had all my buddies in Boqueron involved in my productions. We even had a nickname: Los Glaciales. It literally means "the glaciers" because in spiritual terms we were as cold as ice -not a good thing! But we more than made up in charm and wit (some claimed evil); Puerto Ricans love a rascal as much as Spaniards love a 'picaro' -an even worse kind of rascal!
Our Glaciales group competed with groups in other barrios when it came to sheer spectacle. As the expression goes, no one could hold a candle to us; we were a roaring fire of energy. Our shows attracted "almas perdidas" (lost souls) and inspired the "los salvados" (the born-again). One of our largest productions, titled "Como en los dias de Noe" (Like in the days of Noah), had a cast of about thirty actors and twelve set changes (done with revolving backgrounds). It was a huge production staged in a large church with seats for about five hundred people, perhaps more since the plays were performed to filled-out capacity.
The production had scenes and effects representing an angel appearing out of thin air, an earthquake with falling debris, a torture scene in a castle dungeon, a parade square for a large rally (with evil storm-troopers), the great saloon of an Imperial palace, and the humble home of a resistance fighter (where a massacre took place). I also wrote and directed and acted in the play and had a ball with the entire spectacle. Ah... The good old days!
These types of religious productions, combined with secular shows produced in school (Spanish traditional theatre), were my set design laboratory. I experimented with the limitations of time, budgets and resources to produce the most crowd pleasing spectacles. Every trick of illusion we could devise was tried at least once. Since the limitations were many we developed a talent for being creative and resourceful.
Let me give you one example. Corrugated cardboard, recycled from donated boxes from a local furniture store, was a wonder material to us. We could shape it into any kind of inexpensive theatre prop, like armour breastplates, which, once painted with metallic paint and then treated with black shoe polish, looked like the real thing. The lessons learned then have served me well in my artistic career, but the most important lesson was this: Go for it! This "can-do" attitude, so well tuned to my personality, still continues to drive me on.
Theatre sets, Cleveland
Years later I settled in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, where I continued to produce plays for Hispanic churches -always an enthusiastic and supportive crowd. I also became an occasional collaborator with the Cleveland Public Theatre at the invitation of its founder and friend, Mr. James Levin. My first project was a one-set piece for the premiere of the opera "Street Sense" written by Migdalia Cruz and directed by Steven Pickover, from the New York Metropolitan Opera company. Combined with a great lighting design and artificial fog, the surrounding murals really gave the set an otherworldly surreal effect that evoked a Dali-styled dream -or nightmare, depending on your point of view.
A decade later James again invited me to do the sets for one of his most ambitious projects to date, an open-air production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, staged in Cleveland’s warehouse district. This expensive and handsome production, directed by the magnificent Emmy award-winning director Robert Tolaro, was set in a Spanish-style hacienda in revolutionary Mexico. It even included a mariachi band and the choreography of dancer Susana Weingarten de Evert, one of Cleveland's most exotic Mexican imports.
Essentially, the design was more like an outdoor movie set. It included the façade of the manor house, a church and fifteen foot bell-tower, rooms within rooms (the front walls of the façade's side extensions opened to reveal interior rooms); it also included huge gate entrance and a working corral environment with cacti and all. The audience entered the space through the corral gates into the barren cactus-dotted courtyard.
For this project I distilled the Mission architectural style to its barest elements but built the set on a monumental scale. Combined with the fantastic light design by the late great Robert Stegmiller and the colourful period costumes by Inda Blatch-Geib, this production of 'Shakespeare south of the border' was a Cleveland sensation. My only sorrow was not being present at the site when one of my idols, -Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony award-winning dynamo Rita Moreno (who was performing in town) stopped by one day at Bob Stegmiller's invitation to take a look at the set.
The images include in this page correspond to this production of Much Ado About Nothing and perfectly illustrate my working procedure, which I fist developed in Puerto Rico. First I meet with the producer to discuss ideas for the look of the show. Since the setting for this production was going to be revolutionary Mexico (about 1912) I knew that colonial Spanish architecture, the 'Mission Style' specifically, would provide the main design elements and motifs, such as adobe construction, clay roof tiles, exposed wooden beams, rough lumber posts, mostly strong unadorned wooden furniture, Native American pottery and textiles, and so on. The action, I determined, would take place in a cattle ranch 'hacienda'.
