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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Training that SETS the scene

By Stephanie Wei
Special to The Toronto Sun

Tony Parkin has a goal: He wants to give people the opportunity to learn a skilled trade and introduce them to a possible future in a $1.5-billion industry. Parkin runs the two-year old Toronto SETS (Scenery For Entertainment Training School), a six-week course in set-building for the movie industry.

Students learn how to set up a workshop, use tools, build flats and props, and handle hazardous materials.
Toronto SETS trainees spend 40 hours a week for six weeks learning the intricacies of building sets for the film industry.

Parkin explains that movie set construction is in many ways very different than other types of carpentry.

"You have to age props to fit a certain time period. Things have to be light-weight and portable. You could build a set of kitchen cabinets that look real, but don't open. You could be building anything; I've even built tanks and submarines in the past."

Parkin has more than 30 years' experience in carpentry, and has worked on more than 40 feature films in the last 20 years. He apprenticed as a joiner in Wales, where he was taught to do everything by hand.

"I apprenticed working in pubs. We would come in Monday to rebuild the windows and doors that people had left through on the Friday night," Parkins recalls.

Some of the pubs Parkin worked on were more than 300 years old, and the work involved very skillful handcrafted carpentry. After immigrating to Canada, Parkin was asked to build a bar for a show. He thoroughly enjoyed the work and has been hooked ever since.

He started Toronto SETS ( in 2001 to provide a training facility for people with an aptitude, but with little prior experience in film. When independently produced shows are filmed in Toronto, the production offices will get their set people through the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Workers (IATSE), the labour union that represents technicians, artisans and craftspersons in the entertainment industry. Upon completing the course, graduates are eligible to work as permit holders with IATSE or whomever else they wish until they meet the requirements for membership.
Tony Parkin, right, here with Ruben "Hurricane" Carter, helped construct the set of the film The Hurricane.

"The industry is just booming," Parkin says. "If you're willing to work, you'll do well. The industry here has just grown and grown. Toronto has so much to offer."

Toronto SETS students work out of the Buckingham Street Studios at 25 Buckingham St., in the Royal York Road and The Queensway area. Students spend 40 hours a week for six weeks receiving intensive, hands-on training in the basics of movie set construction. Applicants are screened based on their basic entry-level carpentry skills and willingness to work hard. Tuition fees run $3,150 plus GST. The course is government-certified and is eligible for tuition tax credits.

Bill Harman, one of the top construction co-ordinators in Canada who built the original R2D2 robot for Star Wars, has used several Toronto SETS graduates for projects such as Devil's Throat and Don't Say A Word.

"I'm 100% for it. There's no other basic training like it in the film industry," Harman explains.

Mark O'Donoghue, head carpenter on Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, agrees. "It was really nice to have people who knew what they were doing," says O'Donoghue. "We're just too busy to teach them ourselves; we don't have the time or resources."

According to John Ravera, a former student, "When you're building houses, you do the same thing over and over. With building sets, every day is a challenge."

Harman, who has worked on over 300 films including Star Wars and several James Bond movies, believes the film industry is once again gaining momentum. "The industry is always up and down, but it's a lot better in Toronto than in most places."

SETS is already accepting applications for January 2004. Call 416-428-9197 or e-mail

(Write Toronto-based freelancer Stephanie Wei at (

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