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  • Elena V Miller

Stage Design Exercise

Hi everyone, hope you're well and safe. For the last couple of years I've been working on a theoretical book about composition/creativity/computers (CCC). The following exercise is just a taste of the type of exercises included in order to apply some of the notions analysed.


3D Stage design for "The chairs" (French "Les Chaises") by Eugen Ionesco

As a fun and creative exercise that allows you to have a deeper understanding of the composition in a 3D scene, I propose creating a stage design for the theater play “The Chairs” “Les Chaises” by Eugen Ionescu. Eugen Ionesco was a Romanian-French writer and one of the most influential figures of the French Avantgarde theatre.


I have chosen this particular theatre play given the simplicity of the stage set-up and the flexibility that allows in terms of arrangement of the elements on the stage and lighting conditions. The floor plan of the stage presented in the book suggests a shabby interior with dim lighting, a series of doors and windows, the chairs, a dais and a blackboard around the middle.




Set design or set styling is the art of arranging elements in a composition to support a story, a script or a playwright in order to convey its message. Often this is the job of a director or art director as it requires to have a fundamental understanding of the idea behind the set and plan everything according to that specific idea.



“...you’re God as an artist, and it’s really just the way you arrange. I think a director is an arranger. [...] Take this out or ‘Bring this in’. It really is the beauty of the director, I think, in the way I understand the craft.” - Guillermo del Toro


In a similar fashion, the acclaimed scriptwriter and director, Pulitzer prize winner David Mamet explains that a film is made of cuts: ” ...every time you make a decision as a director it must be based on whether the thing in question is essential to telling the story.”



Philosophically, the play belongs to the existentialist movement having an absurd plot, so it rather fits the abstract type of narrative. For us as designers, this implies keeping things simple in the scene and opens the possibility of going further from the physically realistic environment, exploring a metaphysical one. Considering the chairs as pure geometry, unleash your imagination and play with their arrangement in all possible ways.


Trying different directions of lighting

I recommend reading the play (it’s quite a short read) to make-up your own idea about the plot and how the stage design should support the narrative. The entire action of the play takes place on one single set and only the lighting and the position of the chairs is changing, that’s why this makes such a great exercise for composition - it’s minimal and allows countless compositional variations.


The focus of the exercise is on illustrating the stage design rather than the characters but they are important for the psychological load the author encodes in each act.


To summarise the plot, the two main characters are: “the old woman” and “the old man”. Towards the end, the third character appears only for a few moments. The absurdist farce is that various guests are invited to witness an important speech that the old man is going to give. However, the old man is to delegate his speech to an orator in order to perform it in front of the audience. This long awaited speech is supposed to unveil the meaning of life itself and the mystery of the entire existence.


The guests are only in the imagination of the old man and the old woman, as they are both entrapped in their own personal loneliness and despair. Bringing chairs on the stage one by one, they invite the imaginary guests to sit down, having imaginary conversations with them.


Eventually their pretend dialogues are ending with a double suicide in quite a symmetrical fashion, each jumping from its own window (symbolising loneliness) placed symmetrically on the left and respectively to the right of the stage in respect to the main double doors in the middle. At the end of this scene, the ‘orator’ shows up but he appears to be deaf as well as mute so he writes on the blackboard a few nonsensical words from which we distinguish: “angel food” and “adieu” (good-bye in French).


The moments of tension in the story are pointed out by the lights set-up and the progression in the number of chairs from 2 to 36.



In the examples I chose to illustrate, I represent mostly the scenes at the beginning and the ones close to the end of the script, when the narrative is charged with the maximum of drama, allowing more changes in the lighting and atmosphere. In some scenes I try more versions of coloured lighting playing with the gravity set-up, camera, lights and the chairs manipulated by mass FX in 3ds max.




I propose the use of minimal texturing for the objects and focus on the quality and colours of the lighting, using environment/studio lighting, spotlights and directional lights. A dominant colour or monochromatic approach is employed to accentuate the emotional charge of the psychological drama. Immersing the viewer in only one colour creates almost an emotional trap and intends to give an overwhelming experience. One single colour with its particular symbolism may have a personalised meaning for each individual, triggering a particular taste, smell or memory maybe similar to the synesthetic experience.



Synesthesia is a condition related to the perception of colour or taste or smell, one of these sensory perceptions can trigger particular associations in the brain of one subject.

For example, hearing a particular note on the piano triggers one particular colour that comes to mind, and the process repeats every time with the exact same stimuli. The association works between two very different stimuli from two different senses that create this illusion of perception.


