Essential guide to movie set construction for film productions

Written By Esther Cooke
April 18, 2024

Movie set construction is essential for creating immersive environments that support the story and characters in film. When done right, a film set will not only provide stunning visuals but will also elevate the emotional impact of the film.

Even with the frequent use of CGI these days, movie sets are still a vital piece of the production puzzle. Fantasy worlds in particular are difficult to create without a lot of money put into crafting realistic sets. For example, the 'Home Tree' set built for James Cameron's Avatar (2009) cost $1.2 million alone to create.

In this film set construction guide, we break down each step of the movie set building process and explain what a successful movie set can achieve.


  • An introduction to movie set construction
  • Who is involved in constructing a movie set?
  • The steps to constructing a movie set:
    • Script analysis
    • Location scouting
    • Set design
    • Construction
    • Dressing and decoration
    • Final touches
    • Dismantling
  • What does a successful movie set need to achieve?
  • Movie set FAQs

An introduction to movie set construction

Movie set construction is the process of creating the physical setting where the film is shot. Sometimes film sets are built from scratch within a studio, and other times they transform and adapt existing locations like farms and desert landscapes

One of the most expensive movie sets ever made was for another of James Cameron’s films - Titanic (1997). This was thanks to the scale of sets required to mirror the actual ship. The production bought a 40-acre facility to house their near-life-size Titanic replica, which became home to the world’s largest water tank made for cinematic purposes.

Who is involved in constructing a movie set?

Still from 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' (credit: 20th Century Studios)

With so many moving parts, set building has to be a collaborative effort. Here are the key people and departments typically involved:

Production designer

The production designer is in charge of guiding the overall look and feel of the film, including the set design. They work closely with the director to conceptualise each set’s style and design based on the script’s requirements. 

Art department

The art department is headed by the production designer and includes the following team members:

  • The storyboard artist works closely with the director and cinematographers to create drawings representing individual shots showing camera angles, movements and characters. 
  • The set designer (or the draughtsman) draws the sets' blueprints, models or 3D rendering. They often collaborate with the construction department in design. A model maker may be brought in to create the small-scale model of the set.
  • The art director and assistant art director handle the logistical execution and admin required to achieve the production designer’s goals. They must understand how construction, props and VFX come together to create a scene. 
  • The set coordinator is responsible for ensuring the department runs smoothly by managing schedules and budgets. 

Construction department

This team of skilled craftsmen, including carpenters, painters, and plasterers, is responsible for physically building and assembling the sets according to the models and concepts provided by the art department.

Still from 'The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring' (credit: New Line Cinema)

Sets department

Once construction has finished, the sets department comes in and styles the set so it’s ready to shoot. The set decorator chooses the pieces (everything from furniture to picture frames) and must have a good understanding of the characters and the story.

The set dresser places the furniture and decorations on the set and sometimes remains on set during shooting to make adjustments in between takes. 

Prop department

Props are any items operated or held by actors within a scene such as weapons and tools. The props department is responsible for sourcing, creating, and maintaining the props.

The prop master is the head of the department and often directs a team of prop makers and prop runners. 

Sound department

The sound department may be involved in installing soundproofing materials or equipment to ensure clear audio recording on set.

They collaborate with the production team to minimise unwanted noise and achieve optimal sound quality.

Director and producers

The director and producers provide creative direction and guidance throughout the set construction process, working closely with the production designer and other key departments to ensure that the sets align with the film’s overall vision.

The steps to constructing a movie set:

Image from 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' (credit: Warner Bros. Studios)

1. Script analysis

The first step is to carefully analyse the script to understand the locations required for filming. This process also helps determine whether sets should be built from scratch in a studio or whether it's beneficial to film on location where the team can adapt existing building interiors or exteriors (see our guide to transforming locations for historical films).  

2. Location scouting

If the team decides to film scenes on location, the location manager will hire a location scout to search for suitable settings either locally or overseas.

This process involves conducting location recces to assess factors such as location size, accessibility and safety. 

