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Q&A: Set Builder Tim Warren

Q&A: Set Builder Tim Warren

Imagine being tasked with transforming a pristine 18th century venue in the heart of London into eight immersive and contemporary room sets, complete with bold paint effects, sculptural installations, and a freestanding bath full of flowers. Well, for set builder Tim Warren, it's just another typical day at the office. With the help of his team, Tim did just this for our recent Colour Futures 2016 launch event - and then put it all back again. He talks to us about the challenges of decorating under pressure and the parallels between creating sets and decorating real spaces.

How would you describe what a set builder does?

I always think a set builder is usually someone who is doing things with not enough time or materials! Ultimately we are making or doing things which are designed to look good, but last for a very short period of time. Most of the set building I do is for still photography, and is all about problem solving and time management. Even a simple job, such as decorating a room in preparation for a shoot can be fraught due to being in a location home with an owner worried about set builders with dirty clothes and messy looking equipment arriving in their pristine house, so first off we have to mollify the owner and reassure them that the property will be ok at the end.

How did you get started in set building?

I left school at age 16 and went to college to study engineering. After various jobs including driving a van and after a bit of travelling, I got a job with Tim Chapman Set Building. My first job was helping out building a snow scene for a fridge company in a studio in Islington and I can remember a rather forlorn looking Penguin sitting in a large bucket waiting for his starring role on set and I thought, 'this is much more interesting than driving a van or being an engineer.'

Tell us about the recent Colour Futures event you worked on at Somerset House...

At the Colour Futures event I had 11 people on board and two days to completely transform eight rooms. We were tasked with executing the stylist’s schemes, which required two van-loads of equipment and materials to create, but it all got done. Some parts of the scheme, such as the black and white grid effect and triangular tile effect, required a lot of careful marking out and masking off, whereas others were just a lot of painting. We all chip in to do all the jobs, including the prep and the cleaning of equipment, as this all contributes to the job getting done.

The second leg of the journey is when we return to redecorate and make good the space. In this case we were a team of 11 with one day to complete. All paint drying is sped up by using fans and heat guns and we go from job to job whilst this happens. Any patterns or lines have to be sanded otherwise they are visible when repainted, so choosing the order of tasks is important. All areas are first masked up then cut-in with a brush, then rollered. Then we set the fan on the area and move to the next wall. As soon as it's dry, you drop what you are doing and give it a second coat.

At the end it's also important to check for any mess and clean up, then move all unwanted tools out and down to the van. It's about keeping momentum and the fact that no job is very long helps, as you can always see the end!

What were the challenges with this particular job?

The main challenge on this job was that it had to look good from all angles, as it was an event where people actually visit, so there had to be minimal corner cutting. As for working in Somerset House, its sheer size and the tight schedule was the biggest problem, but no there were no mad difficulties as the people at Somerset House were so accommodating. They did get a little concerned when we brought some long fences covered in painted cloth up the Nelson Stairs, as this is a tourist attraction and has the general public on it too.

Are there any techniques you use that could apply to decorating ‘real’ spaces?

A tip to speed up painting regardless of set building or decorating for real is to use fans to speed up paint drying times between coats. Also, always go for water-based paints for painting woodwork as drying times are far quicker, and the finish is of the same quality.

What other brands or projects have you worked on?

I have just worked on a Danish tap brochure for and built sets on location in Sweden, Switzerland and Spain. Some of theses sets had a fully working shower in an expensive location house, which involves making a pond for the set to sit in. We often run the taps from dustbins of water with pumps in or connect shower heads to in-house water supplies via a hose.

Another job this year we had a small kitchen submerged in 4 inches of water, with a man standing in the water with a stuffed owl on his shoulder, all in a reinforced plywood tank for an Australian insurance company. There was about nine tons of water itching to leak out and flood the place.

What's the most unusual or challenging set you've had to create?

I once had to wire some stuffed pigeons into a tree for a car break down company, while on another job, I was asked to cut a caravan in half, wallpaper it, and make space for a live ostrich to be on set next to the caravan. All I remember about the ostrich is that it seemed enormous and it had to have a sock on its head as it was reversed into the studio. My biggest failing is to have very few pictures of the sets we've created.

What's the best part of your job?

Over the years I have worked for lots of brands and magazines and been to lots of interesting places and met some great people. The best part if the job is the people. It's a very sociable job with a very even hierarchy, where everyone chips in to get the job done. I couldn't do any of this without a team.

Find out more about Dulux's Colour Futures 2016 trends.