Set Pieces 

1 January 2004

I’ve been watching TV for almost 25 years now, and I can remember a lot of things from those years. One that has caught my attention the most is studio design. Over the years, they have ranged from the simple and functional to the blatantly and unnecessarily extravagant.

For me, most of the best studio designs are the simple ones, the ones I would describe as Generic – they could be used for nearly any show.

There are also the basic layouts that are not generic, but are not show specific either; they are genre specific, such as for quiz shows. By maintaining a simple yet functional look, the set fulfils its role as the staging for whatever we are seeing, whilst not distracting from the real stars of the show.

One daytime quiz show has a simple square set, with 5 very simple chairs and stands for the contestants and a chair and desk for the host. Simple and functional.


However, some good sets aren’t simple, but do manage to maintain a sense of functionality about them without looking extravagant. One fairly recent and very successful quiz show I could mention has got a very visually stunning set design, which is a very expensive looking one too.

But the set was still designed to function and work for the quiz, and it maintains a sense of functionality despite being visually stunning.

When it comes to set design, technology has moved on so much. One science fiction film was recently filmed in on a virtual soundstage.

The floor and walls of the entire stage were draped with material and made ‘transparent’ at the mixing desk. 9 years ago, the BBC relaunched their news programmes with a new virtual studio. This compares to back in the seventies when Colour Separation Overlay, also known as Chromakey, was premiered on TV.

Chromakey is still a very useful tool for studios, as it can be used to overlay graphics, or it can be used to superimpose presenters onto backgrounds.

Presenters or reporters can stand in front of a blue (or green or orange) screen whilst a computer operator generates the images that replace the blue screen on our televisions. It could be a computer generated background, a real life photo, a text presentation of various points relating to a news story or something never before though of, the possibilities being limited only by the imagination.

Virtually there

Chromakey can be used with standard set pieces such as sofas, chairs, tables and desks to create an incredible diversity of looks and sets.

Actors, props and set pieces chromakeyed onto various computer generated backgrounds and scenery was and in some ways still is the backbone of the computer games industry, when it comes to creating the filmed scenes that are shown in between the various acts or missions of a game, also known as cinematics. These cinematics show just how useful something as simple as CSO can be for drama producers.

You can also use those same set pieces in virtual and real studios as well. Magazine and features programmes, documentaries and factual programmes, as well as news, sport, business and current affairs all tend to use simple, fairly generic set designs that tend to be dressed up ever so slightly to make them look better or distinctive.

Amongst the worst designs I’ve ever come across, two stand out in particular. One is for a home video clips show, which succeeds in managing to have both the most tackily spectacular set, but also the biggest waste of space and money.

Multiple screens, at least 3 different areas that look like points of entrance, as well as a completely unnecessary upstairs area, all add to the feeling that money was wasted here on this set, when another show of a similar type, this one dealing with TV clips instead of home video clips, has a much smaller, much more basic, and much more functional set.

Real estate

Another set that seems very wasteful is a news set I have seen, which for its size has a relatively small desk and staging area, leaving a lot of wasted studio space. There’s also a very large back projection screen that is not really used to full effect, other than on an odd occasion. It also succeeds in being quite garish, which doesn’t really work for news.

Set designs need to be suitable for the show, programme or indeed genre that they are being used for. They don’t need to be expensive; they don’t even have to be entirely real.

One regional current affairs programme used a rebranded virtual version of another terrestrial channel’s news studio, and it looked almost as good as the real thing.

It didn’t matter that the company concerned didn’t have enough studio space in their real studio to do that set. By doing it as a virtual backdrop and chromakeying the presenter into the backdrop, it looked both convincing enough and good. It was suitable for the programme and that was what mattered.

Viewers do not need huge, extravagant, expensive looking sets; they need sets that are fit for the purpose. The purpose is to set the stage for the players, whether it is a single presenter or a cast of thousands. As long as the set does that, then it is doing its job.

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Liverpool, Monday 20 May 2024