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A fully digital process for scenic design.

When I was an undergraduate studying scenic design around fifteen years ago I frequently tried to integrate Adobe Photoshop into my design work. I didn't get a lot of support from my instructors, however, because the focus of the curriculum was on traditional design skills, which at the undergraduate level it probably should be. Soon after I entered graduate school, Carrie Robbins, a longtime proponent of using a computer to draw, was invited to teach a master class. During a break, I had the chance to chat with her. She enjoyed my enthusiasm for computers and wanted to know what software and techniques I was exploring. This brief conversation fed my appetite and encouraged me to pursue the creative potential of computers. My formal training in digital design in grad school, however, consisted of an introductory course in Vectorworks. I admit that the faculty encouraged my interest in Photoshop and other digital design programs, but as they had little experience in this area, I was on my own to figure it out.

Today, in 2015, the academic mood has changed. As I help my undergraduate students investigate graduate programs, I see that many offer classes like Digital Design for Theatre or Computer-Aided Design Techniques. Computers are no longer absent in world of theatrical design. But I wouldn't say they are entirely commonplace in design studios, at least as a design tool. Most designers are still discovering the place of design software and hardware in their creative processes. But where to start?

Some digital doubters fear that digital designers want computers to replace pencils and paper. To them, I say, never! Among most professional digital artists, the feeling seems to be mutual. John Lasseter, co-founder and creative director of Pixar Films, made a YouTube video in which he gives advice to aspiring animation students. He said, "The thing I always tell students who want to work in animation, or him for that matter, is do not forget to study the basics--basic drawing, even for computer animation. You should know how to draw." (

Drawing and sketching is where I start with my students, and I tell them that these are skills that will require constant honing. My students don't go near design software until their senior year. We learn that digital tools are just another set of tools in what should be a fully equipped arsenal of design skills.

In this article I will review my methods for a completely digital design process. I will also discuss a few of the many options available for design software, from free apps to the expansive and expensive design suites used by production companies, universities, and individuals with large wallets. And, I will briefly discuss 3D printers as a tool for creating scenic models.


If one can draw, draft, paint, and build models, why bother with computers? Some people think, mistakenly, that a computer can speed up the design process, or that a computer somehow does the work for you. Point of fact, it takes me about the same amount of time to draft a set of shop drawings sitting at my computer as it does sitting at my drafting table. The same goes for creating a digital 3D model.

If you use a CAD program--they seem to be the first application most scenic designers learn--then you know that the benefit of drafting with your computer really comes on the backend. Costume, lighting, and sound designers, may use different applications, but the backend benefits are similar. Revisions are infinitely quicker on a computer than erasing and redrawing by hand. Sharing your work is much quicker too. I am in California and I often work with a director in Chicago. I can share concept sketches, technical drawings, rough models, finished renderings, and all sorts of shop information with the click of a mouse.

File sharing applications like Dropbox make is so easy for creative teams to have access to each other's work that I think it's inconceivable for any designer to not be able to share his or her work electronically. Drawings and models created by hand have to be scanned or photographed, but that's not a very high hurdle to overcome.


For this article I will be reviewing the digital process I used for a recent production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, produced in the amphitheatre at my university, California State University, Stanislaus. In the director's concept, the time is the 1920s and Illyria is in the Spanish Mediterranean, the rich touristy parts, perhaps Majorca. The slogan of our initial design discussion was "Make it muy caliente!"

The initial concept phase of my digital design process begins with sketching, using a tablet and stylus instead of paper and pencil. From there I do some free-form 3D modeling. This sketching and modeling helps me and the director develop our ideas. Once those ideas are solidified, I create initial technical drawings and start collaborating with the other designers and the technical director. With sketches and technical drawings in hand, I begin advanced 3D work which includes modeling, texturing, and lighting, keeping in mind that throughout this process changes can be made with a few simple clicks. In a digital design process, the finished digital 3D models can be easily turned into 2D renderings and refined in Photoshop. Other design information that flows from the 3D model includes paint elevations and ideas for props. All this information is digitally disseminated to the appropriate areas.


