Production design is one of the most important, yet often overlooked, aspects of filmmaking. It involves creating the overall visual appearance of a film and the physical environment that characters exist within.
The production designer is responsible for translating the script into tangible, physical form through meticulous planning, research, collaboration, and problem-solving.
While production design can enhance any film, it becomes especially vital for lower-budget independent films. With limited funding, the production design must be strategic, resourceful, and creative in order to build immersive cinematic worlds.
The production designer must make every dollar count and maximize existing assets to execute the director’s vision within tight constraints.
If you’re an aspiring filmmaker ready to make your first movie on a shoestring budget, don’t underestimate the power of thoughtful, creative production design.
With some clever planning and resourcefulness, you can make your low-budget film look like a million bucks. In this article, we’ll explore 10 essential tips for strategic production design on an indie budget.
Scout Low-Cost Locations
One of the biggest budget savers for production design is finding inexpensive locations to shoot in. Before spending money building and dressing sets, exhaust all your options for real-world environments that already fit the look you want.
Search online location databases like Peerspace for empty apartments, houses, office spaces, warehouses, and more that you may be able to get for cheap or free. You can also check sites like LocationsHub and FilmQuest for comprehensive location listings across different regions.
Another option is reaching out to local businesses that may allow you to shoot during off hours. A neighborhood bar, restaurant, or retail shop can transform into many different settings on camera with some redressing. You may even find owners willing to open early or stay late to accommodate your shoot for a small location fee.
If you need a more specific interior, consider recruiting friends who have spaces matching your script. Willing homeowners may allow you to take over rooms in their homes for filming, which can double perfectly for all kinds of residential or office locations.
Getting permission to shoot in existing, unmodified locations is by far the most cost-effective approach to production design. Be open-minded in your search, get creative with how spaces can be adapted, and leverage your local network.
Use Lighting to Transform Sets
One advantage of shooting video, versus stage plays or photo shoots, is that you can use lighting strategically to alter the look of any environment. While extensive set construction would be ideal, deliberate lighting choices go a long way to mask the limitations of a found location.
Choosing the right lighting design can instantly create a mood or establish the time of day. Backlighting rims subjects in light creating silhouettes. Side lighting accentuates texture and shape with strong shadows. Underlighting makes even bland environments ominous and dramatic.
You can make a room appear larger by keeping actors near the camera and background darkness. Using household lamps as kickers and backlights instead of building extensive overhead rigs saves on equipment rentals.
If your locations have ugly or dated fixtures, simply turn off the practicals and bring in your own motivated lighting. Pay attention to colors too. Daylight balanced sources feel naturalistic while tungsten adds a moody amber warmth.
Rather than purchasing lighting gear, rental houses can save production designers money. Packages are typically charged by the day, so coordinate scenes strategically to maximize what you can shoot using a specific setup. Moving lights between locations is better than having too much gear idle.
Source Affordable Props
Dressing a set with appropriate props helps establish the world we’re seeing. In period films, the right furnishings, books, technology, and bric-a-brac instantly tell us when and where we are without exposition. Finding inexpensive props simply requires some ingenuity.
Look around your own home, garage, and storage spaces for items that may work on screen. Raid your family members’ homes too – the older and more eclectic the better. Furniture, art, books, kitchenware, and other knick-knacks can all be repurposed as set dressing.
For more specific props, reach out to buy/sell/trade groups on social media. Individuals often give away or sell cheaply the exact items you need. Local antique shops can yield great historic items at negotiable prices. Check second-hand stores and yard sales too.
If available funds allow, a trip to a home goods or variety store can provide themed decoration pieces, plastic plants, inexpensive dishes or glassware that visually match different eras. Buy only your “hero” props – the key objects characters interact with most. Fill in the background with the found dressing.
Work Camera Angles and Composition
Visual limitations can also be overcome by carefully framing shots and using camera angles intentionally. Wide shots that expose an entire set or location should be avoided if the space feels undersized or unfinished.
Instead, design shots that are visually balanced and use available elements and decor effectively. Shoot primarily in medium shots focused intimately on actors and key set pieces visible in the frame. Varying camera height also adds dynamism.
Use selective focus techniques to cast parts of the set into alluring soft focus or subtle bokeh. Depth of field can also isolate subjects against an artfully blurred background.
You can cheat the perception of larger spaces by only revealing sections of the set at a time. Shooting characters entering and exiting doorways or navigating hallways builds the illusion of expansive environments the audience never fully sees.
