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What Does a Production Designer Do?

The Millennium Falcon, the Overlook Hotel, Hogwarts, and Jurassic Park — all these famous fictional places became reality in movies thanks to the extensive work put in by a production designer. The designer works on key design elements to bring your location’s world to life. Peerspace helps make a production designer’s job easier with an expansive location database featuring thousands of production venues, including an Old West mining town and a versatile industrial warehouse. Whether you need to shoot on Mars or in an oversized living room because your characters shrank themselves, production designers can create those worlds. Let’s explore what exactly a production designer does on a set.

What is a production designer?

In simple terms, the production designer coordinates the visual appearance and artistic style of a film while managing the art team and budget. They work hand in hand with the director and the cinematographer to create an aesthetic, and they are equally vital to the filmmaking process, both for television and film.

Production designers can decide on the mood and atmosphere of each scene based on colors, textures, furniture, patterns, lighting, and composition. Everything from strategizing how spacious a set should be to how many windows to have in a room can directly influence the character’s psyche and tell the story.

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What does a production designer do during pre-production?

During the pre-production phase of filmmaking, the production designer is there right from the beginning. This is the time spent brainstorming. After reading the script, production designers meet with the director and discuss their ideas to form a mood and bring in visual themes. Decisions are made on whether to build sets or use real locations, as well as use CGI or work on practical effects.

Once the logistics pinpointed, the production designer has to talk through the budget with producers. The budget is another determining factor for production design, either limiting or boosting it. From there, the production designer can begin sketching out sets and creating models. This involves a heavy amount of research to understand the period that a film is set in, as well as the culture or the world of the characters, especially if they are based on a comic book or real life. The designers take in the inspiration the director gives them, using it to flesh out the world.

The research, the sketches, and the models are all handed to the art team hired by the production designer. The art department is the largest film department on set, and the production designer is in charge of their work schedule and budgets. The art department comprises costume designers, set designers, graphic artists, special effects teams, propmasters, set decorators, carpenters, illustrators, painters, makeup artists, and many more jobs within jobs. With everyone’s help, the work is easily delegated and they can move towards production.

What are the designer’s duties during production?

Once shooting begins, the production designer should be virtually everywhere — however, they cannot leave the set. There are things constantly getting prepared or wrapped up by the art department. While shooting, the production designer is on set, yet always checking in with the rest of the team via the second in command, the art director. Whether by walkie or phone, they are overseeing the building of the next set.

On the working set, the production designer is there to make sure the set is to their liking and that each camera setup is benefiting from every visual element on set. They discuss anything that might not be working while all the elements — such as lighting, lenses, actors, wardrobe, and set decoration — are in play. Something might end up being too distracting on camera or a hazard to the actor — or perhaps some element might even need to be added last minute. That’s why it is vital the production designer is on set during shooting.

How does the designer assist during post-production?

In post-production, the production designer is done with the heavy lifting. They oversee the art team as they organize and store away anything that is needed in case of reshoots or sequels, making sure everything is accounted for. They are primarily there for any input on the CGI, visual effects, or color grading — in the end, they have to make sure all visuals match what the director and the production designer decided on from the very beginning.

Production designers can create a million worlds

A good production designer knows how to translate the mood, character, and themes of a story using the physical world around us. What sets them apart is their ingenuity. More often than not, there are constraints on building a world based on the physical limitations of the real world and the budget of the production. They have to figure out what they can do by combining their own artistic sensibilities along with the director’s vision.

Case study: The Grand Budapest Hotel

With the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson referenced old kodachrome postcards and the paintings of Gustav Klimt for the look of the titular hotel location. After the crew couldn’t find an old hotel to convert, they found an old shopping mall that the production designer, Adam Stockhausen, was able to work with.

All the shots were planned so intricately that each individual set was designed specifically around the shots, not the other way around. And because the movie takes place in two time periods that share the same location, the production design showcases its power by comparing the same space with completely different set decoration that emphasizes the change within the story. The contrast between wealth and decline hits harder, and a melancholy looms within the story.

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Case study: Marriage Story

However, not all production design has to be extraordinary and loud on screen. In fact, a lot of great production design happens subtly. For example in the movie Marriage Story, production design is used to indicate transition, both from New York to Los Angeles, and within the relationship of the two main characters getting a divorce. The production designer, Jade Healy, scouted locations for the bare bones of what she would need, and then decorated with what would apply to the story.

Since Los Angeles and New York are contrasted throughout the movie with the use of space, she had the LA apartment drown the character, Charlie, in negative space. Since he’s lived in New York most of his life, he finds himself out of his element and lost. Meanwhile, the character Nicole needs her own piece of Earth and, during her time in New York with Charlie, she feels engulfed by his life.

So the New York apartment is designed to overflow with things that make the place feel cozy, but ultimately unlike her. When she buys her own house in LA, it’s clear she’s thriving in her new space based on the decorations unlike anything we’d seen previously in New York. She is her own person now.

And those are only two examples of the millions of worlds created by production designers. If you want to become a production designer, it is more than just being creative and artistic, you’ve got to be a leader with management experience. Collaboration is an important part of the job as well as communication and a keen eye for design. If you love filmmaking, production design is definitely a vital art that you can’t leave out during your own production.

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