There are a number of ways to sketch using your computer. Learning to draw with a mouse or a stylus, which takes some practice, is easier if you have a few specialized tools. These can range in price from a few dollars for a drawing app for your tablet to several thousand dollars for a fancy digital drawing pad.

For the Twelfth Night project, I used an Apple iPad, a stylus, and the app called SketchBook X from Autodesk. Some designers like using tablets like the iPad, others don't. Advocates say they are free to doodle anywhere they want--the office, the home, the pub. They also argue that tablet sketching systems are relatively inexpensive. Detractors say when they use a stylus on a tablet it always feels like the image they are drawing is one beat behind their hand. An expensive specialized digital drawing tablet is much more precise, but, they argue, so is a pencil.

One alternative to the SketchBook X app I used in the Twelfth Night project is a set of tools from a company called FiftyThree ( The drawing app is called Paper and their stylus is called Pencil. There are many other apps as well. Be prepared to spend from $1.99 to $9.99 on a drawing app and from $5.00 to $45.00 on a stylus. Of course let's not forget the initial cost of an iPad or other tablet.

While tablet apps are nice, computer software like Corel Painter and Adobe Photoshop have many more features and consequently cost more. You can use your computer's mouse to draw images, but most serious artists and graphic artists use digital drawing devices, often referred to as "Wacom tablets" because Wacom is the major manufacturer of these kinds of devices. A Wacom tablet is a different kind of device from an iPad because it doesn't have a screen. It is more like a clip board that you draw on with a stylus. It connects to your computer with a USB cable, although some can connect wirelessly. These devices take some practice to get used to because you can't look simultaneously at your hand and your drawing (but you shouldn't be looking at your hand when you draw anyway, right?).

Digital tablet devices come in a range of sizes, functionality, and prices. Wacom's Intous and Bamboo tablets start at under $50 and go up to around $400. If you or your institution have deep pockets, you should check out Wacom's Cintiq line of powerful, large-screen "interactive pen displays." They can connect to and use the software on your computer or you can load you favorite drawing software right into some of them. Wacom Cintiqs range from around $1000 to $3000.


A fully digital workflow requires that you be familiar with 2D applications like Photoshop, drafting applications like Vectorworks and AutoCAD, and 3D modeling software like Cinema 4D and 3ds Max (formerly 3D StudioMax). As you consider which of these design tools to use, remember that compatibility is important. Some programs are designed to work better with certain other programs. For instance, Vectorworks works well with Cinema 4D, a 3D modeling application; AutoCAD, Maya, and 3ds Max are all published by Autodesk, so they are designed to work well together. That is not to say that you are locked into using only software by one publisher. Nearly all design software can import and export your work in a variety of compatible file formats. Vectorworks, for instance, can import files created by AutoCAD in its proprietary DWG file format. (See a list of file formats that I deal with on a regular basis at the end of this article). But, when you are jumping back and forth among several applications, it helps to be using compatible software.

Many of these programs have a variety of pricing options. Most have student or educational institution licenses which can offer students and teachers free renewable access to their entire program for a year at a time. Some, like Maxon's Cinema 4D, have individual modules for purchase/license, so you don't have to buy the whole suite. Let's face it, most of these programs are designed to do way more than we in theatre will ever need.

There are some free software options too. The free Blender application is a very powerful 3D modeling and animation program ( GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a freely distributed application for photo retouching, image composition, and image authoring. With these two free programs, you have almost everything you need to be a fully digital designer. The drawback to these free options is the learning curve and lack of technical support. They are not as user friendly as the commercially available programs, so you need to be willing to slog through tech-heavy user forums and YouTube videos to learn how to use them.


When I'm ready to move beyond my initial concept sketches, I make a quick and dirty 3D model of basic shapes so I can start laying out my space. I don't spend a lot of time on accuracy or detail. I just need something that I can share and revise as I go. This digital model serves the same function as a white model or paper model in the physical world.

