There are so many moving parts in a film production that it's easy to phone in (or even completely ignore) something like production design. You see it all the time in first-time films, where the cinematography and editing might be superb, but elements like wardrobe, makeup, and set décor are lacking the same thoughtfulness and attention to detail. And I get it, designing a set and sourcing dressings may not be your biggest passions (they're definitely not mine), but understanding how big of an impact production design can have on your visual storytelling might not only inspire you to give it a little more effort but also know how to approach it.
In this video essay, the StudioBinder team highlights three important ways that production design can elevate your story by visually communicating key information to your audience without requiring a word of dialogue. Check it out below:
Filmmaking is a visual medium, so the "show it, don't tell it" axiom is especially important. Rarely do audience's like to be given information through expositional scenes because they tend to be tedious, overcomplicated, and perhaps not only the least economical way of conveying ideas and data but also the least stimulating. When you're telling your audience what they need to know, you're lecturing them. When you're showing them what they need to know, you're allowing them to make inferences about what they see on-screen, put two and two together, and actively engage in the storytelling process.
This is why production design can be such a great storytelling tool because the visual elements it employs—a pristine bathroom, an empty fridge, an apartment full of IKEA furniture—can tell your audience so much more about your story than words often can. So, what exactly can it communicate? According to StudioBinder, there are three things:
- Mood: How do you want your audience to feel when watching a certain scene? Fearful? Sad? Tranquil? Whatever it is, that is the "mood" of the scene and production design can really help you establish it. For example, if the mood is supposed to be scary, dark, decayed, old, and broken elements will definitely help communicate that.
- Character: Can your audience tell what kind of person your character is or how they're feeling based on the set design? If not, they totally can. For example, an unkempt home could indicate that a character is a slob, while a room full of sports memorabilia indicates a character is a sport's fan.
- Theme: The themes of your film can be communicated through your set design as well. Once you establish what they are—human vs. nature, human vs. technology, coming of age, capitalism—you can choose design elements that contain subtext, reminding your audience of what your story is all about.
If you want to take your production design to the next level, StudioBinder is offering its Production Design Worksheet for free, which will help you flesh out the concepts talked about in the video. To download, all you'll need is your email address.