Why “Just Paint It Black” Is Dangerous Advice

I will be the first to admit that I cringe every time someone uses the phase “just paint it black, no one will see it”. The simple truth is, black paint on wood is dark grey when lit. Contrast with this with theatre drapery, which uses a triple velvet to absorb light and become extremely dark, and you get something that looks very out of place.

Because this is one of my number one pet peeves that I see on the stage, I’ve spent a fair bit of effort over the years ensuring that this doesn’t happen on my sets. While there are many solutions for hiding things in plain sight, I have distilled it down to 3 simple principles.

1. Plan for it

The simple solution is to plan ahead and design your set to hide support elements and avoid large truck units etc. Use the configuration of your walls and set pieces to hide anything you don’t want the audience to see and you’ll avoid having to even consider how you’re going to hide it once you have moved into the theatre.

Along with that, you can design your set pieces to incorporate those elements are intentional pieces which I’ll get into later.

2. Use your drapery

As I mentioned, theatre fabrics are made to look very, very black. They are typically made of a triple layered velvet material. By flying in drapery to cover the top edges of a set or bringing in the legs to cover the view of the supports behind it, you effectively remove unwanted elements from view without having to introduce new ones or resort to half-way solutions. Theater drapes will not only blend in with each other to effectively isolate an area, but they are also a standard convention in the theatre, one that audiences are used to accepting and subsequently ignoring altogether.

3. Control the lighting

Ok this is the obvious choice but, and I say this nicely, since I have seen so many productions ignore this rule it is worth mentioning. If you do have scenic elements which need to be painted black to be hidden, do everything you can not to light them. The moment you light a wood surface painted black, it becomes a shiny grey wood surface painted black. You get the idea. Work with your lighting designer to cheat the lighting to try to light these areas as little as possible.

4. Treat abnormalities as opportunities

While the other solutions are good “outs” for when you’re in a crunch and need to hide something that was added, overlooked or has become visible as a result of last minute changes, this solution is the best possible approach (IMHO).

Incorporate everything into your design.

Where possible, design your set with support elements or things you need to hide in mind. Need an example? Let’s take a look at several ideas from some previous set designs of mine:

Hide doors with striped wallpaper and set dec

If you have to hide a panel or door in the wall, hide the top edge with a picture, the bottom edge with the baseboard and the long edges by using a striped wallpaper design.

In the image below, I used this for a production of Mary Poppins to hide the appearance of a bed. Two flaps would flip down which were hidden by the picture, trim work and wallpaper pattern. The top flap revealed a headboard while the bottom flap allowed the bed to come through the wall. In this case the reverse side of the top flap looked like part of the pillows while the reverse of the large flap was painted to match the floor and remained hidden beneath the bed skirt.

Truck units are floors

A truck unit is typically a riser unit on wheels upon which some portion of your set lives. Too many productions paint this truck black with the assumption that it blends into the stage floor. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it doesn’t. It really really doesn’t.

Watch any professional production and you’ll see that this convention seems to be completely missing. Experienced scenic designers know that this element is not only visible to the audience, but it sits 4-8 inches higher on the stage which would theoretically look more like a levitation trick than a floor. By ignoring the opportunity to incorporate the truck, you are creating an anomaly that can be hard to ignore.

Luckily the solution is incredibly simple. Paint the truck to look like the floor of whatever sits on top of it. Now unfortunately I couldn’t find a better view of the bathroom truck unit from the Full Monty close by, but you can still get the idea from the photo below (click to enlarge). The truck itself was simply painted to look like the floor of the bathroom stall. Yep, that’s it! It doesn’t matter that the rest of the stage isn’t painted to match. All of the elements in the scene each represent a small piece of the bathroom which visually, comes together as one room.

Make supports part of the design

When designing Jekyll and Hyde the Musical, I needed to create an abstract wall structure which flew in. Instead of attaching a ton of extra fly cable or trying to mask the vertical supports, I designed the entire piece to look like a network of boards and pieces of framing. The vertical supports looked completely intentional as opposed to looking like a support piece you were supposed to ignore.

I also did this with a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The cross started in a horizontal position and was cranked up to a vertical position with a hand cranked boat winch (the “click click click…” added some very cool drama). Because the director wanted him up quite high we had to build a fair bit of structure and put everything on a truck unit etc.. Instead of painting it all black and trying to hide it, I added even more by dressing it up as shrapnel. The entire unit was designed to look like a group of people pulled everything from a junk yard, rigged it up and used it to crucify him. It tied in well with the look of my set while providing all of the necessary safety and support elements that we needed.

Hold flats up with a roof structure

In the Sister’s Summer School set, I didn’t want to put framing behind the two outermost flats to hold them up because they would have been visible. Instead, I let the flats next to them hold them in place and built a rooftop framework to pull the tops in and keep everything in place. This design element solved twoo problems in one: First, it held my flats up and secondly, it kept the set from looking like a typical boring box set by giving it that extra little element.

Hide smoke ports with accents

Sometimes you just have to get a lot of smoke on stage quickly, which often means cutting holes in your set for the smoke to come through. One of the first things many set designers try is to cover the holes with a screen or mesh-like material and paint it to match the set. In most cases however, the difference in opacity and material simply make the area stand out event more. So again, in trying to turn the abnormalities into opportunities, I try to find ways to add decorative elements which make sense. In an interior scene for example, a simple heating vent or mesh painted to look like a wall outlet would do the trick nicely. You can also simply use set decoration like garbage cans, briefcases and furniture to hide your holes.

For Tommy, I put a decorative steel mesh inside each square hole and the lighting designer put a 6″ Fresnel on the floor inside each one. These were then used throughout the show, often being flashed or pulsed during key exciting moments giving them purpose. The smoke machines were under the platform with tubing running to each of these ports. It was also particularly impressive to see the smoke filtering out while these lights were on.

In conclusion

I will be the first to admit that this is a tricky part of the set designers job, but I would like to encourage all designers to remember that it is one of the most important parts of our role and one we simply can not skip. By hiding additional supports or unwanted elements, we are removing some of the burden put on our audiences to suspend their disbelief. This suspension is an important part of the theatre experience and is one our audiences are used to having to do, but when an audience is truly blown away by a production, it’s usually because they didn’t HAVE to. It just came to life right in front of their eyes.

We all know that Peter Pan is flown with wires, but when we can’t see them, we get sucked right into the magic.

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