An Eye on Everything: The Production Designer
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 7 min read

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What is a production designer? To answer that, we have to start with some basics of the mediums these professionals serve. When it comes to art forms like film, TV and theater, never forget that they are all first and foremost visual mediums. Sound plays an important role, too—think dialogue, sound effects and music. But if you take away the imagery or literally close your eyes, you will no longer be immersed in the worlds created by directors and actors.

Production design is the key element that defines the overall look of a production. In a film, every single thing you are looking at on screen is the direct responsibility of the production designer. Working with directors, producers, and cinematographers, a production designer crafts a consistent visual feel that will define a movie's ethos from the first frame to the closing credits. What follows is a primer for what you need to know about production design.

Production Design 101: What Does a Production Designer Do?

Production Designer

The very first question we must ask is: What does a production designer do? It's too easy to say they play a hand in every visual aspect of a production, even if that's true. This is an incredibly complex position that combines multiple skills: graphic design, management and budgeting. Artistic ability must be married to directing the entire art department and compiling the costs of bringing a vision to life.

This is an important role to learn about if you want to gain more insight about the filmmaking process and industry. In many ways, the production designer is the keystone to a film or TV production. If you find yourself transported to an entirely different place when you watch a film, this is the person most responsible for getting you there. Here's what you need to know about production design.

Production Design Pre-Production: The Heart of the Process

1. Crafting the Vision

Production Design Pre-Production

As soon as a director has a completed script in hand coupled with their vision for the work, they must immediately partner with a production designer. Discussing what the film needs to look like and feel like, an agreement is reached on how the mise-en-scene – meaning everything seen on screen – will be perceived by the audience.

At this stage, key department heads like screenwriters and the cinematographer get involved, all contributing their ideas to serve the visual aspect of the project. Elements like genre, period, color motifs, emotional themes and more come up in brainstorming sessions as the ideas are fleshed out. All of this is guided by the story and what it requires to visually tell it as well as what reactions they are meant to evoke from viewers.

For example, if you're making a western, you will have to make sure that costumes match what people wore back then and what type of building designs were prominent at the time. However, if you're creating a work of science fiction, you will have to create a whole new world and agree to the features which define it, from wardrobe to props.

Beyond the elements of time and setting, other aspects will come into play. These may include lighting, color theory and special camera angles to tell the story. Your western could take place mostly at night and use deep shadows to convey a sense of dread, or primarily be depicted in sunny green feels to express hope and joy. These are the kind of choices made at the outset of pre-production which will establish the audience experience.

Finally, when crafting the vision, financial considerations must come into play. The production designer is responsible for breaking down the script and determining what every bit of material needed to realize the vision will cost. Once that is established, they will go back to the producers and directors to see what can fit into the budget and what might need to be adjusted.

2. The Research Phase

The Research Phase

Once the production team has agreed upon the overall look of the film, the production designer needs to start refining the ideas into a visual form. In order to do that, they will need to do a lot of research so that the film's vision can be accurately realized. This can mean looking into human history, art history, photography and art portfolios or even past films for reference and inspiration.

If a production needs to be historically accurate, for example, then looking at everything you can source from the time period is key. Consider the hit TV show Mad Men. Taking place in mid-century America, everything from the costumes to home styles and hairdos needs to be accurate. If a contemporary model car drives through a scene, the illusion of being in 1960 will be shattered for the audience. The production designer makes sure that every aspect reflects that story's setting.

Now, if a production designer is tasked with creating new worlds as they may in a science fiction tale, then other sources must be referenced. For example, the classic horror film Alien called for creating a futuristic spaceship environment that looked both advanced and familiar at the same time. Studying past sci-fi movies as well as contemporary industrial design allowed for the visual feel of an environment that immediately defined its look and stayed consistent throughout.

Whether a production designer is looking to Picasso paintings to craft a surrealist pastiche or eyeing Hitchcock films for inspiration to add noirish elements to a project, this research will help inform their final product. When they say art imitates life, this is the role where that adage proves to be completely true.

3. Drawing It Out: Time to Design

Drawing It Out: Time to Design

Now that the production has agreed to the look and feel of the film and the production designer has done their research, it's time to start drafting illustrations. These drawings will be the first solid look at the world being created for the project.

Everything from sets to costumes and lighting will be drawn in exacting detail to come as close as possible to match what the final product will look like. These illustrations will become the road map for the visual consistency of the film, a unified feel which will anchor audiences in the world being created.

One last note on these illustrations: they can even come into play before a film is even ready to be made! Successful film pitches often pair a script with preliminary production design in order to secure interest and patronage for a project. The blockbuster movie The Matrix famously employed production design illustrations to gain studio backing for The Wachowskis, effectively jump-starting their careers.

4. Art Department, Assemble!

Art Department, and Assemble

After being reviewed, revised and approved by the production team, the production designer's work is handed off to the art department so they can start making the real-life elements needed for the film. As head of the art department, they will hire their team: art directors, set designers, graphic artists, make up & wardrobe, set decorators, propmasters and more.

Each will take the production designer's illustrations and use them to make the real thing. Technical drawings are drafted to build sets. Costume design is taken to the page. Props are crafted and gathered. All materials necessary to erect and dress sets and locations are collected and employed to create the film's environment. Everything is now ready for the camera.

Production Design in Production: Supervising the Realized Vision

1. An Eye on the Day's Set

Once the pre-production is set up and running, the production designer's duties shift from preparation to on-site supervision. Present every day on the film shoot, they have to make sure that everything looks the way it's supposed to look as agreed upon during the design stage. If they spot anything that needs adjusting, they communicate it to the production and direct them to make the necessary changes.

But surprise events can always alter plans at a moment's notice while shooting: scripts could be modified, weather may not cooperate and other unforeseen challenges can arise. If some big change to the look of the film must happen on the spot, the production designer will be there to ensure that any changes will remain consistent with the vision of the film. On top of being a master manager and visual genius, they need to be able to think fast on their feet!

2. An Eye on Tomorrow's Set

While spending time on set, a production designer also has to keep the following day's shooting in mind. As cameras roll on one set, another one is being prepared by the art department for upcoming scenes. Communication is key as the whole art department speaks and shares images online, ensuring everybody is on the same page and that tomorrow's needs are met today.

Production Design in Post Production: Finishing Touches

Production Design in Post Production

In the larger history of film, production designers have not been a very significant feature of post production efforts. With the growing advent of CGI effects, that has changed in the last couple of decades. Many productions will find the production designer working with post production teams to help oversee digital effects, making sure that it all looks consistent with the overall visual feel of the final product. While not always a primary player at this stage, their input is still invaluable as the overall keeper of what audiences will see on screen. To find out more about working on set, sign up to our upcoming classes on Daisie or rewatch them here.