Step Up Your Production Design With These Helpful Tips

Production design is going to define the visual style of your project. Don't skimp on it. 

Even before a camera is turned on, it is the production design that defines the visual voice of a film. It's a topic No Film School explores frequently because of its importance in storytelling. Indy Mogul recently dove into the subject with production designer Sam Lisenco, whose work includes the Safdie's Uncut Gems and Noah Baumbauch's Frances Ha, sharing how to detail the look of your film through production design. 

So, what is a production designer? 

A production designer is responsible for the overall look of the film. They carry out the director's vision and what will ultimately be seen in the frame on production day. Lisenco points out that the production designer is the verbal presence of what the movie should look like and is the voice for other creative persons. If the different parts of the film production were a pizza, production design would be the crust, sauce, and cheese. It's that important. 

Location managers are muy importante 

Finding the right location is key as it sets the tone for what will ultimately become the final look of a scene. A good production designer knows how to transform an existing location or build one from the ground up that visually supports the story. Lisenco suggests approaching a project by trying to find the real thing first, and if it doesn't exist, try to build it. 

Set design should be an extension of the story and character(s)

If you wanted to show someone in jail, you could simply put them in a cell and think nothing of it. It could easily be believable to the audience, but what if you considered how the set relates to the story. Where the cell is located? What city? What kind of metal would those bars be? What color would they be? Is there a patina to them? What's in the room? What era is it? How do the cell door sound when they close?

Imagine if prison in The Shawshank Redemption looked pristine instead of dilapidated. It would have evoked an entirely different tone. The decisions the late Terence Marsh created in the production design subliminally added to the tonality of the story's aesthetics. When you find a space or architecture that shares a similar emotion or feeling the story is trying to put across, what's in that space doesn't has to stay that exact same way. It can be re-imagined to further fit the script. In shorter words, don't settle for what's presented in front of you. 

Do you have any production design tips? Share them in the comments below.     

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2 Comments

Production design is the hardest term to explain in the low budget film making. I always have a hard time.

August 10, 2020 at 8:07AM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
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I've done production design for theatre, dance, video, print, and narrative film (including for a major studio) for years. I used to have a business card that said "Your living room is not a set. But it could be, with a little work." Few new filmmakers appreciate or understand production design's vital role in communicating just about everything: mood, character, time of day, and (yes) emotion. Color alone can make or break a scene, but B&W also communicates those things whether intentionally or not. In the rush of (often low-budget) preproduction, most filmmakers and their crew or assistants are usually aware--or ought to be--of costuming, lighting, furniture placement, etc., but seldom is there a PD onboard to orchestrate all of these things into a LOOK, a point-of-view for the scene. Don't ignore or overlook the power of the entire mise-en-scene--the best definition of which is "the whole visual presentation." Everything that's visible, even out of focus or far in the background, sends a message.

I once was asked to do a very minimal (as in no-budget) short film. The director knew her stuff, the sole actress was more than adequate, and I knew the cinematographer, so it felt like a good project. The entire script (based on a semi-famous short story) revolved around an isolated woman observing the world outside her apartment window. I asked for a little money to "dress" that window, so I could layer it with (1) blinds she could adjust for light and privacy, (2) sheer curtains she could see through without being seen, (3) heavy drapes for "total darkness." The director said "no way," the existing curtains in the apartment would do just fine. Well, all sorts of problems occurred when actual daylight wasn't available or was too available for nighttime shots. The curtains were full of dust and cat dander to which the actress was terribly allergic. The production became a continuous struggle and went way over schedule and of course the performance wasn't the best and the look of the apartment suffered from lack of continuity and clumsy lighting choices. An extreme example, perhaps, but pertinent.

August 13, 2020 at 10:00AM

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Bob Byars
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Wow! The first time I'm seeing stuff on Production Design from NoFilmSchool.

As a Production Designer I'm so thrilled.

August 13, 2020 at 10:50AM

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Ogochukwu Umeadi
Production Designer
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