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5 Simple Production Design Tips for Summer Scenes

Jourdan Aldredge

Explore how these production design basics can help you create warm summer scenes in your film and video projects.

It’s that time of the year! As temperatures rise, clothing layers are shed, beaches and pools begin to open, and summer is here once again. And, while it might be kind of ridiculous to ask how you know it’s summer in real life, in the world of film and video, conveying summertime for a scene can be a bit trickier than just stepping outside.

So, how does a film let viewers know that it’s a hot and sunny summer day? Well, the majority of seasonal settings come from production design. Let’s explore how—when combined with directing, acting, and cinematography—you can use mood boards, props, sets, colors, and lighting to visually simulate the perfect summer scene.

1. Mood Boards and Planning

The first step to production designing a warm summer scene begins long before the cameras begin to roll. The majority of production design is done in pre-production, as the design team will work closely with the producers, director, art directors, and any other connected departments to begin the process. This includes all manner of location scouting, set and prop designing, and all other elements of production design. 

At the start of pre-production and planning, a good production design will actually begin with a mood boarding process. Mood boards help a production begin to pick and choose a color palette, and shape the overall visual aesthetic for a film’s look. This is where most of the warm, bright, sunny choices will be made, as a good mood board can actually closely mirror many of the final elements that you’ll see in the film.

In addition to the video above (covering everything that should go into a mood board), you can read up on some other tips and tricks for creating the warm, summer visual tapestry for your film with these resources:

2. Paint with Bright Colors

As you’re working on your mood board, as well as starting to design all your production locations, sets, and props, keep in mind that warm and hot weather can be projected with bright, vibrant coloring. You can draw inspiration from Spike Lee’s famous hot summer day film Do The Right Thing. In the interview above, production designer Wynn Thomas shares some tricks of the trade with the American Film Institute.

He likes bright colors, much like you’d see after a rainstorm in the desert—the colors reflecting both growth and the beating of the hot sun. As such, Thomas worked with Lee to add as many bright shades and colors as possible throughout the production, including the iconic bright red wall, which Thomas painted over a more natural and mundane coloring.

3. Locations with Lots of Natural Light

Farm Themed
Bright, natural light is often used to create that summer vibe. Image by Photostriker.

Continuing on in the same vein, a summer look can also be created simply by using lots and lots of bright, natural sunlight. To help sell a season to viewers, filmmakers can simulate how people live. During cold winter months, characters will bundle up and spend more time inside. Whereas in the summer, characters will wear less clothes and spend as much time as possible out in the sun.

These outdoor scenes begin in the script, but continue on through location scouting and are conveyed through cinematography. While you don’t always have to shoot outside to get that natural light look, it does help when working on smaller budgets and with less lighting. If you’d like some more tips, here are some helpful tutorials for working with lighting in different locations:

4. Create the Illusion of Summer

People at the Beach
No matter what time of year you’re filming, location, wardrobe, and lighting can alter any seasonal look. Image by Jacob Lund.

As mentioned above, good production design is really about the little details. While you can certainly go for broke and production design entire scenes at a bright, crowded beach, you can also achieve the same effect with a sunburnt character and some rolled up sleeves.

To truly design a summer time scene, you need to fully embrace and create the illusion of summer. Put yourself in your characters’ shoes and ask yourself what every little detail might entail. Remember to think about all the details in set design, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and even how hot and weather-worn your props might be.

5. Remember Misters and Condensation

Misters and Condensation
You can’t have summer without sweat. Make sure to have some misters or squirt bottles handy. Image via Universal.

Finally, one of my favorite tricks for creating that summer look doesn’t come from any prop or set, but from the characters themselves. As you can see in famous examples from Do the Right Thing and The Sandlot, a lot of the heat is conveyed with sweat. If a character is truly out in the hot sun, they’re going to sweat—sometimes a lot.

Having some nice misters and water squirt bottles on set will always help out in a pinch to give characters that sweaty look. Visible sweat is essential if you’re shooting a close-up. Or, if you’re working in the wide, including sweat drips on characters’ arms and legs, as well as any understandable stains in the clothing, can really sell the heat.

If you’re actually shooting outside in the heat though, please remember to stay hydrated, take lots of breaks, and don’t let any cast or crew get overheated.

For more production design insights and interviews, check out these resources:

Cover image via Don Pablo.