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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Set(s) in Stone

Recently, I've been reading letters in the soap magazines from fans, as well as posts on various message boards, about the constant repetition of certain sets on many of the shows. Many viewers wonder why so many scenes lately take place in the hospital, or in a restaurant. Why don't we see people in other sets?

In defense of the writers on all shows, I hope to de-mystify that a little.

One of the great joys (and great frustrations) of laying out weeks worth of episodes is the constant looming specter of "repeat sets". In many ways, it's like a big puzzle the writing team has to fit together, week after week. When it works, it can make you feel utterly triumphant... and when it doesn't, it can make you feel like you're banging your head against a wall. But this is definitely one of those aspects of a writing job that I am quick to rise to the writers' defense. Because most times, it's out of our hands.

Here's how this works - after taping (and heading long into the night), the crew strikes all the sets from the previous episode not needed, and puts up the sets for tomorrow's taping. Because of the short amount of time they have to accomplish this, most writing teams are required to "hold" a specific number of sets from the previous episode.

In other words, let's say a writer writes his/her breakdown, and there are five sets used in that episode: a hospital, a restaurant, a hotel room, a living room and a kitchen.

The writer writing the following episode is REQUIRED to "repeat" a certain number of sets from the preceding episode. I've worked on shows where you're required to repeat two sets, others (where the budget is tighter) where it's three or four required repeat sets. The more sets you repeat from the previous episode, the happier those financial folks are - it's less work (and less money) they're spending on those over-night crews. (And we like when the money people are happy! Believe me!)

So the next writer has to repeat a certain number of sets. And the beautiful thing about sets like hospitals and restaurants? They're public places - where anybody and everybody can run into each other and share a scene, no matter what storyline they're involved in. So naturally, the writer will try and repeat those sets.

In a perfect world, story would dictate set use, and writers would be able to write any set, on any day, to fit what's happening in the plot. Unfortunately, that's not the case these days (and hasn't been, for quite some time). More often than not, we (as writers) are constantly asked to tweak the stories from day to day to make sure scenes take place in "repeat sets". Ironically, a show like Guiding Light, with its controversial production model, is free from many of these restrictions, with the incredible amount of location-sets and little studio space. (Now you see why there's less money needed for their new production model.)

As a viewer, I understand the head-scratching people have, when sets like bars, restaurants, hospitals and police stations are used day after day after day. I can see that side of it, sure. But in defense of the writers on all of the shows, I can tell you - it's something we all work to keep as natural as possible. Unfortunately, there are times we have no other choice but to play scenes that ideally would take place privately in a set like a hospital corridor, or the docks, or a "main street" set.

All of the teams I've worked on strive to find a middle ground between the storylines, and the financial restrictions these shows are under. I know it can be visually dull to see the same set day after day after day. But during this economic crunch time, I encourage viewers to have patience in this regard. Budgets are being slashed, and repeating the same sets is a relatively easy, painless way to save money without it taking too much of a toll on the show as a whole.

Over the next year, I'm sure we'll see much harsher cuts that will affect these shows we love so much in a more immediate way. If the worst that happens is we see the same public set every day for a couple weeks, then I, as a viewer, will be extremely happy.

Hang in there... the writers are doing all they can. I assure you.


DrewH said...

That makes a lot of sense. While I'd love to see characters in their homes all the time, it's unrealistic for that to happen. So we're going to have to accept the fact that most of the characters on DAYS are going to be in scenes at the pub or the hospital. I can take that.

What I hate is when everyone in town moves into a hotel room. I'd rather the characters never be shown at home, rather than moving them from their house into a suite that looks the same as everyone else's in town.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting! I knew that budget limitations translated into set limitations, but it didn't occur to me that taking a set down presents a problem even if it's being replaced with another commonly used set.

I agree with DrewH in my preference for public spaces over hotel rooms. As a GL fan I will take a scene in Cedars Hospital or Company over the Beacon any day. The best part of GL's new format is that most of the characters moved out of the hotel.

Ironically, GL lost two characters in the last year who were important enough to live at home: Harley and Cassie. In both cases, other characters moved into these houses so the sets could be maintained.

Angie said...

That makes sense. I can't imagine how much time it takes to break down and put up some of those sets, especially continuity wise.

Personally, I like the way OLTL uses their sets. There are still a lot of homes, but by putting multiple people in the same mansion the sets need to be changed less often.

Emily said...

hence, scenes where the Salem PD were examining evidence in the Brady Pub? A personal favorite of mine. . .

Richard said...

Interesting post, Tom. I'm curious--how does ATWT's move to permanent sets affect the need to repeat sets? Does it give the writers more freedom to move among sets?

Sara Bibel said...

The best is when you get your sets changed after you write the outline and have to hastily rewrite your intimate scenes for a public venue.

Scott N said...

B&B's Supervising Producer recently told Soap Opera Weekly that they have a new variation on this. Since they're a half hour show, they can tape 2 shows a day in a 4 day work week. So now they've tried to divide the week into 2 halves, with each 2 day/4 episode section using the same sets. Even with overlap of stories (and thus sets) from day to day, that must be a challenge for their writers.

Anonymous said...

Chris Engen is too short to be a leading man