Standing Sets for (Virtually) Nothing

Sets01Do-it-yourself blueprints to build four low-tech, low-effort and low-cost video sets.

Here's how to build a standing (permanent) set that's low tech, low effort, and above all, low cost. In fact, we'll blueprint not one but four different do-it-yourself shooting areas to fit different needs. By selecting and combining features from each you can fine-tune the suggested layouts to create a truly customized work space.

• Classroom: perhaps a corner of an actual class or lab, mainly for taping lectures, demonstrations, experiments and exhibits.
• Interview: a setting for speakers, interviews and discussion panels.
• Compositing: a setup for superimposing subjects on different backgrounds, both video and computer-generated.
• Multipurpose: the name says it all.

Along the way, we'll provide plans for building a super cheap, super efficient lighting unit.


To a certain extent, you can't build a set without first making a studio to put it in. Here we'll assume that the shooting area is to be just an area carved out of an ordinary room.

In choosing the space (assuming you have any options) you need to consider square footage, wall height, lighting and electrical supply and safety.
You can squeak by with a 12-foot square working area, but 16x16 feet is a preferable minimum and above that, the more the better. If you just need a talking head with some graphics keyed behind it, then an area 8x12 feet will serve.

Many office or classroom ceilings are 10 feet high or more, and you'll need all that height if you suspend curtains or seamless paper backdrops. If not, you can get away with walls just eight feet tall.

You can use the do-it-yourself lights in the accompanying sidebar. They are purposely low-wattage (160 watts each), so getting enough power shouldn't be a problem. Using these lights is a real no-brainer. Simply position them on the front outer edges of the set and angle them inward toward the action. For a slightly more sophisticated lighting design, turn on both fixtures of one unit to create a four-tube key light and just one fixture of the other unit to make a half-strength fill light.
With the basics disposed of, we can start looking at different set designs.

A Classroom Set
Sets01A set can be tucked into the corner of a classroom or laboratory. This arrangement works well for taping lectures, experiments and other demonstrations.

The subject works behind a lectern or a lab-height counter. A 4x8 foot bulletin board occupies one adjacent wall, and it has two uses. With push pins and exhibits, it can be employed as a conventional display board. But this board is also painted a key color (blue or green, as explained in the accompanying sidebar), so that other video or computer-generated material can be composited onto it. Because this board doesn't fill the whole frame, composited materials have to be composed to fit within it.

On the other wall is a marker board, and here you may have to live with a compromise. Store-bought boards have white, glossy surfaces that don't record well on video. You could coat a Masonite panel with a matte-finish light gray paint, but it's tough to get a surface hard enough to erase properly. If you have the budget, you can obtain marker boards in hues other than pure white, but they tend to be pricey.

Another solution is to replace the marker board with one or more newsprint pads hung on the wall. The paper surface is not as bright as a true white and its texture discourages reflections.

This setup works more smoothly with two, switched camcorders, but you can use it quite well with just one.

An Interview Set
The next set is also built into a corner. The purpose here is to provide a background for lectures, interviews and discussions by small panels.
The background is a light gray curtain, arced across the corner to create a featureless backing. If you can afford curtain track you can push the curtain aside and replace it with other backings. If not, simply spot ceiling hangers in an arc (planter hooks work well) and use shower curtain rings. Admittedly, proper curtains press our budget limits because they are specialized fabrications that should be bought from a theatrical supply company.

Two spotlights wash the backing to create extra visual richness. By using colored gels on these lights, you can obtain a variety of different visual effects. Gels (which are really plastic, not gelatin) can be obtained from theatrical supply houses. Some words of caution about these lights, however. At perhaps 300 watts each, they may push the capacity of your wall circuits and they must be either ceiling-mounted or placed on light stands.

If you have a couple hundred dollars to spend, you can get these lights from large photo stores and from our mail order suppliers. For much less money, you can use halogen work lights instead. Note that these fixtures are not supplied with gel holders, so it's tougher to color the light.

A Compositing Set
How about putting live-action video behind your subject? Or how about creating an alien-looking computer-generated landscape for a backdrop?

CompSetThat's the idea behind a compositing set which is basically an empty space with a plain rear wall painted the color selected for keying background visuals together with foreground subjects. (See the sidebar for a discussion of key color alternatives).

Compositing sets are great for any application in which you need to display graphic material--slides, video, output from a PC - behind a presenter.

The key to success in designing this set is twofold: first, get the key color wall as big as possible. It needs to be at least 8x12 feet. You want to fill the entire screen background with the key color. Smaller walls will confine you to close shots, to avoid shooting off the backing.

Secondly, provide as much depth as possible, so that your performer can stand far enough from the backing to avoid shadowing it.
Instead of color spots, a compositing background is lit with a second set of soft lights, placed nearer to illuminate the painted wall as evenly as possible, without hitting the foreground subject as well.

At first this may seem like a somewhat specialized set, but the more you think about combining different foregrounds and backgrounds, the more uses for it you'll see.

A Multi-purpose Set
Even so, a single-purpose set for demos or interviews or compositing may be just too limiting for your needs. What you want, then, is a multi-purpose set.MultiSet

In this setup you simply change your background to suit your needs by pulling down a length of seamless colored paper from the roll hung on a pipe at the rear of the shooting area. For a speech or interview, bring in a light gray seamless and flood it with color as you would a curtain. For compositing, unroll the key-colored paper instead. Or, for an even thriftier solution, simply add a single roll of gray seamless to the compositing studio described above.

Why not use the key color for everything? Because the intense blue or green shade looks hard and unattractive by itself. Remember that in a compositing application, you don't see that color at all.

The Whole Shmeer

So far, we've confined our discussion to sets that are cheap to build and no more than 16-feet square, working on the premise that you can't obtain a room for a full-time, dedicated studio.

But what if you could? In that case, simply nest your sets one inside the other in an L-shaped area perhaps 20-feet square. The two back walls would contain the classroom backing, masked by the gray curtain on its arced track. In front of it would hang the key-colored roll of seamless paper.

In this permanent setup you would want two types of lights: flood lights to color-wash the background and soft lights to use as alternate illumination on the key color.
Ah, but that's getting into big budgets and professional installation. Stick with our four basic designs and you can have a set that anyone can put up in a few hours for just a few dollars. The professional results will surprise you!

Build Your Own Studio Light
StudioLightStudio lights are expensive, dangerously hot and power-hungry. But you can avoid these problems by building a pair of the fluorescent soft lights as shown.

Basically, the light is a cheap pair of shop fixtures affixed to plywood backing and elevated 2x4" legs and feet. A milk plastic diffuser distributes the light and a pair of switches allow you to work at either half or full power. The lamps and housing never get too hot to touch and with four 40-watt bulbs, the total wattage is only 160 watts.