Production design is a key element of visual storytelling that helps bring the director’s vision to life. It involves creating the overall look and feel of a film or TV production through set design, location selection, props, graphics, costumes, lighting, and more.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down the end-to-end production design process into five key stages – from early research and conceptualization to final set decoration.
We’ll also explore tips and best practices for optimizing each phase of the process. Whether you’re an aspiring production designer looking to learn the ropes or a filmmaker needing to collaborate effectively with your design team, this guide will give you in-depth insights.
Stage 1 – Research and Conceptualization
The production design process starts long before a single set is built or a location is secured. The initial research and conceptualization phase focuses on defining the visual language, color palette, and overall aesthetics that will bring the story to life.
Thorough Script and Concept Analysis
The production designer will conduct an in-depth analysis of the script, paying attention to details like time period, location, scenes, props, and context clues about the personality or background of characters.
This helps envision the look and feel of story environments. If it is an adaptation, the production designer studies the source material as well.
Immersive Period and Location Research
For scripts set in specific periods or locations, extensive historical and environmental research is conducted. This can involve looking at photography, archival footage, architectural plans, costume designs, and native artwork related to the time or place. The goal is total immersion to accurately capture the right visual details.
Creation of Mood Boards
Mood boards with images, fabric swatches, color palettes, and other visual references help quickly communicate the look and styles under consideration. Mood boards bring early design concepts to life and keep the entire team on the same page.
Preliminary Sketches and Renderings
Early sketches of sets, locations, props, furnishings, and other visual elements move concepts from abstract ideas to concrete plans. Detailed renderings and 3D models further refine the art direction.
Stage 2 – Collaboration and Development
With initial concepts and aesthetics defined, the production designer now leads intensive collaborations across departments to further develop and hone the production design.
Working Hand-in-Hand with the Director
The director articulates the creative vision and personality of the production, while the designer executes it visually. Close alignment ensures a unified directorial and production design style. Meetings, scouting trips, and reviews of renderings kill any inconsistencies.
Integration with Cinematography
The production designer and director of photography must work together to develop an integrated visual language. Factors like camera movement, lighting style, and shot composition influence set dimensions, colors, and builds.
Coordination with Visual Effects Teams
If VFX like green screens or CGI will be incorporated, the production designer develops technical plans so filming can capture elements needed for optimal post-production compositing. This requires close collaboration with VFX supervisors and producers.
Creation of Detailed Drawings and Plans
Now the designer’s team creates detailed overhead drawings of sets, elevations, camera plots showing shot positions, composite diagrams combining multiple set views, detailed prop lists, graphics concepts, architectural plans, and more. These will guide construction.
Material Selection and Samples
The look and feel of textures, fabrics, finishes, and construction materials is critical. The production designer collects or creates samples of finishes, paint colors, textiles, flooring, construction materials, etc. to inspire builds.
Budgeting and Scheduling
Working with unit production managers and line producers, the designer forecasts and budgets all design elements including labor, materials, rentals, transportation, special effects, and post-production needs. Detailed schedules are also created.
Stage 3 – Construction and Fabrication
With the production design fully defined, the hard work of bringing the sets, props, and locations to life begins. The production designer closely oversees and guides this meticulous fabrication process.
Set Construction Management
Construction crews follow the designer’s detailed drawings and materials specifications to build sets. The designer checks progress and provides guidance to resolve any issues. Union regulations around certain types of designs may impact timelines.
Prop and Set Dressing Sourcing
Finding, purchasing, or renting furniture, artwork, books, technology props, drapes, shelves, utensils, and endless dressing items rests on the designer’s team. Rentals from prop houses can supplement thrift stores and custom builds.
Oversight of Model Making
For any models, miniatures, or forced perspective sets needed, the designer chooses materials and scale while model makers execute the technical fabrication. The designer may also create some hand-made elements.
Coordination of Graphic Design Components
From logos to signage to product packaging, all graphic elements must align with the designer’s chosen aesthetics. Close coordination with graphic artists and clear specifications prevent discrepancies.
Special Effects and Rigging
If special effects like trap doors, breakaways, collapsing beams, explosions, or similar are needed, the production designer provides direction for building these rigs and oversees their safe installation.