I used to use Vectorworks, which has a built-in 3D component, for my quick 3D models. I reasoned that I could later create technical drawings from these early models right in the same program. However, I have since discovered that more powerful 3D software like Cinema 4D and 3ds Max are more suited to this phase of the design process. They allow me to start with a basic shape and push in a face or pull up an edge or punch a hole for a window. I can grab and tweak any object in an infinite number of ways. CAD-based 3D modeling is much more rigid. It relies mainly on parametric objects--shapes created by entering or editing dimensions. For me, parametric modeling is for when I already know what the object I want to model looks like. Cinema 4D and 3ds Max have the same kind of parametric features for when you need exact parameters (hence the name), but you can also switch to a "push/pull" form of modeling.

If you don't want to spend the money on expensive modeling software, which can reach into the thousands of dollars, you can use the free version of SketchUp ( It is a basic push/pull modeling application that allows you to create quick 3D models. SketchUp is popular with young designers. You can upgrade to the professional version of SketchUp for $590.00.


With director approval of my research, concept drawings, and digital card model for Twelfth Night, I turned to the initial technical drawings: groundplans, sections, elevations, orthographic projections, etc. For these I used Vectorworks. CAD software has been widely used in theatre for about fifteen years, so I don't want to spend much time going over how to use these applications. However, if you are interested in increasing your CAD skills there are a number of resources available. Both Nemetschek and Autodesk, producers of Vectorworks and AutoCAD respectively, publish training guides and have user forums where you can post questions and get feedback from experts. Lately, I find that when I need help achieving a certain result in any of the programs mentioned in this article, I turn first to YouTube. For example, I like a set of YouTube tutorials on Vectorworks by Sean O'Skea, an associate professor at Southern Oregon University (see It can take a little searching on YouTube to find what you need, but more often than not my questions get answered this way.


Once the initial drawings are done in CAD, I create a 3D digital model. This process includes not only sculpting or building the model shapes but texturing and lighting them as well.

There are two basic ways to create an accurate 3D digital model and a third, hybrid way. The first way is to the use the 3D component of your CAD program--both Vectorworks and AutoCAD have one. I will admit that these components are getting better with each upgrade, and you can get some reasonably good looking models using them. The biggest benefit of this method is that if you set up your preferences properly, then, as you build and revise your 3D model in Vectorworks or AutoCAD, your 2D elevations will update immediately, saving you the trouble of having to go back and revise those drawings when you make changes to your model.

These CAD-3D programs can produce accurate, good-looking renderings of your set design, but they are somewhat limited in their texturing, lighting, and rendering abilities. I feel the images produced with CAD-3D look mechanical and a bit lifeless. However, with patience and a lot of work in Photoshop, you may be able to overcome CAD-3D's limitations.

The second way to create a 3D model is by using software that was designed for exactly that. For the Twelfth Night project I did my modeling in Cinema 4D. C4d, as it's called, and other programs like it--Maya, 3ds Max, and Blender--are powerful modeling and animating software programs that allow you to manipulate and animate every aspect of your model.

There is a hybrid method as well. As mentioned earlier Vectorworks and Cinema4D play really well together, and some artists build their models in Vectorworks and then import them into Cinema 4D for texturing and lighting. This is a fine process if you are absolutely sure of the shape of your model. However, Vectorworks and Cinema 4D use different mathematical algorithms to determine shapes, so your Vectorworks model and the one created by importing it into C4d may look the same on the surface, but funky shapes underneath the surface can severely limit your ability to make changes in your C4d model. This is a problem for me, because one of the biggest reasons to work digitally is the ability to edit as you go.


My modeling process begins by importing a JPEG copy of my ground plan and/or elevations into the 3D modeling environment. Unlike in CAD-3D, I will not be extruding from the ground plan but rather building from scratch on top of it. The JPEG ground plan serves only as a reference and will eventual go away. It's like cutting foam core platforms and walls and placing them on a printed copy of your ground plan as you make a physical model. (See illustration on p. 37.)

