Imagine watching your favorite movie or TV show without any sets, props, costumes, or clever lighting. Just the actors reciting their lines against a blank backdrop. It would be pretty hard to get immersed in the storytelling, right?
That’s why production design matters.
Production design encompasses all the visual elements that bring a story to life on screen. It establishes where and when the action takes place, reveals details about characters, and immerses audiences in fictional worlds so believable that suspension of disbelief becomes effortless.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll unpack everything that goes into production design, from set construction to color palettes. You’ll also gain insight into the wide-ranging responsibilities of production designers.
Let’s start with the basics.
What Does a Production Designer Do?
During pre-production, the production designer leads the art department to conceptualize and plan the overall look of the film. Their responsibilities include:
- Analyzing scripts and developing art concepts that align with the story, genre, and directorial vision. This includes creating concept art, storyboards, and mood boards.
- Scouting and securing filming locations together with the locations manager.
- Breaking down scripts visually and planning shot lists.
- Generating construction plans and budgets for building sets and procuring props.
- Hiring and managing art department teams like set decorators, construction coordinators, graphic designers, and more.
During production, the production designer acts as the art department’s creative director to oversee set construction, decoration, and ongoing design needs as filming progresses. They also address any challenges that arise to keep design elements on track and within budget.
Elements of Production Design
All visual components that the art department creates for the screen fall under the umbrella of production design. They all form what we call the elements of production design, this includes:
The production designer collaborates with construction coordinators and art directors to plan and build physical environments both on location and on sound stages. They conceptualize set layouts, architecture, landscapes, color palettes, and more.
Sets must align with the story’s context while meeting the practical needs of filming. Factors like versatility, mobility, and lighting capabilities influence set construction.
Sets help establish everything from intricate historical worlds to futuristic planets. For example, Game of Thrones involved complex medieval sets while Avatar constructed the alien world of Pandora.
Props refer to movable objects visible on camera that actors interact with. Examples are furniture, decor, electronics, books, food, utensils, and much more.
The props department or on-set dressers select, purchase, manufacture, and position props per the production designer’s vision for each scene. Props help convey a character’s personality and socioeconomic status.
For period pieces, prop masters research extensively to find or produce props that accurately represent the time. Props are also frequently adapted for special filming functions.
Any text or symbolic graphics that appear on the screen fall under a production designer’s oversight. This includes signage, documents, user interfaces, labels, animated sequences, and more.
Graphic designers collaborate with the production designer to conceptualize graphics that support the story visually. In science fiction films, for example, futuristic computer displays and signage help establish the setting.
While the costume designer heads this department, they work closely with the production designer to develop an overarching visual landscape. Costumes reflect critical details like a character’s era, culture, socioeconomic class, personality, and role in the story.
The production designer may also give input on makeup, hair styling, and accessories to align with the costumes and intended visual themes.
The cinematographer oversees lighting schemes, but the production designer provides art direction to inform lighting choices. Factors like the time period, location, mood, and time of day depicted should all influence lighting.
The production designer may request certain lighting set-ups to highlight or downplay specific design elements. Lighting essentially brings the entire world of the production to life.
Establishing Setting Through Production Design
One of the most vital storytelling importance of production design is establishing the context in which the story unfolds. The when and where of the narrative.
Details like architecture, landscape, technology, colors, materials, and set dressing all provide visual cues about the location and time period. Here are some examples:
- For period dramas, extensive historical research ensures buildings, interior spaces, props, and costumes accurately reflect the era. Intricate period-specific sets have helped transport audiences to the late 1800s in Deadwood and early 20th century Britain in Downton Abbey.
- Futuristic sci-fi films leverage production design elements we associate with advanced technology – sleek electronics, interactive screens, modern textiles, innovative architecture, and more. Films like Blade Runner and The Fifth Element build immersive futuristic worlds.
- The worn, retro furnishings and appliances on the set of Stranger Things establish the 1980s small-town setting. Meanwhile, vibrant, mismatched chairs on the Friends set reflect 1990’s Manhattan apartments.
The production designer may also collaborate with location managers to pick real-world filming locations that embody the desired ambiance, architecture, and landscape. The location itself becomes part of the visual storytelling.
For example, Parisian cafes, neighborhoods, and landmarks heighten the romanticism of Midnight in Paris. Miami Art Deco buildings and warm color palettes infuse Miami Vice with 1980’s glamor.
Informing Narrative and Character Through Design Details
Production design isn’t just about beautiful sets and props. Every detail also reveals something significant about the characters and the storyline if used intentionally.
- In Knives Out, the house’s antique furniture and regal traditional interiors reflect the wealthy family’s privileged background. This underscores the stakes when their fortune is threatened.
- In Parasite, the contrast between the Kim family’s semi-basement apartment and the Park family’s architecturally striking, modern house visualizes the class differences central to the plot.
