How Production Design Takes Your Favorite Stories From Great to Greater

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Photo Source: Production designer Tamara Deverell on the set of “Nightmare Alley” Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

If you’ve seen “Footloose,” did you get a sense for the claustrophobic small-town feel while watching? Or get a taste of the surreal with the spinning hallway in “Inception”? Or wondered about the books shown on the bookshelves of “tick, tick…BOOM!”? That’s the sign of great production design. Designers are responsible for aligning a set with its plot, tone, and sense of space and time. 

Keep reading to learn all about production design, why it’s important, and how to do set design.

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What is production design?

Black Panther production design“Black Panther” Courtesy Marvel Studios

Production design is the art of creating a film’s aesthetic through its set—and production designers are the architects of a film’s setting. They’re also the overall managers of the art department alongside their second-in-command, the film’s art director. 

“The production designer is a key team member who not just translates the vision of the director/writer, but also brings so much of their own into the process, that sometimes it’s hard to say what was in the mind of the production designer and what was in the mind of the director. It’s all kind of alchemy,” explains Inbal Weinberg (“Suspiria,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), co-founder of the Production Designers Collective and director of the Production Designers Gathering.

What do production designers do?

Dune set design“Dune” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

1. Generate ideas: The designer reads the script and starts brainstorming ideas with the director. A director may have a clear vision for their film, but it’ll only work if they connect with the production designer to share their ideas with as much detail and accuracy as possible. Major decisions, such as whether to shoot on location, are made during this stage of preparation.

2. Create prototypes: After the project’s style and tone are decided on, the production designer starts pulling together their ideas. This could include sketching, making models, creating mood boards, and referencing other media that feel akin to the imagined final product.

Depending on how extensive and complex a project is, they might use a concept artist to show the development of the film’s visual style. However, this is usually only needed on larger projects or films that rely heavily on CGI.

According to Fiona Crombie (“Cruella,” “The Favourite”), “You sort of wind up finding different avenues to get the inspiration. At the end of the day, it’s about the inspiration.” Brainstorming is a crucial part of the process. “Playing with samples, trying out different ideas, and exploring the possibilities is the best way to begin developing the structure of sets,” she says.

RELATED: How to Become a Production Designer for Film, TV, and Theater

3. Scout and research: Production designers then get to work scouting locations (although this step may happen earlier with the director) and finding out what materials they’ll need. This is where having excellent research skills is a major asset. The time period, location, and character detailing all come into play here.

4. Assemble the crew: It’s up to the production designer to source materials for the set and to assemble the crew members to construct it. Many designers have a team of people they have worked with before who are already familiar with the designer’s methods and styles. The sooner they understand what they’re doing, the faster they can get it done.

5. Establish the set: Once preparations are complete, the production designer delegates roles to the art department, who then starts the huge undertaking of assembling the sets of the film. The process comprises: 

  • Building the space: If the production designer decides to make the sets from scratch on a soundstage or backlot, workers from the construction build environments based on the blueprints designed by the assistant art director or draftsman.
  • Furnishing sets: Once the space is built, set decorators furnish sets with fixtures like appliances, furniture, sculptures, and artwork. The production designer might also bring on a greensman if they need added support with plants and landscaping.
  • Adding final touches: Finally, prop makers add details to the set. For example, if they’re working on a kitchen set, they might place a utensil crock or a bowl of fruit on a countertop. 
  • Guiding the art department: The production designer acts mostly as a guide throughout this procedure. Since they can’t be everywhere at once, they rely on the art director and the other heads of departments to be their eyes and ears on the ground. Occasionally, they might step in and personally make changes to a set, but their main job is making sure the work of the art department stays aligned with the planned vision of the film.

6. Prepare for last-minute changes: Most set design takes place during preproduction before principal photography starts, but the production designer and their crew remain available throughout production in case any last-minute changes need to be made. Accounting for every possible complication—like a chair being too squeaky or using a material that an actor is allergic to—is practically impossible, so it’s important that the art department stay on standby.

Why is production design important in filmmaking?

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood design“Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood” Courtesy Sony Pictures

The art department creates the foundation on which many other visual elements exist. The way the director of photography lights and films a scene, how the actors perform, and the decisions the director makes will all be influenced by set design. 

“In the film structure, we’re almost like the visual headquarters of the film. We’re always sharing visual information about what we’re doing and how things are going to be seen,” says Weinberg.