If you use CAD you are familiar with the concept that there is no one way to draw a complex shape. You can choose several different paths and still end up at the same shape. It is all about user preference and workflow. Same with 3D modeling; it is up to you as the designer to discover your own workflow and process. I tend to create complex shapes by starting with a simple shape such as a cube or sphere and then extruding and shaping individual faces. My platforms, walls, and stairs are each one complex, sculpted object. Another designer might create the same platforms, walls, and stairs from separate objects and then piece them together. There are perfectly good reasons to do it both ways.

Once the basic architecture is complete, I use e-mail or Dropbox to send the model to the director and rest of the production team for input and ideas. If revisions are necessary, I make changes in the 3D model and also go back and make any needed revisions to the technical drawings. When all the issues are settled I move on to adding details and "painting" the model.


Mapping, also known as texturing or painting, is the application or projection of textures, images, colors, or filters onto the surface of an object in a 3D model. (This is where 3D modeling software leaves CAD-3D in the dust.) While you can add color and texture to a CAD-3D model, the depth and versatility of texturing in a true 3D modeling program is much better.

Textures can be found online, created or edited in a 2D paint program, or created directly in the 3D software. The software has the ability to unfold an object and lay it out flat so that all sides of the object can be painted on by the designer; this function is called UV painting. Once applied, a texture can be manipulated in hundreds of ways. You can adjust the position, scale, or rotation, or you can add filters like Color, Bump, Reflection, Transparency, or Illumination. You can even add several layers of textures to the same surface. An old brick wall, for instance, might have three or four layers of textures: first a brick image acquired online, then maybe old posters (also found online and distressed in Photoshop), and then maybe graffiti spray painted on top of everything. The individual aspects of each layer remain separate and editable, creating an almost infinite number of texturing combinations.

For my Twelfth Night project, I needed a variety of stone and masonry textures. I was able to find the appropriate textures online and applied them to the model. Later I used the UV Painter function in C4d to add some toning and patina to the surfaces.


When the bulk of the set was modeled, I started adding details like topiary, statues, and other architectural details. When possible, of course, you want to create as much of the model as you can on your own. However, you may not have the time or experience to do everything yourself. For this project I sculpted my own topiary and planter boxes, but I knew I was not going to have the time to sculpt realistic statuary and flower urns. Nor did I have the expertise to do intricate ironwork. This same problem confronts designers of physical scale models. (I cannot tell you how many sad little chairs I have made!) Fortunately for the digital 3D modeler, there is a community of professionals and amateurs who are willing to sell, trade, or give away their work, as well as advice forums for figuring out complicated software or modeling issues. Websites like Turbosquid. com allow artists to post and sell their own models. There are also companies that create and sell things like bushes or furniture for 3D modelers. is website where you can search thousands of open-source models that are free for you to use. Of course, the axiom "you get what you pay for" applies, but I generally find what I need on the free sites. Consider also, that when you download a model, you have the ability to manipulate scale, color, and textures any way you want. If you find a chair that is the right period silhouette for your design but the wrong fabric, you can apply your own fabric texture. For those who don't have access to 3D software like C4d and 3ds Max, there are free programs like DAZ, which is really more of a 3D compositor but has limited modeling capabilities. With DAZ, you can composite 3D models you acquire from various sources into your own design. It's like 3D collaging.

Two things to note when downloading models from the Internet: first there may be licensing restrictions that keep you from using another artist's or company's work in a commercial project; second, you will have to know your file formats. If a model you have downloaded is in the MAX file format (filename.max), you may not be able to import it into your Cinema4D project. Other formats, like OBJ, STL, or 3DS, are no problem.


Nothing gives your model a more finished look than proper lighting. So if you happen to work with a lighting designer who knows the modeling program you are using, now is the time to hand it off and let her or him make it look brilliant. Hooray for collaboration. 3D modeling software is immensely powerful for lighting designers, who use it to create lighting storyboards or to animate lighting changes and special effects. But that is another article.

Creating interesting, dramatic lighting in your model can change the look of your model from flat and featureless to dimensional and dramatic. I can fuss with the lighting for hours until it is just right. However, even a basic McCandless setup produces a well-lit, high quality image. A high cool, a high warm, and a key light in the back, along with specials and a little fill as needed, can really make your image pop. In a full-featured 3D modeling program, as opposed to a CAD-3D one, you can manipulate color, direction, and intensity of the light, as well as more sophisticated effects like angle fall off, dust/haze reflection, light bounce, and quality/intensity of shadows. Effective use of shadows will give your image a very professional look. When using a setting called Global Illumination, the software will not just map the initial throw of light but how the light bounces around your model and reflects off of surfaces. You can also drop images in to your light to simulate gobo effects or to simulate still or animated video projections on other textured surfaces.

In our Twelfth Night project, we projected a video of a storm on the large colonnade. In the software I turned a lighting instrument into a virtual projector and was able to show the design team what the storm effect might look like. This technique also let me move the projected video around the model to simulate what the storm would look like on different surfaces.


At this point in the digital design process we have the capability to create full-color renderings from any angle and share them with the director and design team. Rather than making painstaking renderings by hand, we can now generate them from the model and we can make revised renderings as needed.

For this project we were able to look at several options. The people building the set were concerned about its scale, so I made some modifications to my model, and we were able to look at a smaller version of the set. Of course, we unanimously agreed a larger set was worth the time and resources. Other pre-production concerns included the shape of the windows or the size of the arbor posts. Eventually we arrived at a final look that served the director's vision of the play as well as the production staff's ability to produce it. Being able to make revisions quickly and easily made this production of Twelfth Night a very collaborative experience for the entire creative team.


Rendering in 3D modeling software is essentially taking a picture of your model and saving it as a 2D digital image, which can be manipulated with programs like Photoshop. Most 3D modeling programs have render settings that mimic those on a camera--resolution, depth of field, aspect ratios, filters, etc. Manipulating these effects when you render your 3D model can drastically improve the final image, saving you from futzing too much in Photoshop.


Now that the design is finished, the shops need their information. As noted before, I had been constantly updating elevations and ground plans throughout the design process so those drawings are ready to go. But how about the paint shop?

The great thing about a digital model is that in developing all the textures for the model the designer has also been developing the bulk of the information needed for the paint shop. It just comes down to rearranging the information in the desired format. While the software can produce a beautiful rendering in 3D perspective, it is easy to change the camera and look at different surfaces in a 2D elevation mode. There is no need to reproduce paint or texture information from scratch. Simply copy and paste the various views from the modeling program into Photoshop, or any paint program, and use the color selector to select two or three colors to make swatches. Add your notations, and you have almost instant paint elevations to print up and send to the paint shop.

A note on printing paint elevations. Rarely will you get exactly the color out of your printer that you see on your monitor. There are a few things you can do, though, that should get it pretty darn close. First, set the color mode to CMYK and not RGB. CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. These are the ink colors in most good quality color printers. When you work in CMYK color mode, your monitor will better represent the colors your printer will use to produce your paint elevation. There are monitor calibrating systems that can be a bit pricey, but if you do a lot of other graphic design or digital photo work, getting your monitor accurately calibrated to your printer may save you a lot of headaches. Of course there is the old fashion way of printing a copy and adjusting your image as needed. If it is too blue, try bumping up the magenta and yellow in your paint program. It may take a few prints to land on the right colors. Just remember, it's not what your image looks like on the monitor that is important, it's what the printed image that you give to the paint shop looks like.

Sharing critical color information electronically can be a problem. You never know how another computer and/or printer will translate the perfectly calibrated colors you see on your end. I always print my own paint elevations, making sure the color is just right, and then give or mail the printed images to the appropriate shops.


Now you have smashing renderings, technical drawings, and even paint elevations, but what if your director or production company wants a scale model? Well, all the digital work we have done so far can help with that too.