- The warm, cluttered, mismatched furniture on the This Is Us set tells us the Pearson family values comfort, sentimentality, and holding on to memories.
- Hannibal Lecter’s opulent but meticulous Baltimore residence aligns with his refined tastes and obsessive nature in Silence of the Lambs.
These subtle glimpses into psychology and backstories build as audiences intuitively notice how settings mirror characters. Production designers carefully craft these details through their choice of locations, sets, props, decor, and other elements.
Creating Mood and Immersing Audiences Through Design
Production design also dictates the emotional experience of viewing a film. Color palettes, architectural shapes, and lighting cues subconsciously influence moods and feelings. Clever manipulations of space also immerse viewers in on-screen worlds.
For example, Wes Anderson frequently uses symmetrical, flat, ornately decorated sets with quirky retro props to elicit imaginative, whimsical experiences. He crafts storybook worlds that feel magical, eccentric, and nostalgic.
In thrillers, dark tones, shadows, industrial architecture, and cold hues help generate tension and suspense. In romance films, soft lighting, and warm, rich colors encourage intimacy.
Other immersive production design techniques include:
- Using negative space and angles to make spaces feel expansive or confined.
- Adjusting color saturation – desaturated visuals feel bleak while highly saturated shots feel lively.
- Mimicking natural daylight cycles with cool morning light progressing to warm sunset hues.
- Engineering perspective angles like vanishing points to exaggerate depth.
- Reflecting environments off shiny surfaces and transparent objects.
These approaches heighten audiences’ emotional involvement and make fictional settings more tangible. Transportive production design enables total immersion where the divide between reality and fiction blurs away.
Conclusion: What is Production Design?
Production design is in many ways the hidden hero that elevates all great filmmaking. It’s easy to take sophisticated production design for granted.
We get so engrossed in narratives that we forget just how much craftsmanship goes into constructing cinematic environments down to the tiniest details.
Masterful production design enables an uninterrupted suspension of disbelief. That’s why aspiring filmmakers study principles of visual storytelling – color, space, lighting, and more. Knowledge of production design allows you to move viewers without their awareness.
Next time you watch a movie that transports you into its world, take a moment to appreciate the incredible creative vision that brought it to life. Everything you see was intricately conceived, constructed, and arranged by talented production artists.
Exceptional production design makes the difference between good films and cinematic masterpieces. It turns soundstages into palpable realities. That’s the magic of movie-making.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the purpose of production design?
The purpose of production design is to create the overall visual aesthetic of a film, TV show, or theater production. The production designer is responsible for bringing the script and director’s vision to life visually. Excellent production design helps establish the setting, reflect narrative elements, convey tone and mood, and fully immerse audiences.
What are the four elements of production design?
The four main elements of production design are:
- Set design – Creating studio sets or adapting real-world locations through art direction. This includes architecture, layout, visual theme, and set dressing.
- Costume design – Outfitting actors in a wardrobe that reflects the characters, time period, culture, personalities, backstories, etc.
- Prop design – Selecting, making, or adapting objects, furniture, decor, electronics, vehicles, gadgets, and other tangible items seen on screen.
- Visual effects – Computer-generated visual elements blended with live-action footage, like landscapes, buildings, creatures, enhanced environments, etc. The production designer collaborates with VFX teams.
What is the difference between set design and production design?
Set design refers specifically to the process of designing set pieces, backdrops, and studio layouts during pre-production. The set designer or art director reports to the production designer.
Production design is the overarching role that includes set design along with costume, prop, and visual effects design. The production designer spearheads the entire art department to create all physical and visual elements that bring the script to screen.
Is production designer a good career?
Production design can be a rewarding career for visual, creative people who enjoy storytelling and worldbuilding. It involves architecture, interior design, graphic arts, history, carpentry, and managing teams. The work is complex and fast-paced but exciting for artists, problem-solvers, and visionaries.
The earning potential is attractive, ranging from $70K to $150K annually for experienced production designers in film and television. While the work is project-based, opportunities are abundant for talented production designers.
What are the different types of production design?
Some key types of production design include:
- Contemporary – Reflecting present-day realism through ordinary locations, props, costumes.
- Futuristic – Crafting imaginative, sci-fi settings with innovative architecture, technology, and environments.
- Period drama – Researching and reproducing intricate historical settings from specific eras.
- Fantasy – Designing completely fictional, stylized worlds, unlike reality. Often includes mythological creatures, invented cultures, and magical elements.
- Animation – Crafting highly stylized production design using only illustrations and CGI rather than physical builds.
What are the stages of production designer?
The production design process has three main stages:
- Pre-production – Breaking down the script, conceptualizing the design scheme, creating concept art, scouting locations, and developing budgets.
- Production – Overseeing set construction, coordinating builds, and enforcing the established design vision.
- Post-production – Providing input on visual effects, collaborating on corrections and adjustments as needed.