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Production Designers Talk

Updated on January 9, 2014

What Do Production Designers Do?

In theater, scenic designers design all the sets - the "rooms" or environment of the stage show.

In film and television, production designers create the visual ideas behind all the locations - whether these are built sets or modified real locations - and set the tone for every visual aspect of the film. And set designers work for production designers...

But, frankly, I'll admit to a little confusion on film production titles between the production designer, the art director, and the set designer. These titles have mutated a bit over the history of film, I think, and I read somewhere that the title production designer was invented to reflect the greater than usual importance of the lead designer for Gone With the Wind. Is that true?

Big films today may have all three titles - with the production designer as the lead, but all three sharing responsibility for design of the film's environments.

Obviously production designers (and art and set designers) work for the director and work with a team of other designers and craftsmen, who all collaborate closely, while each having their own particular specialty. (Costume design is pretty autonomous) Set design and set decoration are linked, as are props etc. It's common on film for every sign, book, soda can, and anything with lettering on it to be specially designed, since this is often easier than getting legal clearances to use existing products.

Production design for a movie or TV show is a huge and complicated operation!

This Lens will pull together some sources for more information on production design - concentrating on interviews of the designers themselves. This is a work-in-progress Lens. Please keep visiting for more info as I find it.

"...the job of the designers of costumes, sets, and lights, is to increase the audience's enjoyment of the play past that which might be expected in a performance done in street clothes, on a bare stage, under work lights."

— David Mamet

Production Design for Black Swan

This fascinating video interview with production designer Therese DePrez and director Darren Aronofsky shows how intelligent, subtle, and powerful film production design can be.

Watch this first! It explains everything...

A concept drawing for The Nightmare Before Christmas
A concept drawing for The Nightmare Before Christmas

Seminars on Production Design

Seminars by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on the subject of production design. Even if you can't travel to Hollywood, check out the websites for great concept drawings and design photos!

Evolution or Revolution? Production Design in the 21st Century The rendering on the right is from Nightmare Before Christmas, production designer Kendal Cronkhite, from this website.

The Art, Science, and Psychology of Production Design Beautiful B&W stills of earlier film sets.

Pulling Back the Drapes: Set Decoration Revealed The importance of set decorating.

Interviews with Production Designers and Art Directors - (And other sources of information.)

Some of these interviews are text, some on video. See what some working production designers and art directors have to say...

Books on Production Design

Because films and television shows often look so "realistic" and because real locations are often used, the audience seldom realizes just how much those visual backgrounds have been manipulated to support the story.

If you see it on film - it was chosen deliberately.

One of the best and simplest examples for the subtlety and power of production design comes in a crucial scene in the low budget indie film Juno: the young, pregnant girl calls the boy who made her pregnant. Without verbal explanation we, the audience, SEE exactly why she can't count on him to man-up and help her... in character he's really just a little boy. How do we see this? First because he's sitting on the floor, playing a video game, but most powerfully because he is leaning against A TOY RACE CAR BED. Without a word, the setting shows us how much of a child this boy still is.

Start really looking at the backgrounds of favorite movie scenes and see how - like a musical underscore - visuals can also powerfully affect the feeling of that scene in an often subliminal way.

Here are some of the (few) books on production design. We few, we important-but-overlooked few!

The Filmmaker's Guide to Production Design
The Filmmaker's Guide to Production Design

Interesting - but not quite as in-depth as I'd like.

 
Dream Worlds: Production Design for Animation
Dream Worlds: Production Design for Animation

This book looks so good that I just bought it - really - right now. Now I'll go stand by the mailbox until it arrives...

UPDATE: It arrived. It's beautiful. I'm still reading it... a lot on design, a lot of behind the scenes info on designing Mulan, so far very interesting!

 

What Makes a Production Designer?

What abilities, knowledge, and skills does a production designer need?

A Hobbit house interior
A Hobbit house interior

The world of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit HAVE to be some of the most beautifully realized production designs ever filmed.

On Location

A very important part of production design for film and TV is location work.

Set Building

Movie sets under construction!

YouTube

A WILD! time-lapse video of the building of the Titanic set.

A Look at Hollywood's Golden Age

This is a lavishly illustrated book on - not the films - but the film-making town that was MGM's backlot and studio. Great black and white photos of the behind the scenes buildings and departments. For a set or production designer the photos of the Art Department, carpentry, backlot sets, and legendary Properties Dept. are fascinating.

And there are maps!

MGM Backlot.info

The book's website - with more good photos.

Interview with a TV Costume Designer

Slightly off topic... but not by much.

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    • Amy Fricano profile image

      Amy Fricano 5 years ago from WNY

      I'll be back. Teach me more!

    • Amy Fricano profile image

      Amy Fricano 5 years ago from WNY

      I'll be back. Teach me more!

    • Amy Fricano profile image

      Amy Fricano 5 years ago from WNY

      I'll be back. Teach me more!