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In film production, a set piece is a scene or sequence of scenes whose execution requires serious logistical planning and considerable expenditure of money. The term set piece is often used more broadly to describe a sequence in which the filmmaker's elaborate planning allows for the maximum payoff in thrills for an action, suspense, or horror audience. (or maximum laughs for a comedy audience, or maximum awe and spectacle for a science fiction or historical film audience, etc.) Thus the term is often used to describe any scenes that are so essential to a film that they cannot be edited out or skipped in the shooting schedule without seriously detracting from the enjoy-ability, intensity, impact, and memorability of the finished product. Often, screenplays are written around a list of such set pieces, particularly in high-budget "event movies".
Set pieces are very often planned meticulously using storyboards, screen-tests, and rehearsals, in contrast to smaller scenes where the director and actors may be more improvisational. Each action requires the combined efforts of different departments: set builders, physical effects, and special visual effects. On most films, different groups of people will work on different set pieces individually since they can take a long time to prepare before shooting. For example, the car chase in The Matrix Reloaded took months to prepare and cost $30 million, including $5 million to build the freeway set.
A set piece may or may not be integral to the plot. A James Bond film usually begins with a set piece that has little relation to the main plot of the film. On the other hand, a dramatic film may have set pieces at major plot points, providing dramatic payoff, resolution, or transition.
Notable examples of set pieces include the Snake Pit in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Death Star Trench Run from Star Wars, the storming of the volcano lair in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, and the burning oil rig in There Will Be Blood. Alfred Hitchcock referred to set pieces as crescendoes or "bumps" and tried to put three of them in each of his movies. In Psycho, these are the shower murder, the murder on the stairs, and the discovery of "Mother". One of the most well known set pieces is the "Ride of the Valkyries" helicopter attack scene in Apocalypse Now whose planning was shown in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse.