Building DIY film sets

Even though I’ve been making films for years, I’ve always assumed that building sets was basically impossible. Like it would cost thousands of dollars or something. So I’ve always worked with existing locations.

I’ll try and dress them up as best I can, but obviously you run into limitations.

The biggest limitation for me is usually that whatever the location is, it’s something that is used for something besides the movie, probably some kind of living space, either yours or someone else’s.  If someone is letting me use their space, I’ll definitely try to be as courteous as possible.  Even if it’s your own space, you kind of have to move quickly and don’t get a lot of time to make sure that everything is right for the scene.

When I was shooting “Black Weeds”, I lived in a house with a bunch of roommates, and filmed everything there.  As you can probably guess, the house was a pretty big mess all the time, especially the kitchen.  A fair amount of the movie takes place in the kitchen, and I tried to clean it and dress it for the movie.  But after a while, I just pushed stuff out of the way, just outside of the edge of the frame.  For most of those shots, if you panned the camera a few inches, it would look like a very different kitchen!

I think it’s kind of good training to shoot this way.  It’s important to remember that the only thing that really matters to the movie is what actually happens inside the frame.

Anyway, when planning the scenes for “CD-Trip”, I thought I would look into what it would take to build some sets.  For one, I want to have more control of the production design.  I also want to have more flexibility in terms of camera placement – when you have an artificial set you can put the camera past where walls should be, and potentially move walls around as needed.  When you’re shooting in a small room, you pretty much have to stick to wide-angle lenses, and placement choices are much more limited.  Finally, I also just want to try it out on a small scale, to see how it works out – how hard it is, how expensive, etc.  It’s undoubtedly something that’s going to be important to know something about when working on bigger, future projects.

I don’t really know anything about construction or woodworking, but I figured it can’t be that expensive to put a couple of smallish walls up.  Luckily, an artist friend of mine, Andrew Alba, knows how to build stuff and was interested in helping out!

The hard part is finding a location with enough space to build it.  I looked a little bit into renting some kind of warehouse or studio space.  There’s definitely some available space around, but I couldn’t find any place that didn’t seem like overkill for this smallish project.  Andrew offered up his backyard – and that was the plan for a while.  The obvious downsides to shooting outside would be temperature, having to shoot late at night in order to control the lighting, and possibly bugs.

But then an opportunity came up for a house rental that I moved into.  There’s a decently sized basement, with just enough room to fit a really small set.  So here it is!

We used really cheap paneling, and ended up with three walls for around $100 not including labor. I found the door, some carpet scraps, and other odds and ends at a local home improvement thrift store called the Re-Store.

Now it’s just a matter of finding the right wall decorations (so far I’ve used some wallpaper I found on Ebay, but I may experiment with other ideas), and setting up the props and dressing.

To save money, I’m planning to use the same walls for three different ‘locations’. As I type this I’ve finished filming with the first, and am now in the process of figuring out the dressing for the second one!

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