Production Designers are major heads of department on film crews, and are responsible for the entire Art Department. They play a crucial role in helping Directors to achieve the film's visual requirements, and in providing Producers with carefully calculated schedules which offer viable ways of making films within agreed budgets and specified periods of time. Filming locations may range from an orderly Victorian parlour, to a late-night café, to the interior of an alien space ship. The look of a set or location is vital in drawing the audience into the story, and is an essential element in making a film convincing and evocative. A great deal of work and imagination goes into constructing an appropriate backdrop to any story, and into selecting or constructing appropriate locations and/or sets.
Directors of Photography and Production Designers are largely responsible for informing and realising the Director's vision. Production Designers begin work at the very early stages of pre-production and are requested by the Director and/or Producer. They work on a freelance basis, and may have to prepare detailed drawings and specifications in order to pitch for work on a number of productions before they are offered work on one of them. Although the work can be very demanding and the hours long, this is one of the most highly skilled, creatively fulfilling roles within the film industry.
What is the job?
Production Designers may be asked to look at scripts before a Director is approached, to provide estimates of the projected Art Department spend on films. When Production Designers first read a screenplay, they assess the visual qualities that will help to create atmosphere and bring the story to life.
After preparing a careful breakdown of the script, they meet with the Director to discuss how best to shoot the film, e.g. to decide: whether to use sets and /or locations; what should be built and what should be adapted; whether there is a visual theme that recurs throughout the film; whether there are certain design elements that may give an emotional or psychological depth to the film; whether CGI (computer generated imagery) should be used. Production Designers must calculate the budgets, and decide how the money and effort will be spent. These discussions are followed by an intense period of research during which Production Designers and their Specialist Researchers source ideas from books, photographs, paintings, the internet, etc.
Production Designers deliver their design sketches (detailing mood, atmosphere, lighting, composition, colour and texture) to Art Directors who oversee the production of technical drawings and models, which are used by the Construction Department to build the sets and to adapt locations. Props Buyers and Set Decorators liaise closely, sourcing props and organising the manufacture of specialist items. As the start of shooting approaches, Production Designers manage a large number of individuals, prioritising the work schedule and carefully monitoring the budget. When shooting starts, they are usually on set early each morning to view each new set up with the Director, Director of Photography and Standby Art Director, responding to any requests or queries. Subsequently, in the Art Department office Production Designers check on the construction and dressing of other sets, and sign off on sets/locations for the following day's shoot. Although Production Designers usually finish work on the last day of principal photography, on larger films they may be involved for longer periods.
Typical career routes
As the head of the largest department on a film crew, Production Designers must have extensive experience gained over a number of years, usually by progressing through the various Art Department roles: Junior Draughtsman, Draughtsman, Assistant Art Director, Art Director. They may also have a background of working in theatre, where they learn the art of set design and construction as well as how to conceptualise ideas and create a sense of drama through visual spectacle. Graduates who have studied Film and Theatre Design may also gain experience working on short films before progressing to junior roles on feature films.
Essential knowledge and skills
Production Designers must have expert knowledge of many art and design related subjects including draughtsmanship, technical drawing, colour theory, architecture, building and construction, history of design, interior design, cameras and lenses, lighting, etc. Production Designers must also have full knowledge of computer budgeting software and computer aided design programmes (CADS).
Key Skills include:
Training and qualifications
Production Designers are usually graduates of Art, Architecture, Theatre, Interior or 3D Design courses. Subsequently they usually complete a specialist course in Film and/or Theatre Design.
Individual course accreditation in certain subject areas is currently being piloted. As part of Creative Skillset's and the BFI's Film Skills Strategy, A Bigger Future 2, a network of Screen Academies and a Film Business Academy have been approved as centres of excellence in education and training for film.Where to go for more information
Creative Skillset is the Creative Industries' Sector Skills Council. The first sources of information for all jobs in the industry are the National Occupational Standards. Browse Creative Skillset's website for links to our network of training partners, information about training and access to the comprehensive Creative Skillset/BFI course database. Finally, for detailed media careers information and advice, visit www.creativeskillset.org/careers.Websites
- British Film Designers Guild
- American Cinematographer has regular features on film design and digital production techniques.
- Ken Adam: The Art of Production Design (Faber and Faber) by Christopher Frayling
- Production Design and Art Direction (Focal Press) by Peter Ettedgui
- By Design: Interviews with Film Production Designers (Greenwood Press) by Vincent LoBrutto
- Film Architecture: From Metropolis to Blade Runner (Prestel Publishing Ltd). Edited by D. Neumann 2001
- Filming the Future (Aurum Press Ltd) by Piers Bizony
- The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matt Painting (Chronicle Books) by M. Cotta Vaz and C. Barron
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