We’ve been busy over here at Filmpunch working on a few projects that we hope to release in the coming months. One of those projects is filming more video episodes. But in order to do that efficiently we needed a space that was solely dedicated to that function. A place that we could set up and film storytelling lessons that are both educational and entertaining. With science and experimentation as the theme it was rather obvious that what we needed was a Filmpunch Laboratory.
Building a semi-permanent set can be a little daunting for anyone who has never participated in this type of project. But with a little planning and research, it’s not so hard. Let’s walk through the process that we went through in building our set for Filmpunch.
Concept & Mood Boarding
With any project you need to start with a plan. One thing that I do often when thinking about any new project is I create a mood board. This can be as simple as a Pinterest board or a folder in Google Drive or Dropbox where you collect concepts and styles you might want to incorporate into your set.
For the lab, I knew I wanted it to feel a bit like a mix between a high school chemistry lab and dimly cyan lit lab from CSI. So I did a few Google searches for images related to those things. This stage can sometimes turn into a blackhole. You end up constantly searching and collecting ideas and reevaluating your original concept to the point where you never get anything done. So limit this activity to only what is needed. Once you have a decent idea, it’s time to move on.
Once you have collected a decent set of images that covers your needs, it’s time to cull them down a bit. Go through and consider the overall style and look of your set. Are you building a derelict spaceship? An ancient Roman throne room? Or a homey kitchen set? It’s important that your set feels consistent and intentional. Consider colors and shapes. Obviously not all of your images are going to work exactly, but remember these are just concepts that only serve to educate your decisions. These do not have to be the final prop pieces. You may never even need to refer back to these images, but the mental activity itself is beneficial to crafting and refining your concept.
I finally settled on a few ideas that I thought fit the original idea and would serve as an appropriate backdrop for a Filmpunch episode.
Planning and Improvising
At this stage, you need to break down your concept into actionable pieces. This is my personal favorite part of the process. Most of this process is you considering your budget, time and available space, and planning out how they all work together.
I usually start with a pen and paper. I first rough out a few layout options, and try to imagine filming in each situation. How much room would I have to maneuver my camera and lighting in this layout. How would the talent live in the space. What kind of interesting compositions would I be able to stretch out of this scenario.
Once I am happy with my rough drawings, I will do a scale drawing. In this case I had chosen to use the master bedroom of my 4 bedroom house. It was the biggest room in the house, but it’s still not a huge room by any means. So I measured the room and did a 1:1 conversion of feet to inches. (So 1 foot became 1 inch.) I then used a plain old ruler, pencil, and paper to draw out the idea. With the first drawings I was able to wander through Home Depot and Lowe’s and price out building materials. As the price started adding up, I considered ways to improvise and lower costs. Because I was going after that high school chem lab look for most of the main furniture pieces, I looked around at some local schools. In the summertime, many schools get rid of old furniture and buy new stuff. Often times they sell the old stuff at very reasonable prices. I was able to snag a few items from one school that was closing, but still no where near everything I needed.
While searching through IKEA for a shelf, I noticed that a ton of this stuff straight up looked like it belonged in a chemistry lab. So I refined a few of my drawings to work with IKEA furniture parts. The great thing about IKEA is they list exact measurements of everything on their site.
One Extra step that we did that helped immensely, was using blue painters tape to rough out the drawings into the real world to get a sense of scale.
Because a lot of our main furniture pieces were built using IKEA stuff, our construction phase was relatively painless. We also had some extra help. We knew that we were going to be hosting a Filmpunch intern over the summer, so we scheduled the build for the time that he would be here. As soon as J. Morgan arrived, we immediately got to work building. J. Morgan had a ton of great ideas and without his help, I don’t know that it would have come out as good as it did.
Set Dressing and Production Design
Now that we had the bulk of the set built out, it was time to dress it up and make it actually look like a lab. This is where my mood board really paid off for me. Because our budget was small, we knew we would need to improvise and fake a lot of the stuff. A friend, who happens to be a real life high school Chemistry teacher, donated a ton of really cool old lab glass that he would have otherwise thrown out. We augmented that with a bit more lab glass bought on Amazon.
As I mentioned earlier, this is the point that you need to consider colors and shapes of the things you place into your set. I knew the background was going to be primarily lit with blue lights. So anything red might look out of place. We learned from some experimenting that the blue lights we were using had a sort of blacklight effect on anything white or neon. So we had to be considerate of that as well.
When you are dressing a set on a low budget, it’s important to focus on a few big win items. What I mean by that is, items that immediately lend credibility to your set but also don’t steal the focus from the talent. For example, if you were filming a medieval dinner scene in a food hall, a few big banners hanging in the background and a beefy wooden table might be two big win items. Immediately, they set the mood and allow you to dress the area with lesser items that may be less expensive and easier to come by but have enhanced credibility due to the table and banners. A few cheap candle holders from Goodwill would be a good example of a lesser prop that wouldn’t stand inspection without the table and banners.
For the lab, our big win items were the large glass chemistry set and a microscope. They are simple, but because they typically only exist in a chemistry or biology lab, it instantly lends credibility to the concept we are trying to deliver to the audience. Now lesser items like a computer and a lamp instantly become a science station where we analyze the data gathered from our experiments. Unfortunately, I’m certain all of my neighbors now think I’m running a meth lab in my home…
I think that’s a good place to leave off for now.
In Part 2 we will cover lighting, acoustic treatments, and camera placement. So stay tuned.