With our Jewelboxing Case Studies, we like to find a subject that either has an impressive body of work or are putting together something we find really interesting. We’ve been incredibly fortunate thus far to have found both, operating together, with all of our Case Study subjects. And with Alex Kent and the Setbuild Project, we continue that tradition in our sixteenth conversation about impressive and interesting things. Let’s get going.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I’m Alex Kent. I’m 29 and the lead tutor for the 1st Year of the undergraduate course BA(hons) Contemporary Photographic Practice at the University for the Creative Arts in the southeast of England. Outside of this, I work with professional and fine-art photographers on-set and in post-production.
What is the Setbuild Project?
The Setbuild Project is a studio photography project that I run annually. It was first set up in 2002 by my predecessor, Jonathan Simms, and it has run every year since then (I took over three years ago). The premise of the project is this: Working in groups, students are tasked with choosing a scene from a publicly released feature film, then recreate that scene as a still photographic image in the studio. Practically, this means recreating the set, lighting, costumes, props, and every other element of the original. Conceptually, this requires the students to decipher which elements of the scene create the narrative and emotional tension. Their ability to define and reproduce these is key to making the photographic image hold the drama of the original.
Over the years, the project has evolved and improved, and each year the scale and ambition of the students’ builds take on bigger challenges. The Setbuild Project has elevated from good to amazing by the incredible support that we have. Each year we work with professional set designers and constructors, DRS Construction, who guide the students through the practical elements of designing and building the sets. We also have very generous support from Arri Lighting GB and CirroLite, who loan us industry leading lighting equipment, and Hasselblad, whose phenomenal H-series digital cameras we use.
Can you describe the process for us, what’s involved with each project?
The project begins each year in late February. Students form production teams of four or five members and start to choose a film. We’re always looking for scenes that will give the right balance of challenges and excitement, yet will still be possible for the students to produce.
Once the teams have settled on a scene, they have approximately ten weeks of pre-production time, in which they must plan every element of the shot. This involves making mockups of the set and lighting, finding all props and costumes, casting actors, testing special effects. Then in May, we build and shoot everything. Each team gets one week in a studio to build, light, shoot, and strike (break and tidy) the set.
Last year we had eleven teams total; four teams working at once, spread across three studios for three weeks! The production weeks are pretty intense; our studios aren’t enormous and having twenty people working eight ’til eight for their five production days can get pretty frantic.
The visual translation of the scenes, from moving a cinema-aspect image into a still camera-aspect, is a big challenge for the students. The final images should not simply be a facsimile of a freeze frame from the film, but should be the scene captured and portrayed in a single photographic image. When the project was first run, it was shot on 5″x4″ large format standard cameras, which as anyone who has used one knows, are pretty unforgiving. Film that size retains a huge amount of detail and enforces a level of rigour in the quality of the production. At the University, we have recently established a productive relationship with the Hasselblad camera company, with their support the last two years the students have been able to use the H-series medium format digital cameras for this project. We’re now able to take advantage of the instant-feedback and tethered shooting, remote control capabilities of digital cameras, without loosing any of the rigour that the large-format cameras enforced.
Are the students who enroll in the program interested in becoming filmmakers and photographers, or do they lean more toward the technical, wanting to become set designers or cinematographers?
It’s a spread. This is actually one of the biggest challenges that I and the other tutors face in planning and running the course. We have around 60 students in the each year and whilst the majority come from art foundation courses in the UK, around a quarter of the group are from elsewhere in Europe or the world. The switch to digital in photography has fragmented the process of learning how photography works. Some students will have worked almost entirely with traditional film processing and printing, whereas others may have never picked up a film camera, but will be fluent in Photoshop and digital manipulation. When recruiting, we are interested more in ideas and creative thinking than technical dexterity.
As graduates our students go on to many different professions, mostly in the worlds of professional photography and fine-art, but also in filmmaking and publishing.
Since each group is filled with several students, how is the scene/film they’ll be working on chosen? Seems like it would be difficult to reach a consensus.
This can be a problem! Hopefully students form teams around similar thematic and stylistic tastes, but this doesn’t always happen. The choice comes down to finding a balance between a shot which will work well as a ‘still’ and is challenging enough for everyone to get their teeth into. It’s very important to get the balance of elements right. Scenes that are prop or costume heavy are very hard to do, as finding all the exact props can take a phenomenal amount of work (more than anyone expects). Shots which rely too much on the face of a famous actor in the center of the frame are rather hard as well (we obviously don’t have the budget to call Keanu’s agent).
The students are primarily interested in photography rather than prop gathering or set decoration, so we tend to bias towards images where the atmosphere is created by the lighting and cinematography (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner), rather than lavish set design (Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette).
Once the teams have come up with a short list of two or three scenes, we test build each of them in the studio to get a better idea of the scale and complexity of the build (at this point we also establish detailed floor plans and elevations, camera position, lens choice, approximate light positions).