Stage 4 – Set Decoration
After construction, the designer’s team decorates each set by “dressing” it with myriad details to finalize the living, and working environments that serve the director’s vision and actors’ needs.
Dressing Sets with Props and Furnishings
The production designer or set decorators fill out the sets with carefully chosen dressing props like books, technology, wall hangings, kitchenware, and endless minutiae that bring realism. Positioning has a purpose.
Final Touches with Finishes and Graphics
Additional wallpaper, paint effects like faux wood grain or aging, the right patinas on furniture, fully dressed beds or tabletops, and installation of in-scene graphics add the finishing touches.
Maintaining Continuity Across Sets and Locations
To preserve the sense of a cohesive world, the designer ensures continuity across different sets and locations when it comes to elements like color schemes, architectural styles, level of wear, wall textures, and set dressings.
Making Adjustments During Filming
Once shoots begin and sets are filmed with actors, the production designer identifies refinements needed to lighting, camera angles, furniture positioning, or dressing items to best showcase the environments.
Archiving Photos and Plans
Detailed photos of dressed sets from multiple angles and accompanying plans are archived in case reshoots are later needed. This record preserves continuity if sets must be rebuilt after wrapping.
Stage 5 – Wrap and Strike
After filming wraps, the production designer oversees the meticulous wrap process to save, store, or strike sets, props, and dressings depending on budget and schedules.
Salvaging and Storing Assets
Sets, props, or dressing items that may be reused in future productions are safely salvaged and stored. Inventory records ensure pieces can be accessed later. Some pieces are reused for other productions.
Any rented furnishings or equipment must be returned in the same condition to rental vendors following wrap. The designer’s team oversees this process per rental agreements.
Coordinating Set Strike
Unneeded sets are carefully and efficiently disassembled or demolished based on the designer’s strike plans. In some cases, sets are left standing if there is any chance of reshoots or reuse.
Recycling and Disposal
Components like lumber, metal, and decor are recycled if possible. The designer tries to minimize waste, but some materials and items may simply need proper disposal after filming.
Archiving the Full Creative Record
The designer compiles a complete archive of sketches, renderings, plans, plots, photos, rental records, budgets, purchase orders, work orders, and other paperwork. This becomes a lasting record of the overall production design.
By methodically progressing through these five production design stages – from early concepts to the final set strike – designers can fully manifest the visual world envisioned by directors and bring scripts to life for audiences. While the process is complex, proper planning, collaboration, attention to detail, and innovative problem-solving ensure a cohesive and polished cinematic experience.
Key Takeaways from the Production Design Process
- Early research, mood boards, and concept art set the visual direction
- Close cross-departmental collaboration refines the production design
- Meticulous construction oversight ensures execution matches concepts
- Detailed set decoration makes spaces feel lived-in and realistic
- Wrapping and striking with care allows assets to be reused or recycled
For those looking to get into production design, internships, and art department jobs provide hands-on training opportunities.
Experienced designers recommend building a portfolio that highlights visual storytelling skills through sample sketches, renderings, models, and concept boards.
Production design involves creativity paired with strong management and problem-solving skills to turn ideas into tangible, film-ready sets.
Passion for the craft of world-building, continuous learning, resourcefulness, leadership, and adaptability will serve any production designer well.
Bringing scripts to life visually is a highly rewarding yet intense process that relies on collaboration. But the end results on screen make all the effort worthwhile.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What does a production designer do?
A production designer oversees the overall visual aesthetics of a film/TV production. They create the look and feel of sets, locations, graphics, props, costumes, and visual elements to bring the director’s creative vision to life.
How long does the production design process take?
The production design process spans the entire filmmaking timeline, from pre-production research and concepts to set fabrication during production and finally striking sets after wrapping. It can take a year or more for major films.
What skills does a good production designer need?
Expert production designers need a creative eye, strong management abilities, extensive design knowledge, resourcefulness at problem-solving, leadership skills, and the ability to collaborate with cross-functional teams.
What steps are involved in designing a set?
Key steps include analyzing the script, conducting research, creating concept sketches and renderings, developing detailed plans and models, sourcing materials, managing set construction, and finally dressing and decorating the complete set.
How are production design and art direction different?
The production designer is the creative lead overseeing the entire design process. The art director manages the art department team and handles technical design details and logistics to execute the production designer’s vision.