Production Design vs Set Design – Key Differences Between These Vital Film Roles

When it comes to creating the visual elements of a film or television production, two key roles are the production designer and the set designer. While these two positions are related and collaborate closely on bringing a director’s creative vision to life, they each have distinct responsibilities.

In this blog post, we’ll examine the core differences between production design and set design. Whether you’re pursuing a career in film/TV production design or just want to better understand how movies are made, understanding these two roles is essential.

Let’s start by defining each position and their primary duties.

Job Roles and Responsibilities

The production designer oversees the entire creative visual elements of a film production. This begins in pre-production by working closely with the director to interpret the script and determine the overall visual concept.

The production designer’s responsibility runs  across everything you see on screen, including:

  • Locations
  • Props
  • Set decoration
  • Costumes
  • Makeup
  • Visual/special effects
  • Cinematography
  • Lighting

Essentially, the production designer helps the director translate their vision into physical form through extensive research, concept art, storyboarding, and budgeting. They lead the various art department teams like set designers, costume designers, and more.

During actual filming, the production designer remains on location to ensure all the visual elements come together as intended. They may advise the cinematographer on camera angles, lenses, or lighting that help bring out the desired look.

Production designers have high-level oversight across all creative aspects that contribute to the movie’s style and help tell the story.

Meanwhile, the set designer has a more focused role centered on the physical sets used during filming. Once the overall production design concept is determined, the set designer handles turning the locations, interior rooms, landscapes, and other settings into physical reality.

The set designer is responsible for:

  • Creating detailed sketches, blueprints, and 3D models of sets
  • Deciding which construction materials and methods to use
  • Overseeing set construction and managing build crews
  • Sourcing, designing, or building set decorations like furniture and window treatments
  • Coordinating props selection and placement for each scene
  • Managing set operations, strikes, and changes during filming

The set designer remains on-site during filming to oversee last-minute changes, scene transitions, and any adjustments needed along the way.

Whereas production designers focus on the big picture creative direction, set designers zero in on bringing each set to life according to the production designer’s vision. This tandem approach allows movies to benefit from both macro and micro-level design.

Work Environments

Due to their differing duties, production designers and set designers also tend to have different work environments and schedules.

Production designers typically begin work in a film studio office during pre-production. Here they can meet with the director and other department heads while conducting research and creating concept illustrations.

However, once filming kicks off, production designers often travel to the various shooting locations. Their schedule revolves around the shooting schedule, going wherever the cast and crew are filming that day or week. They may be on location scouting for future scenes or overseeing filming for current scenes.

Set designers tend to remain stationary at one primary filming location for most of the production. Depending on the scale of the film, this may be a sound stage on a studio backlot or an on-location practical set. Either way, the bulk of their daily work involves managing the physical set space and operations.

During active filming, set designers are on call to make rapid changes to sets between takes or scenes. They ensure the continuity across scenes shot out of order. In theatre, set designers may also operate scene transitions during performances.

When sets are no longer needed, set designers oversee proper strike and storage procedures. They ensure pieces are preserved for potential reuse in future productions.

Skills and Requirements

Due to these different work environments and duties, production designers and set designers need to cultivate different specialized skills.

For production designers, crucial skills include:

  • Creativity and artistic vision
  • Strong research and analytical ability
  • Excellent visualization and drawing skills
  • Strong communication and leadership
  • Knowledge across many creative disciplines
  • Sharp budgeting and managerial skills

Meanwhile, advantageous skills for set designers include:

  • Technical drawing and drafting abilities
  • Extensive knowledge of construction methods
  • Understanding of materials, finishes, textiles, etc.
  • Complex spatial thinking and mathematical skills
  • Knowledge of special effects and technologies
  • Keen attention to accuracy and fine details

In terms of education, a bachelor’s degree in film & television production, theater, interior design, architecture, or a related field is a common path to begin either career. Some complete master’s degrees or specialized certifications like LEED.

Participating in internship programs either during or after completing formal education allows aspiring production designers and set designers to gain valuable real-world experience. Professional guilds like the Art Directors Guild also offer apprenticeship programs.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a production designer is $137,490 per year. The average salary for a set designer comes in lower at around $55,000 annually.

Several factors account for this salary difference:

  • Production designer is a higher-level role with more responsibilities
  • Production designers oversee larger budgets and crews
  • Set designers in theater tend to earn less than those in film/TV
  • Experience level causes divergence – veteran production designers command higher pay

These median salaries may also fluctuate depending on your geographic region, company/studio size, industry prestige, and negotiation abilities. Those working on big-budget Hollywood films will earn more than indie productions.

In terms of job outlook, the BLS projects solid growth for both production designer and set designer roles over the next decade. Increased streaming content production should drive demand for behind-the-scenes talent.

However, both roles remain highly competitive spaces, especially for aspiring production designers. Having a strong portfolio, professional network, and proven abilities will be key to breaking into either career pathway. Remaining flexible and willing to start in assistant or intern roles can boost your odds.

Conclusion – Production Design vs Set Design

While production design and set design overlap, there are definite distinctions between these two artistic disciplines. Both play a vital role in bringing the story from script to screen through thoughtful worldbuilding.

Production designers excel at defining and adhering to the director’s overarching vision. Meanwhile, set designers possess the technical skills to construct highly detailed environments befitting of that vision. When paired together, these two roles create movie magic.

So for those looking to turn their creative talents towards imagining and building film sets, focus on developing the specific skills aligned to production design vs set design. With a passion for cinematic storytelling and a willingness to work collaboratively across departments, it’s possible to build an enriching career in either field.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does production or set design mean?

Production design involves overseeing all the visual elements of a film like costumes, lighting, props, etc. Set design focuses specifically on designing and building the physical sets used during filming.

Do production designers stay on set?

Yes, production designers typically remain on location throughout the filming process to ensure their overall vision is realized and make any needed adjustments.

What is the difference between cinematography and production set design?

Cinematographers are responsible for shooting footage through camerawork, lighting, and equipment. Production designers handle the art direction, costumes, props, etc. that appear in the footage.

Is set design pre-production?

Set designers may provide some initial sketches and models during pre-production, but the bulk of their hands-on design and construction work happens leading up to and during actual filming.

What is an example of set design?

Some examples include designing detailed interior rooms like Monica’s apartment on Friends, building elaborate period sets like on Bridgerton, or constructing fantastical sets like the spaceship interiors in Star Wars.

What comes under production design?

Production design oversees all visual creative elements like locations, sets, props, lighting, costumes, makeup, visual effects, and more. The production designer helps establish the overall look and supports the storytelling.

Do set designers make a lot of money?

Set designer salaries average around $55,000 but can vary based on experience, industry, location, etc. Those working on big-budget films tend to earn more than small theater productions.

Do production designers need to draw?

Yes, production designers need strong drawing and visualization skills to convey set concepts and designs to their teams through detailed sketches, models, and storyboards.

Are set designers in high demand?

Both production design and set design are projected to see solid job growth over the next decade due to factors like streaming content production. Both careers remain highly competitive.

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