Research came next and a morgue (a scrapbook) of visual reference was compiled. Next I did a breakdown of the production script noting every scene location, furnishings and decor pieces. Armed with visual references and notes I created a series of thumbnail size sketches to formalize my designs on paper. By some stroke of luck I found my sketches and designs for this production stored in my basement. This is fortunate because I never keep any evidence of my work after a project is done (and this includes pictures). And so, breaking with tradition, I have included them below for you to see.
Except for the fact that now I do most of my renderings in the computer (as you will see below in the Bad Blood section), I still continue to practice the same procedure and do everything in exactly the same order. After sketching my designs on paper, I do a paper scale model of the set. Come to think of it, I would do a scale model of a set even if it were bare. I simply like doing models.
My model for the set of Much Ado was done in a 1/4 inch scale (the working scale varies depending on how much detail is needed). I do them out of paper and cardboard because the material is inexpensive, easy to work with, and I can work fast -nothing fancy. Once the model was completed, I showed it to the director. Robert Tolaro travelled from Texas so he was not in the initial discussions. But he was very pleased with the design; no changes were needed.
Now I did the technical drawings to build the set. Normally designers do construction blueprints, which are done on large size sheets of paper. Well, I hate carrying large things around, so instead I do all my technical designs on 8-1/2 by 11 square paper (exactly the size of typing paper). In this case my scale was 1/8 inch equals a foot, so every square on the paper equal 2 feet. Want to know the dimensions of a set piece? Count the square. Simple, nothing fancy. Take a look:
These drawings show the elevations of the set pieces. I had drawn an initial set to build the scale model but these are the final ones, completed after all the corrections and adjustments have been made. Notice also that I always include a human figurine in my designs to illustrate the scale of the set piece. After the elevations, I do the technical drawings. Here are some examples:
These drawings show how the framework for the set pieces is constructed. They are also used to make an inventory of the materials needed to build the set. I always have every piece of lumber identified in the drawing with a letter/number sequence. This is necessary because the sections are cut in the workshop and later reassembled at the site. Once cut, every piece is marked with its corresponding ID number using a chalk. Putting it all together (with drywall screws) is now a matter of following the specifications on the drawings, and matching the corresponding pieces. Since I also designed in modular fashion the lumber can be reused in other productions. Once the show is over, the set pieces are taken apart (unscrewed) and the wood stored away.
Above is a site plan of the staging area. The grey-shaded area marks the space where the set was to be assembled. After completing the framework, each section was covered in plywood. After all the sections were put together to erect the set, the plywood was covered with 'chicken wire' mesh and then rendered in concrete (which was donated) to simulate adobe walls and timber beams. This was advantageous because city inspectors imposed more safety codes than had it been a real construction. Concrete holds well exposed to the elements (there was a lot of rain) and it is fire-proof.
I would have preferred to use insulation foam panels to simulate the adobe construction since the material is easier to work with and can be shaped into just about any form. But in community theatre it all boils down to economics and one has to work with what's at hand. That's when ingenuity comes to play. Applying concrete by hand is hard work but it sure gave a lot of volunteers an opportunity to bond in misery. If this isn't theatre I don't know what is.
The final stage of construction was painting and dressing up the set with plants, accessories and furnishings. Then we rested. This project was labour intensive and extremely demanding since I was also supervising the construction and teaching volunteers how to do things. But the design was singled out for praise by the local media and even served as the background for a couple of local TV morning shows. These pictures will give you an idea of the final look. In the end I was too tire to come back to photograph the whole thing and my attention had already shifted to another production, 'Noches de San Juan' (Nights of San Juan), where I was the show's writer, director and co-producer. No time to look back.
Film set from Bad Blood
Being a muralist, an interior designer, a model maker and an experienced builder is invaluable background in set design and construction (if you want to be a competent designer, I advise you to work as an intern or volunteer in any or all of these areas). Nicely rounding this set of skills was my newfound love for CAD, 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional computer rendering programs. They allowed me to do magic without getting paint on my hands. The computer did not make the work easier or faster, but it allowed me to explore more possibilities and produce photo-like finished art
In preparation for the making of my first feature film project, Bad Blood, I proceeded to scout locations and prepare designs for some of the sets. The largest and most ambitious piece is the renaissance courtyard of the Borgia compound at the Vatican, connected via a corridor (now destroyed) to Castle San Angelo. The largest action sequence in the film will take place on this set. To see some of the storyboards for these scenes go back to the design page and click on ‘Bad Blood storyboards.' You can also read the scenes by going to the ‘Bad Blood’ link in the ‘Writings’ page.
