What Is A Movie Set Piece?

The term “set” is a theatrical term that has parlayed into film and television. In the days of yore when studios were actually producing movies rather than paying production companies to do so, they had standing sets which could be used as required. They could be a bar, school, library etc.

When a scene called for a new set to be constructed,  studios called it a “set piece”.  Set pieces had to be big and engaging to the audience to warrant the expense. They are pivotal scenes in the movie, major plot beats. The are often spectacles as evidenced in action movies, in riotous laughs (such as the apple pie scene in American Pie), or a tear-jerking moment in dramas.

Set pieces are the water cooler moments that audience buzz about after watching a movie. Today many set pieces can simply be created by CGI. Consider the glorious scene in “Up” when the helium balloons inflate and Carl’s house levitates.

A good set piece must always augment the story. If it’s inserted for special effect, the audience won’t respond. It must really advance plot, raise the stakes or provide some kind of major revelation. If the story works without these scenes, then they can probably be removed.

The locale is also crucial for set pieces. This is especially important in action movies. Car chases through market stalls, highways and jumping over perilous cliffs on motorbikes have all been done before. Consider a new twist on these.

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. William says:

    This is not the definition I was taught at all.

    1. What is your definition? Add to the discussion.

      1. William says:

        A set piece, according to Pilar Alessandra, is more or less a mini movie that expresses the film in a nutshell.

        An “active, visual, trailer-worthy scene that uses a setting or world in an original way” is how she describes it in her book.

        In Close Encounters, an obsessed father builds a mountain out of mashed potatoes at his dinner table, and then out of mud in his back yard while his family looks on in horror

        A set piece multi-tasks

        Serve the genre – fight scene in the treetops in Crouching Tiger…
        Build character – upside down kiss in Spiderman
        Create the problem – The stuck zipper scene in there’s something about Mary
        Build concept
        Build Theme

        The Chopsticks Scene in Big…

        There are great and memorable scenes in every film that pretty much encapsulate the whole film in small. Pilar calls these scenes set pieces.

        Once I got her definition I can see them in a lot of films. There’s usually three or so in every great film.

        This is a much different definition than yours.

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