The students are not given a budget for the sets, but we provide the technical resources they will need; camera, lighting, grip equipment, and we provide basic building materials; wooden ‘flats’, timber, tools (as much as possible these are reused, set to set). Anything and everything that is specific for the scene the students must source themselves. We encourage students to find creative solutions to problems rather than spending money. This is the focus of the ten week pre-production period, locating and negotiating the loan of props and costumes. Anything that cannot be found will end up being made by the students. Planning and sticking to a budget is part of the project, and most of the sets complete for under $200.
After a group has chosen a scene to recreate, do they ever reach a point where they think they’ve taken on a selection that’s perhaps a bit too complicated (or even too simple)? Or do you help them along the way, making sure it’s a good mix of approachable and challenging?
We have some very enthusiastic students. From the ’09 project, there were points in both the Pan’s Labyrinth and Sweeney Todd sets where I began to doubt that it was possible to make it all happen in time.
Pan’s Labyrinth was uncharted territory. We’d never attempted a naturalistic scene before. Instead of walls to build and props to find, there are roots and mud. It was also very hard to establish any scale or geometry for the set, as the original is a almost a static frame. The pre-production weeks went by and it was very hard to come up with even a plan of the space which everyone agreed with. Even once the set was underway in the studio, it was extremely hard to visualise how the elements came together, it wasn’t until the students started to light it that it began to take shape and come to life.
Sweeney Todd was also an incredible project. The room itself is quite large and tall, with a huge window looking out to a view over Dickensian London. The distance to the camera is quite far, so right at the planning stage there were doubts whether it could be built in our studios. We’ve never attempted painting backdrops before and suddenly we were taking on a shot where the backpainting is in the centre of the frame. To compound both of those, the scene itself is very bright, so there’s nowhere to hide! Every period prop had to be found, the detail of all the wooden mouldings reproduced, and the elaborate dress that Lucy is wearing had to be found. This project was incredibly ambitious in every aspect. The team really rose to the challenge. Their dedication and attention to detail was amazing and it all paid off in a spectacular final image.
We’ve been running this project for a few years now and we’ve completed a total of ninety sets. Each year the students want to up the ante, challenge the limits and do something that’s never done before. Last year, a new undergraduate course entitled Creative Arts for Theatre & Film began at the same campus as the photography school. Given the remit of that course, it seemed a natural fit that we’d work together on the Setbuild Project. The skills and focus of the two courses really complimented each other and opened a lot of new possibilities. One of these was bringing the skills for large scale painted backdrops. The Batmanset was a product of this, a relatively simple set in front of a stretched canvas backplate. As it turned out, I rather underestimated the scale of the backplate. Our original estimate of 3m x 3.5m became 4m by 4.5m. Then we eventually built a 4.5m x 5m wooden frame, stretched a canvas over it, and found it was the absolute minimum size we could possibly get away with.
Do the students themselves appear as the actors in the scenes? Or do they have to also hunt around for someone who looks similar to the original performer from the film they’re recreating? And along with that, who handles all of the wardrobe and prop design? It’s all remarkably accurate.
The teams’ members are not allowed to be in their own shots, as there is quite enough for them to do without trying do to the acting as well! The teams have to do their own casting. This is a really big challenge when choosing a shot in the first place. Many scenes are made iconic or emotionally powerful by the performances they contain.
Many of the actors in our shots are ‘street cast’; our students simply approach people they find and try to talk them into it. Other times, actors are found through online and offline stage and model communities. Casting can be incredibly tough and there are plenty of times when the planned models drop out at the last minute. As we can’t pay we’re always at the mercy of people’s availability from work and so on. A couple of times we have approached a few of the original actors, but sadly haven’t yet managed to convince any to come along (we made a concerted effort to get Simon Pegg for the Hot Fuzz shot last year, but unfortunately it didn’t suit his schedule, as I understand he was shooting the forthcoming Paul at the time). This remains a stretch goal of the project for me.
A few times students have actors cast from the outset and choose a scene around their actor. One of the early shots from The Crow was a case in point, the students knew someone who did an excellent Brandon Lee impersonation, they chose a shot which played to that, and the result is fantastic.
Wardrobe and props, we find or make! Finding accurate props takes a lot of work. eBay can be immensely useful, but as we’re trying not to spend money, it can be easier to negotiate a loan or trade if the item can be found in real life. If items can’t be found, or are unreasonably expensive, the students will build it. We have support each year from professional set and prop makers who work with the students showing them how to carve polystyrene, cast paster, vacuum form plastic, and create paint and surface effects. It’s all made slightly easier that anything we make only has to look good from one point of view!
Why did you require the teams to keep production diaries and offer live studio cameras of the sets as they’re being constructed?
Since the inception of the project we’ve required students to keep a ‘log’ of their progress, so tutors are able to get insight into the students understanding of their own progress.
