It’s mankind’s nature to capture the World surrounding us. It all started with cave paintings in the prehistoric age, then developed into filming in the present. Filming, a series of moving images also referred to as motion pictures, results from the illusion of movement in which the human eyes see twenty-four images per second. While the invention of the camera takes human beings a step further on the way to achieving the cinematic dream, it is not the key element. Without the dedication to set design, movies can’t be what you are seeing today.  

Silent Heroes Behind the Scenes

Set design, or production design, is the work involving the creation of scenery for performing stages which can be either theatrical, film, or television. The idea dates back to the origin of theatre in ancient Greece. As the cast grew larger and larger, visual components of the surrounding were in demand to let audiences have a grasp of the story through the context of the locality. Thus, the occasionally painted backdrop was brought to life around the Shakespearean era. Fast forward to two hundred years later, people became more invested in historically accurate and realistic sets which led to the contemporary 3D stage settings. In that same century, the revolution of motion pictures was slowly taking place. 1882 marked the first successful series of photographs with a single instrument by the French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey.

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The birth of cinema has changed the World since. Ricciotto Canudo, an early Italian film theoretician, had argued that cinema was a new art, ‘plastic art in motion’. Being the youngest in the “art family”, the 7th art was able to combine other artistic forms. Architecture, one of the first five arts classified by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in “Lectures on Aesthetics”, is the core of film production. Early in cinema history, Europe had diverse monikers to describe the work of set design: in Germany “architect”, in France “architect-decorator”. Until 1939, during the making of “Gone with the Wind”, the producer David Selznick dubbed William Cameron Menzies “production design”; a title that is still widely used nowadays (Fischer, 2015). Despite the little attention they receive, set designers are the on-screen builders who made people’s fancy visually possible. The process is divided into three phases according to the article “Production Design: Everything You Need to Know” from Nashville Film Institute.

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Concept and Script Analyzing

Set design usually starts taking place when the designers are given a script for a movie. The screenplay provides them with basic information about the plot, setting, narrative, theme, and characters (Fischer, 2015). Then, they develop a visual concept by scrutinizing the script and related research with the director. The film “Parasite” successfully describes the hierarchical structure of society in South Korea by comparing the two respective homes. The staircase is displayed throughout the movie to reflect the social status between the two families. Another example of a set design, which effectively conveys the screenwriter’s narrative, is “Hereditary”. The concept is how the main character’s house is linked to the miniatures and her works. It portrays the prison of predestination and the hopelessness of being trapped like the figures in those dollhouses. In addition, color theory plays an important role in design psychology. Grace Yun, production designer for “Hereditary”, again shows off her intelligence through the choice of color scheme. She explained in the interview with The Credit: “I’m gonna choose colors that are saturated but are in this mid-to-dark tonality so they have these undertones of blacks and greys, so when the lights are off, it’s very dark.” (Cadenas, 2018).

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After wrapping up the concept, the set design team moves on to the planning phase which involves more technical work. Research on chosen location is critical, particularly if the movie involves the historical and cultural context of a nation. It is noticeable from Mulan 2020 that the house Mulan lives in appears quite different from the one in the 1998 animated version. The house in the 2020 live action has a large, enclosed, round structure. It is called Fujian tulou which is unique to Hakka in the mountain areas in southeastern Fujian, China. Most of these dwellings were built between the 12th and 20th centuries. This could have been a remarkable setting to represent Chinese culture if Mulan didn’t seem to exist seven hundred years before. Hua Mulan is the character from the “Ballad of Mulan”, believed to have been composed around the 4th to 6th century. Disney’s admiration for the distinctive architecture of Fujian tulou is appreciated but in this case, the set design should be historically accurate.

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Transferring conceptual details to paper is the next step. Sketching helps to visualize and communicate the design layouts with other teammates. It’s not the production designer but art department illustrators are often the ones responsible for producing sketches. A storyboard, a series of panels of rough sketches outlining the scene sequence and major changes of action in film production, is done parallel with the set design’s drawing. While some directors create it themselves, generally the production designer will work on the storyboard. Like technical drawings of architecture, blueprints finalize the design process prepared for construction and film shooting. Also, the budget needs to be brought up for discussion with the director and film producer. Smart spending on set design is crucial, especially for a film with a tight budget.

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This state of set design is when things are constructed or procured. Nowadays, production teams often rent sets due to the lack of a plethora of studio back lots. Still, there are some films required to have their own set built to fully convey the director’s intention to the audiences. Both the houses from the movie “Parasite” were built on set. The Park (the rich) house, a modernist style architecture, is inspired by the relative blocks of Lego and tofu. When working on this set, production designer Lee Ha Jun tried to think more like an architect. Since the house is where most of the main events of the film happened, the space must be convincing enough that the audience can accept the idea of people living in it. Besides set design, other teams of visual aspects including costume design, makeup, and set decoration bring film to life.

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  1. Barnwell, J. (2022) “Vertical Hierarchy and the Home in Parasite (2019, Dir. Bong Joon Ho, PD Lee Ha-Jun),” in Production Design & The Cinematic Home. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. 
  2. Cadenas, K. (2018) Hereditary’s production designer on building the scariest movie of the year, Motion Picture Association. Available at: (Accessed: February 25, 2023). 
  3. Connor, J.D. et al. (2015) “Introduction,” in Art Direction and Production Design. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 
  4. Estrella, A. (2020) The story of the Seven Arts and how cinema connects them all, Medium. Lessons from History. Available at: (Accessed: February 25, 2023). 
  5. History of film (2023) Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Available at: (Accessed: February 25, 2023). 
  6. Mary, S. (2021) Past, present and Future: Set design, RTF | Rethinking The Future. Available at: (Accessed: February 25, 2023). 
  7. Team, N.F.I. (2022) Production design: Everything you need to know, NFI. Available at: (Accessed: February 25, 2023). 
  8. Wallace, R. (2019) Inside the house from Bong Joon Ho’s parasite, Architectural Digest. Architectural Digest. Available at: (Accessed: February 25, 2023). 

Vy Nguyen, is a senior student majoring in interior design, in love with East Asian architecture and philosophy. She is full of passion for art, literature, film and cats. The ocean is her home at heart and the whale is her spirit animal. Her latest focus includes architectural illustration, building material science and instant photography.