Similarly, composing actors against negative space as much as possible conceals the boundaries of a set. Cramped locations can feel cavernous with this approach.
Build on a Budget
Even when real-world locations are used, some degree of set construction is likely needed for key story points in your script. The production designer’s job is figuring out how to build only what is essential to the storytelling and visuals.
For structural builds, inexpensive wood like plywood can form the basis of sets. Two-by-fours, rigged screws, and other hardware store supplies can create the frames to dress a variety of interiors and exteriors. Platforms and flats painted appropriately transform into endless set extensions.
For more ornate buildings and architectural elements, foam insulation boards are easily carved, painted, and decorated. The cheap material mimics stone, brick, and wood surprisingly well on camera with the right detailing.
When appointing a set, carefully curate only the most important set dressings like a characters’ desk, specific kitchen appliances, or focal living room furnishings. Leave background detailing sparse. Too many set pieces strain budgets and become distracting on screen.
Repurposing and modifying thrift store furniture and décor saves money too. Sand, paint, and update existing items to match your production design needs.
Work within your location’s architecture and permanent fixtures. Design simple builds that disguise or complement elements you can’t change rather than complicated builds concealing an entire space.
Collaborate with the Production Team
Throughout the production design process, collaborate extensively with department heads to make the best use of available resources. These working relationships are especially vital for lower-budget productions with little wiggle room.
The cinematographer can help identify ideal camera angles and interesting features of a location to emphasize. The gaffer knows how to selectively light spaces to heighten drama. The costume designer will factor the production design into their color palette and period inspirations.
Constant communication ensures the separate elements gel into a unified, intentional aesthetic. It also prevents costly miscommunications that require reshoots or rebuilds. Speak up about limitations early so compromises can be made.
Welcome critiques from the director and other collaborators too. Their insights may help you refine or enhance ideas. Maintaining an ego-free, flexible, collaborative spirit ensures the best possible outcome when executing ambitious production design with limited means.
Create Detailed Plans
Meticulous planning and organization are absolutely vital for controlling costs and staying on schedule with lower-budget productions. Creating detailed lists, schedules, budgets, and other prep documents prevents headaches once shooting begins.
Build a comprehensive schedule that coordinates shooting dates, location holds, equipment rentals, cast and crew calls, transportation needs, and any set construction plans. Ensure no resources are double booked and keep a little cushion for unexpected delays.
Make detailed lists of every prop, dressing, building material, and production design-related items needed with notes on their acquisition status. Check items off as you obtain them. Knowing exactly how many chairs, books, flats, etc. are required avoids underbuying or overbuying.
Collaborate on your production design plans with other departments too. Share templates for call sheets, shoot schedules, or other tools to streamline communication and organization across the board.
No matter how perfectly you plan, last-minute changes and compromises will likely happen. Roll with the punches and adapt quickly when needed. But thorough preparation gives you the best shot of executing ambitious production design smoothly.
Elevating a low-budget production through strategic, creative production design comes down to resourcefulness and problem-solving as much as innate design talent. Keep locations, lighting, props, camerawork, and organization economics top of mind through every step of the process.
What production design tips do you recommend to make every penny count? Share your insights in the comments below!
Frequently Asked Questions:
How do you design for a production?
Carefully plan out every visual element like sets, props, costumes, and lighting. Conduct research, create concept art, source materials, and collaborate with the team to execute the production design.
What are the four elements of production design?
The four elements are line, shape, form, and color. Lines create visual interest and movement. Shapes create recognizable objects. Form gives objects dimension and volume. Color establishes tone and feeling.
What are the three main most important factors of production design?
The three main factors are upholding the director’s creative vision, supporting the narrative with visuals, and problem solving challenges like budget limitations.
What makes up production design?
Production design consists of set design, location scouting, props, graphics, special effects, lighting, and collaborating with other departments.
What makes good production design?
Good production design complements the story, creates the right mood, immerses the viewer, provides visual interest, and solves practical challenges seamlessly.
Do production designers need to draw?
While drawing skills aren’t strictly necessary, they help production designers create concept art, storyboards, and communicate ideas visually. Some design skills are important.
What are the five key components of production?
Development, pre-production, production, post-production, and release/distribution make up the five main stages of production.
What are the four basic principles of design?
The four principles are emphasis, balance, rhythm, and unity. They create engaging compositions and presentations.
How do I make a production design portfolio?
Create a portfolio featuring concept art, research pages, frames showing your design work, 3D models, floorplans, and breakdowns describing your creative process.