There are many lessons to be learned during film production when it comes to set dressing. Here are some of them, especially from the latest production Sprite Fright. This is very much focusing on the workflow instead of the artistic design.
I've been a bit overwhelmed with the task of set dressing in the past. With this article I want to make it easier to understand what you need to do, start with and deliver.
Before you get in, there has already been plenty of work to plan out the sets, camera and all major characters and props. Usually this comes in the form of a rough layout. With this you will have a blocking of the set, a camera, the general animation that is planned and a sense of the cinematography. Use the Layout as a starting point!
But Layouts are cheating a lot and might be unreliable. Assets and cameras are teleporting around wildly. A part of the set might be removed for one shot since it would block the camera. The floor could be raised in one shot to make a character fit better in the frame. Know what is required for each shot when you receive the layout. The easiest way to get flexibility into a set is by putting things into collections. Then these parts can be hidden or replaced with alternate versions. Just be careful not to have a hundred variations in one set. At some point it should just become it's own set.
Another practical example from Sprite Fright is when Ellie is trying to escape the forest and spots the exit. This set was changed a lot early on so the floorplan didn't work anymore. The position of the camera in this sequence is all over the place. Yet as the set dresser you can still visually connect these places with similar bushes & trees. It's a dark forest. Nobody will notice when you cheat well.
With a bit of prior work on the film it shouldn't be too much work to create the sets. As the set dresser it shouldn't be your job to develop the look of the movie. Start out with some previz and concept artworks at hand. Anything that will give you a clear idea of what you need to achieve. If there is none, then that should be the first task to tackle.
Look at the previz artwork above. This already included some first assets that you can use. Or at least take these as a foundation and create a bigger asset library. Trees, bushes, rocks, flowers, anything that you need. Also moss, grass and leaves to scatter around. And don't forget materials, node groups and color palettes to reuse. This will make it easy to keep the look of all sets consistent and make changes. If you don't have a full asset library to link in, that will have to be the next task.
But with all of that done, the actual set dressing can begin. Big aspects of the set and unique key elements need to be modelled by you but a large amount of assets can be linked or instanced to fill it all in and give it life. Jokingly we said during the production of Spring to "just scatter stuff until it looks good". There's some truth to that. This was traditionally done with particle systems and duplicating instances, but in new releases of Blender is easier than ever with geometry nodes and upcoming improvements to the asset browser!
You also should keep the lighting in mind. When set dressing there might already be a color script or some general information on light direction & daytime. Create a very simple temporary lighting setup and test your set. Where do shadows get cast? How does the set feel like when lit? Does it affect the composition? Make sure to model your set around what you see.
If it's just about testing specific things like how moss is scattered or the values in the set, then you can also do a smaller border render or overwrite the materials with a simple grey one (clay render) for smaller tests.
But in the end the set dresser is not the one who will use the set. The lighting artists & animators will. So you need to make sure that they will be able to.
A big part of this is viewport performance. The lighters will want to see everything important to get a feeling for how it will look like rendered. But the animators don't care about that. They need the most essential information and the highest possible fps (Frames per second). So make sure what you give them is working!
Some of that you can achieve by simply changing the viewport and render visibility on modifiers. Subdivision Surface modifiers should be set so that the models at least don't look blocky. For maximum performance, the animators can use the "Simplify" render setting to set the number of subdivisions to 0. But that means that the lowest resolution still needs to be an accurate representation for animators. So make sure that contact points for characters, like the ground or other assets, or anything else relevant to animators looks correct. It's a common issue of bad set dressing if characters end up floating in the render because the contact point was different between subdivisions.
But those are not the objects that use up the most performance. It's also a good idea to make anything that scatters moss, grass or other particles their own objects. Then put these in a collection that is disabled in the viewport by default but that can be enabled if the lighting artists need to see it. For animators these performance eating objects won't be an issue then.
Organised your set into collections in general. The easier it is to find what's in the set the easier it will be to use. Collection colors and a good naming convention can also make things clearer. You don't want to have all your objects floating around, unnamed in random collections.
But not every shot needs the entire set anyway. Chances are that some sets will be so large that it makes sense to divide it into sub-sets. Compare what is visible from each camera or in certain sequences and sort those areas into collections. When the shots are created it will then be easy to link in only what's needed, which increases performance and render speed.
The set needs to work for all shots and sequences that it will be used in. But lets say some of them are insane closeup shots on a surface or ground that just doesn't have enough detail. Let's say there are a few of those all over the set because some characters are tiny. Don't worry about it too much. Don't try to custom fit the entire set to every single shot to perfection! In the lighting files it's still easy to make a new version of the ground or some assets that are seen more up close than ever. Or even replace the assets in the animation file with rigged props so they can be animated. Anything that will make the shot look better.
I hope this was insightful and if you have any questions, don't hesitate to comment below. If you want to find out more, check out Beau on lighting & set dressing or Andy on good Lighting or how to approach lighting technically. Thanks for reading!