Set Design: Bringing A World To Life

Alex Tyndall

When it comes to filmography, the set is often one of the first elements to be discussed during pre-production. Depending on the script, producers need to examine where and how they can film, and what resources will be needed to ensure their vision comes to life. This process can be long and complicated, but, as we’ve seen time and time again, it can be utterly worth it when the audience is presented with a scene so visually stunning that we are left wanting to climb through the screen and become immersed in the world before us. As part of our January ‘cosiness’ theme, Alex explores the cosiest sets on screen and what makes them feel so comforting. 

A cosy, comfortable atmosphere that we long to replicate in our own lives can enchant us and keep us secured in the story

Set design doesn’t always have to be sweeping landscapes, or scale models of immense buildings, such as the ‘bigatures’ designed by Weta Workshop for Lord of the Rings or Blade Runner 2049. Sometimes, a close, introspective look into a living room or bedroom is enough to convince us of the value of set design. A cosy, comfortable atmosphere that we long to replicate in our own lives can enchant us and keep us secured in the story, grounded in its reality.

On the topic of enchantment, the Harry Potter films make excellent use of cosy colours and sets, particularly in the first film, The Philosopher’s Stone, when we are first introduced to Hogwarts. One set that springs to mind is The Gryffindor Common Room, with its plethora of worn, well-loved sofas, decorated in the house colours of crimson and gold; the open fireplace, the tattered rugs; every little detail comes together to create a scene that, as production designer Stuart Craig says, provides “a reassuring feeling of warmth and comfort”.

Colour is immensely important when creating a ‘cosy’ environment. In an article by Better Homes and Gardens, cosy colours are described as being ‘saturated tones […] dark shades of a warm hue, such as red, orange, and gold’, or even cooler colours such as blue and green ‘when you pick the deepest iterations, like navy and moss’. The Brown’s house in Paddington (2014) makes wonderful use of these colours and lighting to create the appearance of a picture-perfect home. The use of deep red tones can be seen in Mr and Mrs Brown’s bedroom, accentuated by the ambient lighting from the flower-shaped wall lamps that curl around the top of the bed. Even then, the lighter, pastel colours of the hallway, particularly the pink of the cherry-blossom mural and the baby-blue exterior of the house, add to the dream-like quality presented on screen, “a place where a talking bear would feel right at home” (production designer Gary Williamson).

In many examples across television and film, if set designers wish to create a warm and cosy atmosphere, red is usually the colour they lean towards most, or try to incorporate in some way. In BBC’s Sherlock, 221B Baker Street is a collage of earthy tones and complementary reds, browns, and greens. The same is seen in Justice Strauss’ library from the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events. And who could forget the Central Park coffee shop from Friends?

Every prop is positioned carefully, as though each inanimate object has its own story to tell

But another thing that links all of the aforementioned sets is the presence of an organised chaos. In every environment, the setting needs to appear to be lived in, loved and cherished, a part of the lives of the characters we are meant to empathise with. Each set has its own personality; every prop is positioned carefully, as though each inanimate object has its own story to tell. A framed picture provides a small insight into a character’s relationships with people both on and off-screen; a book on a chair might tell us that someone is an avid reader, or, depending on how worn the book is, perhaps this story is their favourite; knitted blankets or cushions could be DIY projects, or gifts from a loved one. The presence of evidence of life in a space elevates a set above what we might take at face-value. It invites us to think about what each object may be used for. Even in a setting as pristine as Jane Adler’s kitchen in It’s Complicated, there is a story of care and appreciation, from the flowers arranged on the table, to the neatly stacked jars and pans – everything has its place, and yet it doesn’t seem clinical or unnatural. The lighting here helps in this regard, as multiple light sources of varying intensity make sure that no one spot appears glaring or intense. Moreover, the window in the centre of the kitchen wall seems to extend the room into the garden, allowing more life to enter. This is also helped by the relatively open floorplan, creating a natural merge of both the kitchen and dining room.

In the same vein, Bilbo’s home, Bag End, in The Hobbit, also appears loved and lived in. Incredible attention to detail is paid to areas such as the pantry, which overflows with produce and greenery – heavily in contrast to It’s Complicated in terms of tidiness, but certainly not in terms of how much love resonates from the set.

Whilst this article has only focused on the elements of set design which create a sense of warmth and comfort, such as the quintessential comfy sofa, and probably a good few books, there is so much more that can be said about what is undeniably an art form. Consciously or not, audiences share endless admiration for the people responsible for bringing a fictional world to life. Often under-appreciated, but never out of sight, the myriad of skilled workers – interior designers, carpenters, architects, lighting technicians, researchers, to name but a few – come together to present an astounding display which truly transforms words on a page into an encapsulating, believable world. For this reason, pause next time you watch a film, or a TV show, to bask in the artwork that is set design – you won’t regret it.

Alex Tyndall

Featured Image courtesy of William Warby via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In article image 1 courtesy of wbtourlondon via instagram.com. No changes made to this image. 

In article image 2 courtesy of thepaddingtonmovie via instagram.com. No changes made to this image. 

In article image 3 courtesy of thehobbitmovie via instagram.com. No changes made to this image.

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