In no particular order, here is a first pass list of things I frequently feel need repeating to people I speak to about production design after they leave film school. This list is a mixed bag of advice for both aspiring filmmakers and aspiring production designers that I wish somebody had told me when I first entered this wild industry.
Just look at what this industry has done to Nicolas Cage over the years. You don’t want to be “that guy”.
10 Things They Don’t Teach You in Film School About Production Design
1) Filmmakers: It exists. It matters. Production design matters.
Just because you don’t have a lot of money does not mean you don’t need a production designer or that you can’t have good production design. A production designer will give you the best world for your story within your budget limitations. That’s quite literally their job. You are selling your independent film short without one. If you can pay for the camera, sound, lighting, and craft, you can pay for production design so your film isn’t hideously painful to watch.
2) A production designer is there to serve the director and his or her vision.
Be a good servant. As a production designer, it’s ultimately not your film and your vision- it’s the director’s vision. Work within it, adapt, or politely walk away.
3) Creativity takes time. Schedule appropriately for it.
Daydreaming is part of the process and imagining a set will sometimes take longer than you think. You never know when inspiration will strike so set aside some time for daydreaming and thinking it through in a quiet spot.
4) Filmmakers, Producers, PM’s, Film Crew: The production designer is not personally in charge of props nor costumes.
However, the production designer does oversee those departments only to make sure the visual look and feel align fully with the visual look and feel of the film. The production designer always collaborates but does not run these departments. If your professor didn’t explain this to you in film school, you should ask for your money back. Prop Masters head the property department. Costume designers head the costume department. They can assist you with your various prop and costume needs. The production designer has many, many, many other things to deal with so please direct your inquiries, discussions, requests, or orders accordingly.
5) Good, cheap, or fast? You only get two, so choose wisely, as the saying goes.
By miracle, and I do mean miracle of the highest order, you may get all three- but even then it will cost you your dignity. Is that really worth it? Just choose two.
6) Practical lighting is often the most important lighting on the set.
Discuss this at length with your DOP in prep, design it into the set, and have your set dec team carry extra approved practical lighting for those last minute changes if at all possible. Otherwise those last minute changes when they’re losing light or the actor changes the blocking entirely can lead to a hideous Ikea lamp from the craft room making it’s way onto your otherwise beautiful, carefully designed and decorated set.
7) Build bridges, don’t burn them. Learn to deal with big and/or troubled personalities in a professional manner.
Film and television is loaded with every type of personality under the sun and you won’t necessarily jive with everyone. While it may all seem like fun and games when you first enter the industry, film is a business and you are a business associate. Act like a professional even when your colleague is being a complete asshole.
8) When you are starting out you should pay as much attention to your budget as you do to your design process. You will be remembered for it.
As you move on in your career you will still need to meet your budget demands but you can hire better and better art directors to manage this. When you are first starting out you will rarely have this luxury and because budgets are smaller there is less wiggle room so you must meet your budget limitations.
9) Stay true to your word. This is possible when you under promise and over deliver.
This is a balancing act that takes years to get right. Be very aware of anything and everything you promise to a director or DOP or anyone else in the crew because you will be expected to deliver even when every single circumstance changes to work against you like the devil himself as it inevitably will.
10) The paper trail will never deceive you.
Take time to create a thorough paper trail of your discussions and approvals. Even once you’ve spoken to your superior in person or over the phone, you have to send follow up emails to confirm what was said in writing and make sure to always CC anybody else who the email may concern. This allows you to work with greater confidence and less information will slip through the cracks between departments. This is particularly important with any budgetary matter. It is very easy for a producer or PM to get out of something they approved in person if there is no proof in writing. This process is time-consuming and annoying but in a business that can sometimes be shady it is more and more necessary to have all of your ducks in a row. Eventually the paper trail will become second nature to you.
BONUS TIP FOR FILMMAKERS: Don’t do anything you see in the classic 90’s cult film, Living in Oblivion. Please and thanks.
Do you agree? Have I missed anything? Is there something else you would add to this list? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Rose Lagacé | @artdepartmental