Dad (and Dimension) to the Rescue: How One Father Turned to 3D to Build the Set for His Kids’ School Play

by Adobe Dimension Team

posted on 10-05-2018

Michael Murphy and his wife are always integral parts of their kids’ school plays. In the past, the Adobe digital media solutions consultant has done everything from designing graphics to chaperoning an army of burgeoning young actors. So it came as no surprise when they agreed this year to handle the whole production from start to finish. Michael and his wife chose Beat by Beat Press’s “We Are Monsters,” a fun musical about kids who discover a monster cabaret featuring some offbeat characters. With a plot like that, you can imagine it required some serious set design.

“I went online and gathered a number of influences and did some book shopping to get familiar with the conventions and options of set design and construction,” said Michael, who envisioned a set that looked like “Cabaret” meets Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” With visual references in place, the only thing left to do was start sketching a mockup. That’s when Michael decided to take a different approach and harness the power of 3D.

Using Adobe Dimension to bring “We Are Monsters” to life

After determining what exactly he’d need to bring the set to life (a central arch, panels, tables, and a runway-like platform), Michael turned to his Adobe tools to put everything together. He started by designing the various visual elements in Adobe Illustrator, and importing them into Adobe Photoshop to make use of its 3D tools. From there, he exported those as .obj files and brought them into Dimension.

An early 3D render of the We Are Monsters set, done in Adobe Dimension.

An early 3D render of the We Are Monsters set, done in Adobe Dimension.

Adobe Dimension is a tool that lets designers and creatives of all shapes and sizes create photorealistic 3D visualizations. You can build product shots and abstract art, but, for Michael’s purpose, he used the tool to bring the objects he built in Illustrator and Photoshop to life in 3D, effectively visualizing the scene of the play he had in his head.

“Being able to visualize the relationship between flats on the stage and view it from any angle helped tremendously in the various iterations of the design,” said Michael.

Instead of taking a trial-and-error approach by going straight into the physical space of the school’s stage and experimenting with objects there, Michael used Dimension to reduce his margin of error by letting him see what kind of stage layout worked and what didn’t, right on his computer. As a result, he was able to easily modify his designs to accommodate the physical constraints of the stage and other factors.

“In the 3D versions, two of the tables were removed, but the platform and other panels remained. As I tried different approaches, I also added some type to the top of the arch and introduced some of the off-kilter appearance from my original sketch,” he added.

Without Dimension, Michael would have to visualize these layouts and changes from rough sketches only. It would make it very difficult to translate his ideas to the real physical space with a semblance of accuracy, and he’d have to construct set pieces without ever knowing how they’d work in the actual set.

The final design takes shape

After a few more adjustments to take into account the stage’s measurements and the overall cost of materials, Michael decided to eliminate the tables altogether and stick with just the central arch and two side pieces.

A miniature mockup of the We Are Monsters set, after it was visualized in Adobe Dimension.

A miniature mockup of the We Are Monsters set, after it was visualized in Adobe Dimension.

Michael used Illustrator to create scale versions of his three remaining set pieces, to which he added graphical elements from Adobe Stock for painting on the actual physical pieces. After printing out his Illustrator designs at a scale of 1:12 (1 inch = 1 foot), he used foam core board to assemble a scale model of the stage to ensure if would work on the real stage.

“All of the prep helped but was in the abstract. I needed to see the set in physical space so I could view it at different angles and get a good sense of its scale relative to the stage and the actors,” said Michael.

With the designs finalized, Michael says he spent seven hours in total building the set from the ground up, which probably would’ve taken longer without the expertise of a fellow parent at his kids’ school to guide him along the way. This involved creating grids over top of the Illustrator designs, then scaling those up to the primed surfaces, and finally penciling in the designs based on the grids.

The We Are Monsters set in final form.

The We Are Monsters set in final form.

To his surprise, though, it was actually the priming and painting process that took longest of all: two weeks all told, with last-minute touch-ups right up to the day before the first dress rehearsal.

Paying it forward

In the case of the “We Are Monsters” set, 3D visualization couldn’t replace everything — after all, a set only achieves its purpose once it’s built in real life. But with Adobe Dimension, Michael was able to take his concepts and ideas and make them come to life in 3D at scale. Doing so not only helped him figure out (quickly) what worked, what didn’t, and what simply had to go, it helped him reduce his margin of error dramatically when it came time to get out the tools and start building. He knew what fit where, and what sizes of set pieces worked best in connection with each other.

The play was a success, of course, but that’s not where the story stops. Michael was then able to donate the flats he created to another school theater director who saw and appreciated the work he’d done. Now, high schools around his town are benefiting from Michael’s hard work, created with a little Adobe Dimension magic along the way.

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Topics: Creativity, Design

Products: Photoshop, Illustrator, Creative Cloud