Gaffers, Best Boys and Set Pieces are terms unique to the film industry. Over the decades we learned that a Gaffer is the Chief Lighting Director or the Head Electrician, and a Best Boy is an assistant to either the Chief Electrician or the Key Grip (Head of the Grip department). But “Set Pieces,” we thought were a piece of stage scenery.
Set pieces are scenes that are designed to have an obvious imposing effect on the audience. They are the scenes in a film that are ideal for trailers. They are also the scenes that stand out and say this film is unique and special. When done correctly, they are the scenes that everyone remembers and creates a buzz about, driving more people to the movie.
Just about every movie is made up of Shakespeare’s three-act structure. Because films tended to die in the long second act, which is about half the length of a typical film, screenwriters split the second act into two segments: 2A and 2B. This was a natural decision as directors constantly wanted to do something special at the midpoint in the film.
Getting an entire industry to split the second act and use four segments within every film wasn’t difficult since the industry was used to films being delivered in eight 20-minute reels. These 20-minute reels had long ago driven stories to flow in sequences due to the projectionists having to physically change reels.
While the three-act structure is now written in four segments, each including two sequences, the responsibility is on the screenwriter to make sure the format doesn’t make the story boring. Thus, set pieces entered the picture.
Movies require a minimum of three set pieces to capture the audience. Some use four due to the split second act, while others try to have one set piece in every sequence. Today, there doesn’t seem to be any preset requirement due to the ever-changing variety of set pieces, level of creativity, and amount of budget.
A strong set piece lasts the test of time. Many will remember the light saber battle between Darth and Obi-wan Kenobi. Another iconic set piece was the scene where Indiana Jones runs away from the giant boulder. I’ll never forget the DeLorean racing across the wet mall parking lot and seeing it vanish into a pair of fire trails in Back to the Future.
Set pieces distinguish a film and drive the buzz that skyrockets a title to success. Unfortunately, few screenwriters create such scenes, as it takes a significant amount of time to develop and a vast amount of creativity. For these various reasons, spec scriptwriters rarely write iconic set pieces. However, when they do, numerous contracts follow – Something every screenwriter should consider.