What is Production Design?

WHAT IS PRODUCTION DESIGN?

When we watch a movie, how do we know where and when it is taking place?

This is just one of the questions a production designer working on a film or TV show helps audiences answer. They do so through the design of the physical environment that is the backdrop to the story of the film.

Here are some more questions that production design helps us answer, sometimes in very subtle ways:

  • How do we know what kind of story we are about to embark on?
  • Should we take events seriously or see the humour in them?
  • When should we be concerned for characters in this story?
  • When should we feel relaxed and confident that all will end well?
  • How can we tell what a character is feeling?
  • Where have these characters come from?
  • What has led them to this point in their lives?
  • How do we know if we can trust them?

WHAT IS A PRODUCTION DESIGNER?

A production designer is responsible for the overall look and visual translation of a screen project such as film.  This responsibility includes developing the general approach to what the audience sees on screen and overseeing every fine detail included on screen.  The production designer is the head of the art department and the creative driver for the director of the look of the film.  Working to support the story the director is trying to tell, the production designer and the director of photography work with the director to create a consistent approach to their visual storytelling.

Related Art Departmental Posts:

Alex McDowell Explains the Role of a Production Designer


WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRODUCTION DESIGN AND ART DIRECTION?

Production designer guides all the different departments in charge of the design of a film, from sets and props to advising on costumes and make-up, locations and even visual effects. The PD works directly with the director, DP and producer to create a unified look of the film. Often PDs design a lot of stuff directly themselves, often sets but also other things that he/she then hands off for refinement, or they delegate the design work to the different departments and simply monitors and chooses what works or not (with director’s approval of course).

The art director is the administrative lead of the art department, basically handling the logistics of delegating tasks to all the different members of the department and managing their schedule, budget and all that stuff. They work alongside the set decorator, right under the PD.

Occasionally, the two terms get confused, and production designer is sometimes used to just denote the head of the art department, even though PDs are supposed to have a broader responsibility than that, but this is generally how it works.


THE IMPORTANCE OF PRODUCTION DESIGN IN FILMMAKING

A note to filmmakers:

If you are a filmmaker, production design is not something you can get away with not dealing with unless your entire film is set in the woods or a desert, for example. Chances are your film is not set in the woods or in the desert and even if they were, I lied- they still need a great production designer. Have you seen The Revenant or Lawrence of Arabia? Both films had amazing production designers you barely noticed were there which was kind of the point, no?

I know what you’re thinking, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Or money for that. Well, um, yes you do. Unless you enjoy films that look like the crust on the bottom of your shoe after a long night at the club. Your film is more likely to get into a notable film festival if it doesn’t look like shoe crust.

No matter what your budget, you will need a production designer. I know they forgot to tell you this in film school, and that sucks, but you need a production designer. This does not mean you can’t make your film. What it does mean is that you need to budget a little bit or a lot 10-15% of your overall budget on production design. You likely found a way to budget for your camera and some drives and someone to operate it all, you can do the same for production design.

The Art of Production Design: Getting the Most out of Your Film’s Visuals