Set construction is a part of the Art Department and is supervised by the Production Designer. One of the first duties of the production designer is to collaborate with the director in breaking down the film and deciding whether to build a set, use visual effects (including miniatures), or find the right location for each scene. Since elaborate sets can take quite a lot of time, this process begins well before principal photography starts.
Once the director and production designer determine what sets they need to build, a process akin to much of what an architect does goes into affect. That includes creating building plans, 3D renderings, and scale models of the proposed sets. These are then budgeted based on construction and material costs.
Once the budget for agreed-upon set design and construction costs is approved, the production supervisor hands things over to the art director who is in charge of getting the desired set(s) built. They work closely with, and supervise the Construction Department which handles the actual building of the set.
The construction department is headed by the construction manager who is responsible for ordering all materials, scheduling workers and supervising the actual building of the set. The construction crew is made up of carpenters, key scenic professionals (special effect surface treatments to mimic weathering, etc.), plasterers, painters, sculptors and prop makers.
A description of some of the classic sets seen in Hollywood features is one way to understand the complexity this process can entail.
The arena used for the chariot race in Ben Hur (1959) was a 2000-foot-long arena carved out of a quarry, a process that took over a year to complete and at the time was the largest film set to ever be built.
Cleopatra (1963) built 70 different sets, some of which were never used, including the Roman Forum (which was over 1100 feet wide and more than 1600 feet high—taller than the Empire State Building which at the time was the world’s tallest building—Cleopatra’s barge and a large Sphinx statue.
Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) used 18 sound stages at Pinewood studios for the Gotham City sets. One street set alone was a quarter mile long and took 400 crewmembers six months to build.
Waterworld (1995) had a variety of sets, the largest of which was an artificial atoll 365 feet in diameter and weighing in around 1000 tons. This set piece could be towed and rotated to give the impression of a giant floating fortress.
Titanic (1997) built a 90% scale replica (800 feet long) of the ship floating in a 17-million-gallon tank. The ship was actually a façade with only the starboard side completed. The stern of the ship was built with a giant hinge so that as the Titanic sank, it tipped up in the air before sinking beneath the waves.
The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) harkens back to the elaborate sets of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Construction on the full-scale version of Hobbiton began in 1999. The finished village occupied 14 acres with 37 Hobbit holes, an inn, and a double-arched bridge. Full scale sections of Rivendell and Minas Tirith were also constructed.
Matrix Reloaded (2003) built a mile-and-a-half long highway at the decommissioned Alameda Naval Air Station to film the chase scenes. Even with their own set, all of the cartwheeling cars, crashes and other stunts took over three months to film.
Fast & Furious 6’s (2013) runway scene at the end of the film included two airplane replicas: one a reduced scale version of the fuselage with wheels, the other a full-scale replica complete with a nose that could be set on fire and a tail a ramp for vehicles to enter or exit from. Altogether 200 crew members and over 350 visual effects artists worked on the scene.
Even with the improvements in CGI, set construction for feature films gets more elaborate each year. With Hollywood’s penchant for bigger, faster and more explosive sequels, set production will surely become more elaborate in the years to come.