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Styles in Digital Video Set Design

written by: Shane Burley•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 7/4/2011

Learn how to use different approaches to set design to create the perfect environment for your video scenes.

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    Set Design

    Creating a set for your digital video project can be an important part of portraying what you would like on the screen. Depending on how you approach the scene set-up there can be different styles that would represent the type of image you would like to exist in the frame. Different set styles exist for different purposes, and once you understand the uses of some you can begin to use them.

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    The most standard for narrative film projects is the realistic set. This set is designed to look real in terms of the scene you are recording. For example, if you have a scene taking place in a house you construct or find a set that will actually look like this house would. There is no desire to use representational set elements as you want the audience to see all of the environment as real.

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    A representational set does not go for absolute realism, but you still would like the audience to understand that its spatial relationships represent real environment and space. You do not have to have everything be as it would in the real world, but just enough so that the audience can view it as such. This can be things like a classroom with only a few desks or the image of a forest with just a couple trees. The idea is not to make it look like a real environment but be close enough to one that the audience can suspend disbelief.

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    Abstract Symbolic

    The next step in this direction is the abstract symbolic set. This set is designed like a play where it has objects that can represent larger or more lifelike environmental elements but do not look in any way as though they are real. These would be things like a painted backdrop of a forest representing an actual one, or black cloth being draped over objects so that they appear to be invisible. All you want is for the audience to understand the dimensions of the story but not to expect them to see it as real.

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    A fantasy set completely loses the idea of the set either being realistic or representing realistic dimensions. This is purely theatrical and does not try and reproduce a life-like environmental situation. These would be things like a dance or music video set, where it is obvious that these things are not happening in the real world. With this you can use an entirely new sensibility where emotional aesthetics are much more important than those that push story elements forward.

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    A neutral set is the most basic of all sets and is designed strictly to focus on the talent. This may be what many people refer to as a studio set, and what is commonly used for interviews or news segments. The set design is supposed to be minimal as to not distract the audience from the focus of the segment, which is the talent.

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    Don't Mix Styles

    It is hard to mix these set design styles because each one is set around its own sensibility. Try to decide ahead of time what type of effect you are trying to illicit from your sequence and then jump in with that perspective in mind.