3. Set design

Once the locations are picked, the art department creates detailed blueprints and drawings for each set based on the script's requirements. These include specific details like the dimensions and materials required to bring the images to life.

4. Construction

With the set designs finalised, the construction team can begin building the sets. This involves constructing walls, floors, ceilings, and other architectural elements to recreate the desired environment.

There may also be a lighting team to install lighting fixtures, wiring, and other equipment needed to illuminate the sets properly.

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5. Dressing and decoration

After the basic structure of the sets is complete, the set decorators and dressers get to work to add the final touches which will enhance the realism of each set. This includes choosing and arranging furniture, adding decorative elements, and ensuring that all props are in place and ready for filming.

6. Final touches

Before filming begins, the production designer and director conduct a final inspection of the sets to make sure everything is in place so the teams can make any last-minute adjustments or additions to ensure that the sets are perfect for filming.

During filming, the set construction team may be on standby to make any necessary repairs or adjustments to the sets as needed.

7. Dismantling

In most cases, the sets are dismantled after filming is complete and any reusable materials are salvaged or stored for future use. Depending on the production's needs, sets may be dismantled immediately after filming or kept intact for reshoots or additional scenes.

What does a successful movie set need to achieve?

Still from 'Titanic' (credit: Paramount Pictures)

A movie set needs to serve several key roles to support a film production:

Budget and time constraints

Set construction must be completed within the allocated budget and schedule constraints of the production. Efficient planning, resource management, and communication are essential to ensure that the set meets artistic standards while staying within budget.

Visual realism

The set must create a visually convincing environment that transports the audience into the world of the film. It should reflect the time period, location, and atmosphere as described in the script, enhancing the overall believability of the story.


The set should reflect the personalities and lifestyles of the characters inhabiting that world. Details such as furniture, decor, and personal items help to develop the characters and deepen their relationships within the story.

The set designers can also use lighting, colour, texture, and spatial arrangement to communicate emotions and backstory to the audience.

Practicality for filming

The set must be designed and constructed to accommodate the technical requirements of filming, including camera angles, lighting setups, and movement of actors and crew. Then there are also practical considerations to take into account such as accessibility, safety, and acoustics to ensure a smooth production.

Flexibility and adaptability

Sets may need to serve multiple purposes or be modified for different scenes throughout the film. They should be versatile enough to accommodate changes in blocking, camera setups, and creative decisions without compromising continuity.

Movie set FAQs

Still from 'Cleopatra' (credit: 20th Century Studios)

What are movie sets made out of?

Movie sets are temporary structures built specifically for filming purposes and are not intended for long-term use. So while they may represent real buildings, they are typically built as minimally as possible to get the desired effect.

So when it comes to building materials, what appears on-screen as stone, marble, wood and brick are materials like painted plywood, polystyrene and plaster. These are cheap and quick to construct while giving the illusion of stronger materials.

How long does it take to construct a movie set?

The time required to construct a movie set can vary significantly depending on the size and complexity of the sets, the availability of resources, and the production schedule. Sets may take anywhere from several days to several weeks or even months to complete.

How much does it cost to construct a movie set?

On average, constructing a film set can range from a few thousand pounds for small, simpler sets to several million pounds for large-scale, elaborate sets or entire built environments like the near full-size replica ship in Titanic. For a rough estimate, a mid-sized film set might cost anywhere from £50,000 to £500,000.

Who builds the sets on movies?

The construction team, led by the head carpenter, builds whatever is necessary for sets in the studio and on location. They work to the specifications of the art department. 

What happens to movie sets after filming?

It may surprise you, but the majority of movie sets are demolished once filming wraps. Sometimes they can be repurposed or recycled, and if a set is from a particularly popular film, the film studio may decide to keep it as an attraction. Occasionally, sets are bought by people or simply abandoned.

Need a place to store your shoot locations?

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SuperScout is a private, cloud-based locations library to help location managers, scouts and film schools store, search and share locations for film, tv and video productions.
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