When it comes to creating the visually stunning settings of movies and television, two key roles come into play – the production designer and the set decorator.
Both positions are undoubtedly crucial elements that help transport us into the worlds portrayed on the big and small screens. However, the specific duties and responsibilities of a production designer compared to a set decorator are often confused or misunderstood by the general public.
This article will clarify the key differences between production design and set decoration. We’ll compare and contrast the unique purposes each role serves in developing the environmental visual concepts that ultimately become integral parts of cinematic storytelling.
Gaining a better understanding of how production design differs from set decoration provides valuable insight into the behind-the-scenes creativity that brings scripts and concepts to life in memorable audiovisual entertainment.
Key Difference between Production Design vs Set Decoration
The first and most notable contrast between production designers and set decorators is their distinct responsibilities in production.
A production designer oversees all visual aspects of a film or television project’s sets and locations. Their purview includes everything from the color palettes to props to general aesthetics.
In essence, the production designer is the head creative authority when it comes to the overall look, mood, period, and visual continuity of the spaces in which a story unfolds on screen.
The production designer collaborates closely with the director and cinematographer to bring an initial shared vision to fruition. They analyze scripts, research reference materials, create concept art, manage budgets, and supervise the work of all their various teams.
The production designer is focused on the big picture – ensuring that all the visual elements come together to create immersive environments that support the narrative and help transport the audience.
In contrast, the set decorator has a much more focused, niche role within the overall art department.
The set decorator’s domain specifically includes the décor, furniture, lighting fixtures, wall treatments, and various object dressings within a set. This includes everything from the paintings on the walls to the books on a shelf to the pillows on a couch.
The set decorator works under the guidance of the production designer. Their job is to help implement the established aesthetic vision by selecting, acquiring, and positioning all the specific decorative elements needed to fully dress each set.
The distinction can be summarized as follows: the production designer determines what the set looks like, while the set decorator focuses on the details that fill that set.
Production design and set decoration duties also differ significantly when it comes to the timing and sequence of their work on a production.
The production designer is one of the first creative leads to begin work, often starting months before principal photography begins. This allows time to properly develop the overall visual concepts that will be turned into sets.
Collaborating closely with the director and cinematographer, the production designer does in-depth research and image boards to define the color palettes, architectural styles, historical periods, and visual motifs that will inform the film or show’s environments. They also begin sourcing locations and determining soundstage builds.
Once the overall look is conceptually defined, the production designer manages their art department team through the construction and logistics of building/prepping sets, props, and locations.
The set decorator comes into the project much later in the process. They don’t start their work until the art department has fabricated the physical set structures and surfaces to be dressed.
The set decorator will visit sets during prep to get familiar with the environment and its visual style as devised by the production designer. Only then can they begin the time-intensive work of decorating the sets – a process known as “dressing”.
This dressing process can include everything from hanging the perfect drapes to covering walls with textured materials to sourcing antique furniture pieces to place. The set decorator relies on their aesthetic judgment to make choices that are aligned with the production designer’s pre-established vision.
With the production designer setting the overall visual direction, the set decorator flourishes in the details – finding and placing each small decorative element that cumulatively brings the environment to life.
When analyzing production design versus set decoration, there’s also a major difference in the scope and scale of their responsibilities.
As examined already, the production designer is responsible for the unified visual aesthetics of all sets and locations used in a production.
Whether it’s a bedroom, ballroom, office, or futuristic control center, the production designer oversees it all. Their job is to ensure cohesive visual language and “rules” that sustain the director’s creative vision.
A production designer thinks in broad strokes – color palettes, architectural styles, overall lighting approaches – that give unique visual identities to the varied settings presented in a script.
All of this happens through extensive collaboration, research, concept art, and team oversight. Production designers don’t actually build or decorate the sets themselves. Rather, they develop concepts that decorators and builders translate into reality.
In contrast, set decorators have a much more narrowly specialized scope. Their focus is implementing the fine details within a defined set, rather than worrying about the broad visuals of the production as a whole.
Once a set has been constructed by the art department and the overall aesthetic has been established by the production designer, the set decorator steps in. Their niche role is tracking down and placing the dozens (or hundreds) of decorative elements that will make the environment feel lived-in and believable down to the smallest detail.
The production designer provides the vision and boundaries within which the set decorator can flex their creative muscles on the nuances of décor.
Working as a production designer or set decorator also differs when it comes to prestige and recognition within the entertainment industry.
The production designer is viewed as one of the primary creative department heads instrumental in bringing a fictional world to life.
In the credits, the production designer receives prominent billing and is considered a major leader of the below-the-line crew. Their work may be celebrated and highlighted in behind-the-scenes promotional materials.
Furthermore, production designers may be nominated for prestigious awards that recognize excellence in their craft – most notably the Academy Awards for Best Production Design. Over the decades, iconic films like Moulin Rouge, Avatar, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Pan’s Labyrinth have won production designers this Oscar honor.
Meanwhile, the role of set decorator is much more unheralded and lower profile.
Set decorators work subtly in the background to implement the visions of the production designer. Rarely does a set decorator receive individual credit or praise for their contributions.
Currently, there are no high-profile awards that recognize the obscure craft of set decoration. While their work is essential, the set decorator themselves remains largely anonymous without opportunities for singular acclaim. They truly work “behind the scenes.”
In summary, while production design and set decoration may appear similar on the surface, they fulfill very distinct and complementary roles in the creation of cinematic environments.
The production designer spearheads the overall visual style, while the set decorator finesses the nuances within those parameters. Understanding their different duties, timelines, scope, and recognition helps appreciate how both jobs work hand-in-hand to fully realize directorial visions.
So the next time you watch a period drama set in the 1800s, or a sci-fi spectacle taking place on an alien planet hundreds of years in the future, remember the crucial combination of production design and set decoration that transported you there!
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the difference between production design and set design?
Production designers oversee the entire visual design of sets and locations. Set designers build and construct physical set pieces and structures.
What is the difference between set dressing and set decoration?
Set dressing refers to placing any objects on a set. Set decoration is more specialized for props and décor.
What is considered production design?
Production design includes concept art, color palettes, choosing locations/sets, overall art direction and visual aesthetics for a film/TV project.
Do production designers stay on set?
Mostly during prep, but they occasionally visit sets during filming to advise. They are not regularly on set like set decorators.
What does the set decorator do?
The set decorator selects, sources and positions all the detailed decorative elements like furniture, lighting, wall treatments to “dress” sets.
Do set designers build the set?
Yes, under the production designer’s supervision, set designers/builders fabricate the physical set structures using wood, metal, etc.
What is the meaning of set decoration?
Set decoration refers specifically to the detailed décor elements selected by set decorators that fill and “dress” different film and TV sets.
What are the different types of set design?
Types include residential, retail, office, institutional, industrial, futuristic/fantasy, natural landscapes and more.