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Set piece

Hindustan Times | BySyed Amir Ali Hashmi, New Delhi
Dec 10, 2009 10:08 AM IST

To create a reel world, become a set designer, says Syed Amir Ali Hashmi

These days, there is one person a film director almost always sits down with before even a single scene is shot — this is the set designer, the one who gives the film the look and the atmosphere it needs to make the plot work.

Some of the most talked-about sets in the past few years have been in films like Devdas, Jodhaa Akbar and Saawariya, all of which needed a big dose of research and creativity.

Samir Chanda, a well-known production designer and art director in Mumbai, has worked on films like Ghajini, Omkara, Rang De Basanti and Makdee. A trained painter from Calcutta Art College, he has also done the production design for Delhi-6, Welcome to Sajjanpur, Guru, Dil Se and more. “Today, art directors are considered so important that directors sit with us and discuss scenes threadbare before shooting begins,” says Chanda. “When I started in the early 80s, things were different. Directors almost directed us on the look of the film.”

But with the evolution of TV shows as well as films, the job has become far more specialised. A set designer should have an understanding of space, form and structure, composition, perspective, visual storyboard, design layout and lighting schemes. This goes for film, TV and even stage productions, some of which require very elaborate sets.

A large chunk of the work is to be done before the cameras roll. “A designer has to research the project and confer with the director, producer, writer, costume designer, lighting and sound technicians, and the cinematographer to come up with the right detail. Any creative idea should be practicable, too,” says Manoos Mirza, a set designer/art director. A set designer and art director have a similar job profile, but the latter is in a more senior, supervisory position.

“You have to get the feel of the story, and for that an arts background is a must. You need to have the aesthetic sense to bring out the vision of the director in the most satisfactory way,” says Gautam Bose, an art director who started his career as an illustrator and then moved to films. His first film as a production designer was Ek Din Achanak, directed by arthouse great Mrinal Sen. He has recently been art director for Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer, among other films.

After making some draft sketches, the set designer builds upon those until a scale model for a set is in place. “Then he has to get all the resources to construct the set without missing any detail,” says Mirza.

The work increases manifold if the film is a period film, and the past has to be recreated. “Such films require an understanding of the history and psychology of that particular era,” says Naim Ahmed, who works for a news channel.

Pune architect Dheeraj Akolkar, the man behind the sets of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, has also had a major share in designing for Devdas. He worked under art director Nitin Desai for that film, creating the havelis of Devdas, Chandramukhi and Paro. For Paro’s haveli, Akolkar decided to use a lot of glass — the work was so strenuous that one day he worked non-stop for 10 hours and collapsed on the sets.

There are rewards for such hard work. Once you specialise in set design, films, television and event management companies pay handsome fees for quality work. But for one truly creative, it is a labour of love.

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What’s it about?
It is a job where the designer has to research, plan, construct and oversee the sets used in ad films, TV shows and plays. S/he has to see that the idea of a director is reflected in the set and that the set works when it comes to camera movement, lighting and cost. Responsibilities vary depending on the scale and budget of the production. For instance, he or she may be responsible for both the abstract conception and the nuts-and-bolts carpentry of the set

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Clock Work
8 am: Get to the set to inspect that all the workers have arrived
9 am to noon: Work on building, refining details etc
Noon: Tea break
12.15 pm: Get back to overseeing construction
1.30 pm: Have a quick, on-site meeting with the director
1.45 pm: Work continues
7 pm: Start preparing to pack-up after final checks for next day’s shoot

The payoff
An assistant set designer makes very little money, about Rs 6,000-7,000 per month. Once one builds up a reputation, the pay depends on the project — it can be anything from Rs 50,000 to a couple of lakhs. As an art director for a film, the pay is still higher. Pay in TV channels varies

Skills
.
Strong aesthetic sense and fine art training
. Good research skills
. Patience to work with carpenters, electricians etc
. Ability to cope with the demands of a director, which may change during the course
of a shoot
. Good budgeting and planning skills

How do i get there?
Go for a BFA degree. Learn software such as VectorWorks, RenderWorks, PhotoShop, Illustrator, Max etc. People with other areas of expertise such as interior design and architecture can also join this field

Institutes & urls
.
Film and Television Institute of India, Pune
www.ftiindia.com
. Asian Academy of Film & TV, NCR
www.aaft.com
. LS Raheja School of Art, Mumbai
www.lsraheja.com
. Banaras Hindu University
www.bhu.ac.in

Pros & Cons
.
Good money after the initial stage
. A great platform for your imagination
. Long hours, maybe even on weekends
. Physical exhaustion possible

Patience is Key to Success Here

A set designer talks about the profession and its requirements

What is it like to be a set designer?
Honestly speaking, it is a mix of feelings. On one hand, you feel dejected at not being recognised, as is the norm in our industry in India; on the other hand, you feel elated after seeing your imagination unfold in front of you.

What are the problems a professional can face?
Initially, people do not give you much respect — in India, an art director or a set designer is taken as a fabricator. Aspiring professionals should be ready to work even as carpenters on the sets. A set designer also has to bear the brunt of bad temper/ demands from all quarters — producer, director and cinematographer. One has to reach the set before anyone else and be the last to leave. So, the work pressure is very high.

Any special courses to learn before joining the field?
Nowadays, everything is software-driven. So, it’s good if you know software such as 3D Home, Max and Corel Draw. For an edge, an art education — Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in Fine Arts (BFA/MFA) — is desirable.

Tell us about some of your satisfactory moments.
There are hardly any. Producers rarely appreciate our work, because they know if they do so, they will have to churn out huge amounts of money in their next venture. Such grievances apart, satisfaction comes when you are a part of some programme or film that sends out some social message.

I’d like to mention a programme called Jasoos Vijay, which used to come on Doordarshan. The programme had a message on AIDS and that gave me satisfaction — I felt proud to be a part of the team.

What’s your advice to aspiring professionals?
They should be technically sound and have loads of patience. In fact, I’d say patience is the key that will lead them through the worst of situations.

Manoos Mirza, set designer/ art director Interviewed by Syed Amir Ali Hashmi

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