When a set is well-designed, actors have the chance to not just perform on a set, but to inhabit a carefully crafted space. Talented actors can take advantage of their surroundings to make their character portrayals more authentic. The better the set, the more opportunities they have to engage with the world of their character. Poor set design can create an “off” feeling where the visuals are not quite aligned. As a result, audience immersion suffers.

While designing a set, the production designer considers how the fine details will wordlessly inform and enhance the story being told. Details like the decorations in a bedroom or the messy interior of an old, beaten-up car go a long way in fleshing out a character’s personality and mental state.

“You should, as an audience, understand more about the characters from the production design and the world at large,” says Crombie.

These details may not even be consciously noticed by the audience, but they’re subliminally absorbed as part of the narrative. They add details to the story that may not have been conceived by the writer or the director.

What makes good production design?

The Northman good production design“The Northman” Courtesy Focus Features

Reflecting style and tone: For a film like Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story,” about a couple’s divorce, production uses minimalism to highlight the contrast between the home the couple shared, full of knick-knacks and framed art, and the new bachelor’s post-breakup apartment—composed of white walls and sparse furniture. Alternatively, for a film like “The Northman,” directed by Robert Eggers, production designer Craig Lathrop started building the film’s main farm a year before production. He wanted it to have time to grow naturally and feel as period accurate as possible.

Believability: The visuals and setting must work within the internal logic of the film. Films with a low budget, or otherwise poor production design, end viewer suspension of disbelief—think of the flying shark in “Sharknado” versus the terror-inducing shark in “Jaws.”  

Innovation: While production design needs to be believable, it should also be visually appealing. “Every design comes from a very real place, and then it’s a very interesting conversation with the director to decide how far to push it beyond realism,” says Weinberg. “And that’s where I think it’s a super-interesting and fun place for a production designer: How far can we take it? How much can we play with the conventions?” Once the production designer creates a setting that matches the film’s style and tone, and is believable and innovative, it’s up to the filmmaker to make it cinematic.

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” demonstrates how creative production design contributes to a film. The multiple brick apartments, open windows, and common courtyard created by production designer Hal Pereira contribute to the film’s voyeuristic, claustrophobic feel.

For the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, designer Grant Major created armor, weapons, prosthetics, and architecture ranging from modest hobbit huts to shimmering Rivendell gazebos to create a believable yet fantastical Middle-earth.

Tips for executing a production design plan

Inception set“Inception” Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

These production design tips help with crafting the best set designs.

Communicate: It’s important for the production designer to create clear and open lines of communication with the senior management of the project, especially the director and the producers. Without strong communication, it’s impossible to translate the director’s vision to the screen. The production designer should keep the director and the other departments up-to-date on every major development.

Create a roadmap: Making a complete outline for the production—or what Crombie calls the “design bones”—is crucial to efficiently construct set designs and prevent miscommunications down the line. “That’s kind of the holy grail of filmmaking: just plan for everything to the point where you know on set you can just go with the flow,” says Weinberg. If the crew begins to lose sight of the focus of the production, they can always find their way through this roadmap and its breakdown of mood, character, and theme. 

Choose the right location: The decision to either shoot on a custom-made soundstage set or a real-world location should be weighed carefully. Each option comes with pros and cons. Building a set can get pricey, but it allows for greater control over the production. Shooting at a real-world location is often cheaper and may take less time to set up, but it can also be less accessible for the crew and presents environmental issues such as outside noises. 

Be an encouraging leader: A good production designer isn’t just a great artist; they also have to be a skillful and considerate manager of their crew. Being kind, open, and approachable helps with team cohesion. 

Stay organized: Labeling all the props and equipment of a set and keeping them in good order is always helpful. Having to search for a specific item when it’s needed puts the schedule on hold, costing precious time.

Find the right materials: Getting construction materials and props can be a tricky task, especially when the budget is tight. Recycling and reusing is a must whenever possible. Renting props can also be a better alternative to making them from scratch. 

Be flexible: At a certain point, both the director and production designer have to accept that they’re not going to get a perfect translation of their original vision—but that’s not always a bad thing, since it can encourage insights from the crew. “I’m surrounded by clever people; I am the beneficiary of their great ideas. When you delegate, that person is able to dig in deeper,” Crombie says. 

Every film presents different challenges for the production designer. An open mind helps when going into a new project. When things go wrong, it’s up to the production designer to stay calm under pressure and hash it out with the different departments to find the best solution. Being flexible and open to new ideas can make for great opportunities and creative choices.