Studio Sets




Since the early days of television, settings have been suggested by painted backgrounds. Although virtual reality sets are making definite inroads, especially where visual effects are involved, there are still advantages for the actors to work within realistic settings.

Note in this ABC sitcom that the "restaurant" walls are simply painted flats made to look real. Most viewers at home never question the fact that this scene is not taking place in an actual restaurant.

Although painted flats of this type are expensive to create — they typically require set designers, set builders, artists, and painters, not to mention costly materials — once built, they offer some advantages over on-location settings.

For example, in the case of a sitcom such as the one above, an audience of 100 or more people can be accommodated to bolster talent performance and help with the laugh track. (Actors in comedy rely on audience feedback, so they work much better in front of a live audience.)

Television textbooks, including those written by this writer in an earlier era, used to devote many pages to the design and construction of sets. But, things have changed.

Beyond news, some local commercials, and possibly an interview show, most local TV stations now do little in the way of live studio production. Of course, as the photo above shows, sets are still a major component of the major production studios. In this abbreviated coverage of sets, we'll start with a set component that is a part of most TV studios — the cyc.


In early studios curtains and drapes used to be commonly used as backgrounds. These were soon replaced by cycs (cycloramas). Studio cycs, cycwhich are large neutral gray seamless backdrops, provide a simple and highly versatile background.

Cycs are made of light gray canvas, muslin, plaster, or any material that can be finished so that corners and seams are not visible. Cycs normally cover two sides of the studio.

The canvas or muslin type can be hung from a track near the ceiling, as shown here. With hanging canvas or muslin cycs, small rollers make it possible for the cyc to be pulled into place as needed. The ground row covers the bottom of the cyc and can give the illusion that the floor blends in with the background. 

Assuming that the talent is far enough away from the cyc, lighting can be controlled so that the background effect can be light or dark. Colored lights can be used on the cyc to create interesting background effects. When lit evenly, the smooth surface, even as it goes around the corner of a studio, can provide an "infinity effect" — an endless space behind subjects.

Four Categories of Sets

It's sometimes helpful to think of sets in terms of four categories. Representational-Supportive, Symbolic, Realistic or Replica, and Fantasy. Let's briefly look at each one.

Most studio sets are Represential-Supportive, which is a bit of scholarly and probably unnecessary jargon for a set that represents the nature of the show and supports. For example, a news set generally incorporates elements that in some way suggests "news."

The set on the right was designed for a 60s show — a time of psychedelic colors, peace symbols, and antiwar demonstrations.

Often, the background and its elements are vital to the show. For example, the contestant scoreboards, puzzle phrases, and spinning wheels, etc. used in game shows are directly involved in the show.

Each year the Academy Awards broadcast has an elaborate set designed to accommodate the presentations, dance numbers, etc.

An elaborate and costly set like this takes many months of preparation. It's first built on a small scale, as shown here. The colors and proportions can then be checked before construction starts on the actual set.

Symbolic Sets are used to suggest a realistic background without having to include all of the details. Venetian blinds over what looks like a window can suggest an office for medium shots and close-ups of one or two people. A shadow of bars projected behind a person suggests a jail cell, and a background image of a stained-glass window suggests a church. A symbolic set is far less costly than the next category.

As the name suggests, Realistic or Replica Sets appear from the perspective of the multiple camera angles to be authentic. The sets for dramas are normally of this type.

Since they involve considerable detail and a need to "hold up" from a variety of camera angles, they are the most demanding and expensive to build.

Movie sets used to be almost all of this type. Often, entire streets would be built for exterior scenes, or multiple rooms of a house would be constructed. However, today, many films are shot on location using existing— although generally somewhat modified— settings.

The final category is called Fantasy Sets. This type of set is abstract and stylistic — sometimes a bizarre and deliberate distortion of reality. Today, this type of set is often computer generated and ends up being a virtual set.

Hardwall and Softwall Flats

Studio sets are composed of sections, generally four feet (1.3 meters) wide and eight to ten feet (2.5 - 3 meters) high.

They are seamlessly lashed together from the back with cord or rope, so that the divisions don't show.

Hardwall flats normally consist of 1/4-inch (6.25mm) composition board or paneling nailed to 1X3 or 2X4 inch (25mm by 76mm, or 51mm by 101mm) wooden frames. Wood paneling, of course, comes in a wide variety of patterns and surfaces. Shiny surfaces should be avoided because they can cause problems with lights.

Softwall flats, which consist of wooden frames covered by stretched canvas or bleached muslin, are much lighter and easier to move, store, and paint.

The canvas or muslin is stapled or glued to the 1 X 3 inch (25mm by 76mm) hardwall softwall flats wooden frames. Before painting, a flameproof sealer is applied to the surface.

Softwall flats can be painted to depict any type of setting. The disadvantage of this type of set is that the muslin or canvas is easy to tear or damage.

As shown on the right, both hardwall and softwall flats can be lashed together at the corners with rope or lashlines.


Seamless Paper

Seamless paper, which comes in 9 to 12 foot by 36 foot (2.7 to 5.2 by 11 meter) rolls, is readily available from display houses and photo supply stores and is relatively inexpensive. Even though the paper is of a heavy gauge, it's still easy to tear and must be handled carefully. Matte finishes are available in dozens of colors.

The major advantage of this type of background is that it can go up quickly. With the help of an assistant, a seamless paper backgrounds can rolled and stapled along a studio wall in just a few minutes.


The use of risers, or small studio platforms, have several advantages in studio  production.

Since they elevate seated talent in relation to the camera, they provide a more straight-on camera-to-talent shooting angle.

Otherwise, cameras may be looking down on the talent, or the cameras will have to be lowered to the point of making camera operation uncomfortable.

Risers are normally made of heavy wooden frames covered by sturdy plywood. In order to keep the surface from squeaking when the talent moves, glue and screws should be used in assembly.

You generally don't have to worry about a perfect construction job, since risers are generally covered with carpeting. Attractive designs can be made by fitting together different colors, shapes, and sizes of carpeting.

Polystyrene blocks are sometimes used for both standing set pieces and risers. (Note the polystyrene set pieces used in the background elements of the sets above.)

Since polystyrene is relatively soft, when used for a riser it must be covered with a material, such as thin plywood, that will distribute weight evenly over the surface. Nails can be used to keep the plywood from sliding.

Compared to all-wood risers, polystyrene risers are cheaper, lighter, and quieter—but, of course, much less durable.

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