Five years ago, we decided to make the project exist online as well as in the studio. We setup the website and it seemed like a natural progression to run online production blogs for each team. They serve several purposes, but primarily they become a communication tool between the teams’ internal workings and the outside world. As much of the project naturally takes place outside of the photography school, the blogs become an informal way that all the tutors and staff that are involved can contribute to each team’s development. Also, many students from the 2nd and 3rd years of the BA (and even graduates) are very excited about the project and want to be involved; the blog becomes an public communication channel with the teams.
We run the webcams in the studio because they make exciting viewing! The builds can look amazing and the students are all to eager to tell everyone they know “look what we’re doing!”
Do you get a sense, once the projects are all finished, at how the students feel about the process? Surprised at how much work goes into it or all the more energized to enter the industry?
I think (and hope) for most students that there’s a sense of elation. Eleven weeks might seem like a long time, but once it gets going, the project passes really fast, and the final production week is intense and exhausting for everyone. We make a big show out of the end of project reviews, cutting together clips of the original films, stop-frame animation from the studio webcams so everyone gets to see the story that the other teams have been working through. This is a celebration of the work that the students have put into the project, culminating in the unveiling of large scale photographic prints of the shots.
One of my favourite aspects of this project is that it shows students that they can make incredible images which look as good or better than the Hollywood original. And they’ve done it on no budget, with a crew of five. I think it’s a really empowering project.
Any trick of the trade that’s always surprising to the students? Something that makes everyone stop and say “I didn’t know that’s how that was done?”
Everyone is always amazed at the versatility of polystyrene. Last year we were donated a lorry load of pre-used polystyrene rocks, which were entirely convincing to until you realised you could lift them with one hand.
Any particular favorites from over the years? Projects that blew you away?
Both the shots we’ve done from Sin City have been outstanding and both for very different reasons.
The Sin City shot from 2008 season was a technical tour de force. They chose to make a shot which takes place in a cavernous warehouse space, yet create it in a single story photo studio. The entire top half of the frame, the roof of the warehouse, was made as a ‘foreground miniature’; a 2m wide cardboard model. To make the illusion work in the final shot, the aperture of the camera has to be set so that there is sufficient depth of field to get the roof in focus. Once this aperture is set, it then defines the level of lighting required in every other part of the frame. It was an incredible technical challenge which was realized amazingly well.
The 2006 Sin City also had some excellent creative problem solving. This project was shot on 5″x4″ large format sheet film cameras and students had to present the negative as it came out of the camera alongside the final retouched image (now they are required to submit the camera RAW file direct from the camera along with the retouched final). There is always a challenge of how perfect you can colour and tonality of the shot in the studio before you take it into Photoshop. For this particular shot, as is the style of Sin City, the contrast is extremely high. Even with all the lighting in the correct places it is very hard to create the correct contrast (notably the contrast is much lower on Bruce Willis’s face than the rest of the frame). In the end the students hit on a solution, they reversed the photographers adage of “painting with light” and simply painted with paint. Where they needed shadow on the cell bars, they painted the bars black, where they needed light, they painted white! It was a gloriously simple solution to a complex problem, and since the scene only needs to look perfect with one set of lights from one camera position, it worked flawlessly.
The ’07 In The Mood For Love is also a shot which I like very much; it’s one where the team struggled against huge problems during their production and whilst the final shot doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, it manages to capture a lot of the emotion of the original scene. The performances of the actors and the subtly of lighting make the shot excellent, when it could have very well not been completed at all.
After they’re done with this course, what are the students on to next and do they build upon what they’ve learned in Setbuild?
The Setbuild Project is the last tightly defined project we set the students, once they move into the second year of the course they’re much more free to choose the style and form of photographic work they want to pursue. Whilst not everyone wants to return to the studio to build sets straight away, the idea of constructing the photographic frame and paying attention to every element of final image follows through into whatever work they make.
In the third year of the course, the students produce their final project a number of people return to creating worlds in the studio.
We got to talking because you’d mentioned using Jewelboxing for this year’s Setbuild. What were you using the cases for?
The Setbuild Project is made possible by the generous support of a number of companies and as a small token of our appreciation to all of the individuals at each of these companies who work over and above to make the project happen, we produce a project review film and mail it out to all of the. To make this extra special, we distribute it in the excellent Jewelboxing King cases.
Any big plans for next year’s series of projects?
I’m hoping we’ll get to collaborate with the Film and Theatre course again next year. Right now it’s in discussion, as the total number of students involved in the project would be over a hundred.
Whilst I am always eager to push the project, there is a danger that it becomes so big, so all engulfing, that it prevents the students from working on their other projects. The student have two other projects running alongside the Setbuild.
In terms of films and scenes, it’s always hard to get away from the last 15 years of Hollywood, largely due to the demographic of the students, but that’s always something we try to push. Obviously the project suits certain type of films and certain types of scenes, but there appears to me theres a rich seem of science fiction movies which we’ve yet to take on. It’s become a bit of a running joke, each year I suggest people should do; 2001, Star Wars, Alien, Planet of the Apes, or Close Encounters, but so far no one’s taken me up on it.