As of this writing we do not have the money to go into production, but even if we had the necessary funds, the budget for the set pieces would be limited in the extreme. So my design, which will be shot at night, is more like an illusion of smoke and mirrors. Most of the set will be created digitally using matte paintings and computer generated ‘set-extensions’. But I still need to design the space ‘as it will appear in the film.’ In the final design I may change a thing or two to fit my creative purpose, but these liberties are not based on ignorance of facts and details. Before one breaks the rules one has to know what the rules are.
Once again, I constructed a scale model. This is an invaluable tool for visualizing the staging of the film and determining what the sets would be like on screen. A model also serves as a reference tool in the creation of storyboards. With the help of a digital camera and a zoom lens I could visualise any scene from various angles.
The model for the courtyard was built out of black poster board in a couple of hours. It is so simple that I didn't even bother to erase white pencil marks. Still, the pictures show how effective even a simple model can be. Keep in mind that the camera can be deceiving. The model is only 5-inches wide by 14-inches long by 4-inches high. The little figurines are just 3/16 of an inch. I simply painted them with white ink on a piece of black-colour cardboard. Remember: keep things simple; nothing fancy.
After creating the set plans and building a scale model I proceeded to do paintings of the set. My conceptual paintings, done in Adobe Photoshop, are a far cry from the simple renderings I used to do in the past. Notice in the picture below-left what one of my ‘before-computers’ designs looked like. For the taping of a children's show at Cleveland State University I designed a series of set changes for a sequence of dolly shots using markers and red pencil. Spartan but effective. I guessed I could have done a detailed painting to better show my design, but that would have taken too much of my time. Since I was also in charge of building the set and supervising the crew I did not have to dwell on the details -I was present to explain and answer questions.
For my production of Bad Blood someone else will be in charge of building and dressing the sets. As production designer for the film my drawings have to be explicit. So for me the computer is a godsend and Adobe Photoshop is a miracle tool. Now I have more creative flexibility and photo-like results at a fraction of the time it took me to hand-paint detail renderings. Below are some of my conceptual designs for the renaissance set of Bad Blood. If you need further proof of how an image manipulation software like Adobe Photoshop can help your designs, look no further. For additional samples of paintings created on Photoshop, check out the 'Victorian mansion' designs on the 'Design' page.
Once more, I include human figurines to appreciate the scale of the set piece. As always, I base my designs on meticulous research and look for design elements that can add veracity to the sets. For example, over the bronze doors below the ‘last judgment’ mural I included the coat of arms of pope Alexander VI. When the actual set is built, such details will be constructed (or added in the computer) based on an existing historical source. I can't stress enough the importance of good research and visual references in any project. Archive photos and books are accessible to anyone. Visiting research sites is even better -you can take your own pictures and get a feeling of the real environment. In addition to admiring the lovely Roman ladies -although they pale in comparison to New Jersey girls (this last comment added at gunpoint), I did take notice of ancient architecture and took plenty of pictures when I visited the city in anticipation for these designs.
My intention as a designer is to add visual conviction to a play or a screenplay. Many forget that architecture, set decor and visual space are artistic elements to be manipulated in favour of the story and its characterisation. But even though one is not seeking to recreate a 'museum piece', one should follow accurate historical representation in all architectural elements. For example: if a set piece is supposed to be a Northern European chapel in the twelfth century, then its visual elements -such as materials, colours, construction methods, and so on, should conform to that period and not to those of later centuries or other geographical regions.
During film pre-production, the designs will be the guide and inspiration for the set builders. In post-production they will serve as models for the paintings needed to complete composite shots. In the meantime, they are an invaluable tool to illustrate to potential investors the look, size and scope of a film. It is my sincere hope that sharing my experiences will persuade young filmmakers and designers on the argument that spending more time and effort at the design stage will enhance the quality of the final product.
I find set design an enjoyable practice and I enjoy talking about it even more. So if you have any comments or questions please feel free to send me an e-mail. I will do my best to send you a reply as time allows. In the meantime, best of luck with your project.
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