Rapid prototyping or 3D printing has exploded in the past few years and is poised to continue to make huge leaps in the near future; it is hard to keep up with the technology. Five years ago, my university purchased a 3D printer for $19,000. It consisted of two stations: a printing station that used a powder medium and a cleaning station for finish work. Together the two stations took up twelve square feet of floor space and needed to be in a ventilated area because some pretty toxic chemicals were used to finish the printed objects. This printer had a maximum resolution of about 300 microns or 0.012 inches per layer (he thinner the layer the higher the resolution). Today, a modest 3D printer like the Makerbot Replicator or Formlabs Form 1+ have maximum resolutions of 25 microns or 0.001 inches per layer, they are about the size of a large microwave oven, and they sell for $1500 to $3300.

Most of these printers have a small print area--around 6 x 6 x 9 inches--so you can't hit a button and walk away and come back later to a finished model of your whole set. But you can create lots of time-consuming pieces such as furniture, moldings, architectural details, and plants. While they are printing, you can work on the basic parts of your model. Also these desktop printers don't print in color, yet, so you will still have to paint the model yourself.

For Twelfth Night I created a 1/4-inch white model using hand cut pieces for the walls, levels and stairs, and I used a Formlabs Forml 3D printer to create the statuary, topiary, ironwork, and some architectural details. I don't really recommend using a 3D printer for 1/4-inch scale models. The printer can produce very small objects, but I found that details like the frieze and the ironwork for the windows were so fragile I was barely able to handle them without them breaking. Larger scales--3/8-inch to 1/2-inch--are much more manageable.

A final tip about 3D printers: learn your file formats. Most 3D printers support STL or OBJ files, but it's up to you to make sure your files can be used by your printer.


The computer is just another tool that you can use to express your artistic intentions. It will not design sets or costumes or lights for you, and it isn't necessarily the right tool for every design situation. There are myriad hardware and software products for the digital designer, and it will take lots of exploration and practice before you are proficient. I am often asked, "How long does it take to learn all this stuff?" Well, I have been exploring this medium since 1998, and I am still learning. No need to feel disheartened. I started using a pencil almost forty years ago, and I am still learning how to use that tool as well.

The real advantage of a digital design process, however, is practical, not aesthetic. Computers are very effective in a collaborative environment like theatre. The ability to share, discuss, rethink, edit, and revise every step along the way of the design process is allowing theatrical artists to discover new forms of collaboration, creation, and production. V


Websites for the software mentioned in this article:


AutoCAD, Maya, 3ds Max--

Cinema 4D--




Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign--

File formats I deal with on a regular basis:

3DS--Autodesk's proprietary file format for 3DS Max, formerly 3D Studio Max.

C4D--Maxon's proprietary file format for Cinema 4D.

DWG--Autodesk's proprietary file format for AutoCAD. Most CAD programs can import and export DWG files.

JPEG or JPG--A digital image (raster graphic) file format. This image compression standard was developed by the Joint Photographic Experts Group.

OBJ--An open 3D file format created by Wavefront Technologies.

PDF--A portable document format developed by Adobe that is now an open ISO standard for electronic document exchange. Almost all graphics and CAD programs can import and export PDF files.

PNG--A digital image (raster graphic) file format. Its compression algorithms are "lossless," which makes it a better standard than JPEG for some types of images.

PSD--Adobe's proprietary file format for Photoshop.

TIFF--A digital image (raster graphic) file format owned by Adobe. It doesn't use compression algorithms.

STL--A 3D file format created by 3D Systems. It is supported by most 3D modeling software.

VWX--Nemetchek's proprietary file format for Vectorworks.

Eric Broadwater is an associate professor of scene design at California State University, Stanislaus. His MFA in scene design is from Pennsylvania State University (2006). While earning his BFA from Southern Oregon University (2001), he interned in the scene design studio at Oregon Shakespeare Festival under Richard Hay and WilliamBloodgood. (
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Author:Broadwater, Eric
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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