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Why Every Project Needs a Production Designer

Mark Vargo, ASC

Production designers are essential for successful film and video projects. Find out how you can improve your workflow with these talented filmmakers.

Cover image via the Netherlands Film Academy.

I love visual arts — I wish I could draw and paint better, and I wish I were a Photoshop expert. In short, I admire production designers. They do all of these things, and they do them well.

Why Every Project Needs a Production Designer — Planet of the Apes
Concept painting from Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

What cinematographers have in common with production designers is an acute sense of light and space and how to capture it through a lens. Their combined efforts advance the story visually. Words become light, color, texture and setting. And if production designers can’t build what they need, they’ll find a good location that is both camera- and production-friendly.

The production designer works for weeks on a project before the cinematographer even begins to prep. While cinematographers buy in on the initial design of the film, they begin their real work when plans, sketches, and concept art have already laid out the look of the film. In most cases, the production designer can’t wait for the arrival the director of photography to get started.

Why Every Project Needs a Production Designer — The Pacific
Image via The Pacific (HBO).

Since DPs illuminate and frame the drama, a production designer needs to know which lenses a cameraman plans to use, the lighting design, expected camera movements, and the tone the DP wants to create photographically. This is when cinematographers and production designers really forge their working bond. Their work blends three-dimensional reality with the two-dimensional photography. This is a quiet but exciting relationship that relies on imagination, creation, and promotion — until the realities of the production rein them in.

Why Every Project Needs a Production Designer — Poseidon
Production Designer William Sandell had to build the ship’s ballroom right-side up and upside down on Poseidon.

Virtually every physical detail of a production gets reviewed in prep:

Add a window here. Make this wall ‘wild.’ Go with wallpaper instead of paint. Don’t use chrome. Not so many mirrors please. I’ll need a ceiling piece for the bedroom set. Can a dolly fit through that door? Make these light switches practical. We’ll use backings instead of a green screen for the big window in the living room …

Directors are a part of this process, too. They might have particular colors they like or locations they prefer, but if the DP and the PD present a unified case for something, directors will usually go along.

It’s important to resolve as many issues as possible during prep because once the shooting starts, the whole mindset of the team changes. It’s not unusual for set construction to be taking place during principal photography. When time permits, I’ll always walk over and check on the progress of the new set and start thinking about camera and lighting.

Why Every Project Needs a Production Designer — Netherlands Film Academy
Image via the Netherlands Film Academy.

Throughout photography, the DP and the production designer continue to talk about the daily work and what’s ahead. The PD will watch dailies to get a sense of how the DP is shooting the picture — including what you can what you can’t see. This may help the PD shift efforts between background and foreground props and set decorations. He or she might not worry about the deep background as much since it’s being kept dark in the lighting scheme. The PD might also urge the DP to shoot slightly wider establishing shots to highlight the sets a bit more. It’s a fair request, too – the art and construction departments work very hard to build great sets on a tight budget with limited time.

From early on, the production designer and the DP work very closely to plan everything the audience will see in the film. All that’s missing are the actors, and they’ll weigh in on their new world soon enough.

For more information on production design, check out this article by Jonathan Paul.

Do you have tips for production designers? Let us know in the comments.

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