“What Do You Do Again?” is Stareable’s new weekly column profiling the different film production roles. What roles should we profile next? Let me know in the comments!
One of the cardinal rules of indie filmmaking is, if at all possible, do not film in front of a white wall! To avoid this, your best bet is to hire a production designer!
What do production designers do? Lightning round:
- Take charge of the overall visual design of the production
- Design and build sets
- Purchase and keep track of all props and set decorations
Production design is easy. This is a misconception people also have about home decorating, but once you’re in the thick of it, you realize making a visually and thematically consistent room isn’t so simple, especially without much help. Page Schumacher, production designer for both seasons of Brains, admits that “When you see behind the scenes clips for movies, you see production designers with their lavish set paintings and character designs. But on a web series or short film, it turns more into the role of production designer plus production builder. MUCH more nitty gritty work is involved from shopping to budgeting to building.”
You’re only needed in pre-production. Nope! Especially not on an indie set where, as Page points out, the production designer is also the set decorator and approximately eight other things. Joseph Paquette, production designer for History season 2, adds that “you’ll need to embrace the fact you’ll be along for the whole ride; pre-production through post. After all, it’s the responsibility of the art department to create the visual splendor, is it not? It’s a heavy weight to bear.”
Joseph also explains how “something as simple as an angle of the camera [gets] changed and it spirals the whole concept into a completely different direction.” You can’t just put up a poster and walk away- a production designer has to able to quickly adapt the original visual concept as things on set change.
Production design elements from History season 2
Just put a poster up! While posters can be a vital part of a production designer’s vision for a set, not just any poster will work. Every piece of a set should be there for a reason; if it doesn’t make sense for a character to have a Nietzsche poster in their bedroom, don’t put it there! Filming against a white wall is bad, but sometimes, filming against a wall with posters for the sake of posters is worse. If a poster isn’t telling a story, take it down or replace it with something that will.
Over-designing. Usually, what matters in a scene is not what’s on the walls and the shelves but what’s happening between characters. Production design shouldn’t be so overwhelming as to draw focus from the actors, and there should never be so much going on in the background that it’s visually difficult to find a character in frame.
Overworking yourself. Page also advises production designers on smaller projects to keep things in perspective. “It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re trying to design and dress a whole show, so it’s really important to prioritize what NEEDS to be done and what should maybe be done.” Not every location needs a full makeover, especially when you’re short on time, money, and manpower. Focus on the sets you’re spending the most time in and the scenes that could really use the extra storytelling of good production design.
Expensive means good. Not necessarily! Perhaps for a period piece (a project set in a different time period than right now), because certain set elements won’t be as readily available. But for a web series set in the modern day, it shouldn’t be too hard to budget around. Katie Moest, production designer for The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy, and Poe Party (among others), stresses the benefit of the dollar store- you can find unique, colorful decorations and props without spending too much money.
How can I learn to be a production designer?
Watch the masters at work, says Page. “Watch behind the scenes of production designers talking, sets being built, makeup being applied, and try to familiarize yourself with as much as possible. The more you know about all the different details, the easier it is to delegate and plan for the project.”
Joseph suggests a slightly more hands-on approach. “[You could work] on a production in the art department at an entry level position and climb the ladder, confidently of course. You can also move a bit laterally - art direction encompasses many types of media: digital, marketing, film, photography… the list goes on. With a bit of shadowing and critical thinking, it’s easy to translate to the big screen… It’s all about vision in the end. And instinct.”
Production design is one of the most overlooked and underestimated elements of indie projects, but it shouldn’t be. The people who can take a boring white room and tell a story with it in a few paintings and props are magic, and you would be lucky to recruit one for your team.