Now that you've tackled content, crew and equipment needs, it's time to take a look at some ways to make your school video program more visually-exciting using sets.

If you're in the market for a new set, the first thing to do is contact local television affiliates to see if they have any old sets or set pieces that can be donated. If none are available, some stations maintain a list of schools needing old set pieces to contact when items become available. However, it's important to note that such scenery doesn't become available very frequently, so you may be best off pursuing other options.

If you plan to design and build your own set, the first step is to find out what your budget is, if anything. This will dictate how extensive your set can be. That said, unless you have a substantial budget ($30,000 or up), a professional set designer would probably not be able to design or build a custom set for your station. However, there are still many solutions that can cost little or nothing.

Designing a set yourself and constructing it using supplies from a local building supply store such as Lowe's or Home Depot is often a good option if you have a small budget. At its core, a set doesn't need to be anything more than some background walls and a desk. You can easily built flats that stand in front of walls or by themselves and can be broken down for storage if needed. Another option to consider is to partner with your school's theater department or club or industrial arts class to see if they could provide construction support.

These flats can be painted using standard paint. Blues often work best since that color is complementary to skin tones. You could also try a sponge paint application using several tones of the same color to add some texture and depth. Another option for the flats is to find an artist at school to hand-paint the school's logo, main building or mascot directly on the surface. Another easy way to get logos and mascots on walls is to have a 8.5" by 11" transparency made with the image you want. Then get an overhead projector and beam the image onto the wall. Trace it lightly with pencil and then fill it in with colored paints.

If you have some money to spend, you could have a printed wall graphic done at a local poster or sign shop (some campus print shops have wide format printers as well). This image could be a photo of a well-known building on campus, an aerial view of campus, the quad or a digital collage of logos, mascots and photographs.

Ask the sign shop if they can print onto any self-adhesive material; if not you'll want something durable (paper is OK but could get ripped) that can be glued, nailed or tacked to the walls. It's best to avoid using anything with a very glossy surface as this reflects light and creates unsightly glares.
You can further accent your flats with standard chair rails and paneling from home supply stores. Simply attach them to your set walls and stain or paint them to the color you want.

Also keep in mind how far your talent sits from the walls. Many productions sit anchors only a few feet away from the wall. This makes your talent look jammed and cramped. Moving your talent just a few more feet from the walls can make a huge difference.

One mistake programs make is focusing too much on building an anchor desk. In reality, if you're on a strict budget, you should invest in your background walls first and then, if funds and time allow, find an anchor desk solution. Desks tend to be very expensive and don't show up on camera that much.

Generally, most productions can get away with using a standard table as an anchor desk. If you want to hide your anchor's feet and legs, try attaching foam board or a piece of large rolled paper around the front and sides. Or, try having your anchors stand and eliminate the need for an anchor desk completely. If you do have a small budget for an anchor desk, try looking at a local office supply or furniture store for something that can be used as is or modified to look like an anchor desk.

If you don't have the budget for flats but your studio has curtains or a cyc, consider building or buying some small, freestanding elements that can stand in front of the curtains or walls. These freestanding elements could be as simple as a lectern, high table with stools.

To spruce up an empty space, use spare monitor with a VGA to NTSC converter connected to a computer to display graphics behind your talent.
Another cheap yet effective background option is to shoot your show in your control room. This gives your shows a cutting-edge look and gives you a chance to show off all that high-tech gear. Plus, productions can forgo needing a desk of any kind in this kind of setup — just take your anchor or anchors, sit them in front of your monitor bank with a camera and some portable lighting and you've got a great looking background.
Finally, if you haven't already, read up on lighting design and make sure your set is lit properly. The correct key, fill and backlighting can make a huge difference in how your set looks on the air.

Michael P. Hill is a Web specialist and graphics designer for FX Group, a leading set design, fabrication and installation firm located in Orlando, Fla. He has launched three video production programs at the middle school, high school and college level and is a regular contributor to School Video News. E-mail questions and comments to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..