Different versions of the same composition with a colour dominant


An even more ‘artistic’ manifestation of this condition is called grapheme synesthesia, which makes people affected by it strongly associate letters or numbers with colours. For example, a particular letter or number can be associated with a very particular colour but it will always be exactly the same shade. That’s actually the test to identify people with this condition, the colour looks exactly the same every time it is experienced.


As Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience Anil Seth explains, we are all born with this so-called condition seen as a special capacity to tap into a more metaphorical sense of perceiving reality, but we lose the ability of these associations due to our culture and education that constantly points us in the direction of what is “right” or “wrong”.


A warm/cold contrast is emphasised here.

The monochromatic and achromatic composition (black and white) are subordinated to the lighting setup and enhances the dramatic effect of the interplay of lights and shadows. Also adding atmospheric elements such as fog and dust particles can add to the tension.




The exercise implies different lights and camera set-ups and also playing with the elements of the set in order to convey different moods. The recommended shots can represent some of the following elements:

  • closed/static composition

  • open/dynamic composition - shifting and tilting the camera, we can transform it into a dynamic shot by randomising the chairs

  • high contrast and low affinity

  • low contrast and high affinity

  • warm/cold contrast only from the use of lighting

  • different types of framing - landscape as well as portrait

  • a focal point: an establishing shot, a canted shot and an abstract shot

  • the use of physics in your software of choice for the chairs randomisation

  • atmospherics such as fog/dust/particles



A Monochromatic Approach


When it comes to colour theory an important lesson to have in mind is the use of colour contrast. Limitation in the number of the colours is the key to a clear message and a clean composition. A good example is Picasso’s Blue Period in painting (1900-1904) when he created mainly monochromatic compositions using a very limited palette, mainly in the shades of blue.


The exercise of using one single colour in a 3D scene accounts for a different experience than the one in painting but the essential idea is the same. Let’s see how we can convey that feeling technically into a 3D scene without having a flat, shadeless or cartoonish scene.




I find the monochromatic approach very helpful for preserving the unity of the composition. One of the methods is using progressive steps from simple to complex, an environment light then test render, then add another and so on. Start with one colour and one light but different camera angles and later on, if necessary add more. For this exercise it's very useful to setup the LightMix feature if you are using Corona render. I used lightmix in all my renders because it gives you the flexibility to turn on/off all the lights in your scene and to change their intensity and colour.


Using a cinematic filter (in this case magic bullet from Photolooks)

The other method is focusing only on the lighting - noticing the light/shade ratios and relations between the objects, (especially in the chairs exercise). Focusing solely on lighting implies using the clay model and no other shaders. This means focusing on the shapes rather than colour, so it's enough to keep your scene black and white or only introduce one colour.



Even for keenly trained eyes, colour is a very relative medium and it is highly sensitive to light and environment. When introducing more than one colour, that becomes another element of the composition so you need to allow special attention to the relation between the colours and with the entirety of the scene.


Using a monochromatic or neutral environment, gradually start introducing colours, even though let’s say you pick a colour dominant, first focus on the way light hits the objects, observe the shapes created by the play of light and shadow and according to this, establish the main source of lighting.



In a neutral scene (a grey clay model for example) set-up a hdri and instantly you will have colour in your scene (depending on the colours of the hdr environment, of course).


Follow a specific workflow for the exercise scenes:


  1. Model the scene and give it a neutral shader. Set-up the main light or hdri environment and only after that, establish the secondary sources of light to enrich the volumes of your objects;

  2. use an override material with a neutral colour (or only one colour even if it’s saturated) on all objects and only change the normal and specular maps but keep the diffuse colour the same on all objects;

  3. establish the monochromatic values either only on the lights either only on the model/objects in your scene:

- if we use neutral colour (grey) on the objects, we can add a dominant colour to the main source of lighting;

- if we use a saturated colour in the diffuse slot (for the model/objects), we use neutral or white lighting in order to keep that colour clean; (I wouldn’t recommend using pure white for the lighting in order to avoid albedo).




Rendering the same scene (or the same model) in different lighting conditions, different colour themes using different camera angles, can enhance your understanding of how light and colour can complement each other in a composition, communicating deep emotions.


Practising this exercise will give you the opportunity to observe the effects of a particular colour dominant and how that can affect the viewer's perception. Also it’s a useful exercise for understanding how the contrast between light/dark areas and between warm/cold colours can create a more compelling composition.



Thank you for reading this and I hope you will also try this exercise. Please let me know how it went and post your images. Find me on facebook and instagram.



Thank you!


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