So, the first thing I found out by researching set-pieces is that there’s not a lot of agreement as to what they are exactly. My understanding has always been that a set-piece is a self-contained portion of your story which can stand on its own. That is certainly the dictionary definition. However, some sites are saying that a set-piece is an expensive sequence that is the dramatic or comic highpoint. That’s a definition I disagree with so what I’ll be discussing here is the first idea of a set-piece as a self-contained portion of your story.
The term set-piece actually comes out of vaudeville and referred to what we’d now call a skit. Vaudeville (and its naughty sister Burlesque) was strong until the 1920s when radio began to take hold and audiences had a free alternative form of entertainment. Film had begun, originally silent, at the turn of the century. During that three-decade period, there was a lot of crossover between Vaudeville and films. The Vaudevillians bringing the idea of a set-piece with them.
Vaudeville was an evening’s entertainment composed of many different acts, what we’d now call a variety show. Comics typically had a collection of set-pieces they could call up at any time and perform. When those comics began working in film, those set-pieces came along with them. Here’s a bit from a W.C. Fields’ movie to check out.
The first thing to notice about this scene is that you don’t need to know much about the movie to get the jokes. It relies heavily on physical humor and one basic joke that plays over and over; it does not rely on the audience knowing anything that happens before or after the bit.
There are some very specific comic set-pieces you’ve seen over and over again: Food fights, Man vs. Environment set-pieces (slipping on a banana peel), or Man vs. Machine set-pieces (this scene with Lucille Ball).
Occasionally, a set-piece might also be a highlight but, usually, it’s something a little bit tangential that could be removed from your film.
Some people would say that a make-over sequence is a set-piece, (like the famous bit in Moonstruck) and since it is self-contained we could include it. Though, it could also be thought of as a trope or simply a sequence. There’s no reason it can’t be all three, which is probably why you see a lot of crossover in the way people define these terms.
Alfred Hitchcock had an interesting way of working with screenwriters. He’d hire them and then talk to them about the story for a long time, laying out his particular requirements. When he worked with Ernest Lehman on North by Northwest, he requested that the film climax with a chase scene across Mount Rushmore. I would call a chase scene in a thriller a set-piece, in this case it is a set-piece that meets my definition and also the dramatic highlight definition.
The Bond franchise often begins with Bond chasing a villain. These scenes typically have nothing to do with the rest of the movie, so they’re tangential, but they do get the adrenalin going and begin the film with a bang.
Are There Set-Pieces in Other Films?
Yes. Anytime you have a party scene, a dinner scene, a funeral, a wedding, you’ve got the potential for a set-piece. (If your film is called A Wedding and is basically two hours at a wedding, then the whole film is not a set-piece.) A good way to think about set-pieces is to think about them as the parts of a film that are always pulled out for award shows or documentaries. Producers don’t simply choose random scenes, they like to choose scenes that can stand on their own.
Finally, should you be thinking about set-pieces for your story? Absolutely. You wouldn’t think of writing a comedy without jokes or a thriller without thrills. Set-pieces need to be part of your skill-set. However, you need to be aware of them and make sure that your set-piece fulfills expectations while offering something unique and compelling at the same time.
What are your favorite set-pieces?