The tools of an architect and a production designer aren’t too different, according to John Chichester, director of production design at Chapman University in California. “Our motives are entirely different,” Chichester clarifies. “We’re storytellers.”
Chichester, a production designer who’s worked on projects like “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” and “Star Trek: Nemesis,” uses Chapman’s state-of-the-art facilities within Dodge College to train undergraduate and graduate students to visualize an entire film. “A production designer needs to know a lot about writing about the structure and style of dramatic writing because you’re going to be interpreting that,” he says. “You’re thinking a lot like an actor, you’re interpreting the character. You’re also thinking like a director how you’re going to move these actors around in space.”
Production design, formalized by art director William Cameron Menzies in “Gone with the Wind,” is designing all of “the stuff that’s out-of-focus behind the actor’s head,” Chichester jokes. But in practicality, a production designer lets a creative team discover everything they need to create a scene. “To make sure they were only building [only] what the audience was going to see,” explains Chichester.
With only a few schools in the nation dedicated to production design, Backstage chatted with Chichester about the industry and the necessary training.
What is your definition of a production designer?
The production designer is the first person to do anything after the script is written. For all practical purposes, the movie is being made on your drawing table. Production design is a bridge between writing a film and shooting the film.
What are the signs someone should pursue production design?
People come into production design from many different avenues. On the west coast, in Los Angeles-based production design, most of the people were trained as architects. On the east coast, the New York school of production designers, most of those folks are Broadway babies.
What makes the production design program at Chapman unique?
The greatest thing about the school is that the students are really good. They know how to be students—they’re very motivated and excited to be there. The students have great ideas and they want to expand their horizons. It’s a wonderful place to teach! Rarely, if ever, do I have to ask someone to take the next step—they’re usually there before I am.
Is there something that you look for in application portfolios?
Certainly, if they’ve had production experience. If they’ve been working on a couple of films or in the theater. That will show me that they know what the environment is like.
It’s easy to tell if somebody’s talented or not—because you can see their ideas. Production design is something outside of yourself, so it’s something you can quantify. It takes under a couple of minutes to take a look at someone’s work and quantify where they are.
What sort of questions should people think about when they choose a program?
Look at all the biographies of all the faculty, every single person that you’re going to be taking a class from. Do the research. What their professional credits are, what their background is—what they’ve done. If you look at their credits and you like their work, that can connect you with that person.
I wouldn’t be afraid to reach out to faculty of colleges you might be thinking of attending—even before you actually apply and ask them for their opinions and thoughts. People are available—they’re usually really busy, but they’ll probably get back to you.
Look at the school’s movies. Do you like them? Do you think they’re any good? Ask if you can look at portfolios of recent graduates and students who are in the program. See if it’s the work that you’d like to be doing.
What is an important lesson that you learned in your own training?
Get up early, get there early, never get there late; get there before the director gets there.
Always be straight with people. Be careful not to say too much or step out of place. Never say no. Never, ever, ever say no. Say, “I’ll get right on it and these are the ramifications of this decision. It’s going to be $10,000 more. You okay with that? If you’re okay with that, I’m ready to do it!” Get “no” out of your vocabulary—“no” does not exist. Because “no” is tantamount to “I want to be fired.”
Never question anybody in front of other people—because that can undermine their authority and that goes for people that you work for as well as people working for you. Always bring them aside to have that conversation alone. Don’t ever put anybody on the spot.
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!