Production design is a critical yet often underappreciated art form in the world of filmmaking.
At its core, production design controls the overall aesthetic look and feel of a movie. It’s the creative force that physically brings the story to life on screen through the careful curation of visual elements.
The work of a talented production designer can transport audiences to unbelievable worlds, establish distinct moods and tones, reflect the personalities and backgrounds of characters, reinforce major themes, and harmonize with other cinematic crafts.
While viewers may not consciously notice the nuances of good production design, they’d certainly be aware of its absence. It’s what takes a two-dimensional script and adds the tangible texture, depth, and immersion of a lived-in reality.
Let’s explore why thoughtful production design is so foundational for impactful, memorable films through some of its key contributions:
It Establishes the Overall Mood, Tone, and Atmosphere
One of the most significant roles of a production designer is using visuals to set the emotional tone of the story being told. The choices made about lighting, colors, textures, shapes and materials all directly feed into the atmosphere experienced by the audience.
Take a film like The Shining – the ominous mood is immediately conveyed through the expansive, isolated, hedge maze-filled grounds of the Overlook Hotel. The grand Gothic architecture looming through winding roads and snowy forests forebodes impending doom. Interior design elements like the bold hexagonal carpet also hint that something is amiss.
In Blade Runner, the dystopian future of LA is communicated through dense urban sprawl, towering monolithic buildings, constant darkness, and rain, blinking neon lights, and floating blimps. The audience feels the grittiness and melancholy of a world gone wrong. The production design instantly sets the tone even before the story unfolds.
So whether the vibe is playful, creepy, sterile, nostalgic, or romantic, thoughtful production choices about the physical spaces the characters exist in go a long way in influencing how viewers emotionally experience the story. The mood is set from the get-go.
It Brings Fictional Worlds to Life
One of the most exciting aspects of production design is its ability to fully realize worlds that previously only existed in imagination or writing.
The production designer takes the seeds planted through the script and uses their creativity, resourcefulness, and team of craftspeople to meticulously construct fully immersive environments from scratch.
Avatar is a prime example where nearly everything on screen had to be envisioned and created from the ground up, including the varied ecosystems of the planet Pandora with Crazy Horse-inspired floating mountains, bioluminescent plants, and strange creatures. The incredibly detailed world-building allowed the audience to truly feel transported to this lush, fascinating land. Avatar production designer Rick Carter and his team did such a thorough job conceiving the flora, fauna, natural phenomena, infrastructure, and architecture of Pandora that it felt like a glimpse of an actual exotic locale.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy also famously built out the various cultures and terrains of Middle Earth from the ground up, relying heavily on detailed concept art and complex miniatures to conjure up places like Rivendell, Mordor, and the Shire. So much thought went into every element of set design, from the thatched hobbit holes to the elven ornamentation, to make those fictional places feel real and lived-in. Production designer Grant Major and his team imagined entirely new worlds that audiences could believe in and get lost in.
These constructed worlds need to feel believable and lived in, with thought given to how characters would realistically interact with their surroundings. As production designer Alex McDowell explained about his work on Minority Report, “We have to make it feel used with overflowing ashtrays, magazines on the floor, plates on the bed – layers and layers of complexity so that it feels inhabited.” The details matter in world-building.
The production designer must operate as a sort of realistic architect envisioning spaces that could feasibly exist. Especially for fantastical settings, there’s a suspension of disbelief that the audience extends by trusting they are peeking into an authentic place, even if imagined. All the set dressing, props, color schemes, architecture and landscaping must cohere into something that feels tangibly real.
It Communicates Information About Characters, Settings, and Eras
Production design can be used as an extremely effective form of non-verbal communication to the audience about characters, relationships, settings, and eras. Every choice imparts significant meaning and nuance if you pay close attention.
The sterile, cold modernism of the homes in a Wes Anderson film, for instance, quickly conveys the dysfunctional relationships between characters. The warm, cluttered coziness of the Weasley house in Harry Potter communicates a close-knit, loving family. The sleek mid-century designs of Don Draper’s apartment in Mad Men immediately establishes the New York advertising world of the 1960s. A great production designer knows how to use the visual language of spaces to subtly advance the story.
Oscar-winning production designer Patrice Vermette discusses how important it is to root designs in characters’ backgrounds and personalities: “What is important is that the sets are comfortable for the character. The character lives there, it’s theirs.” The audience should feel like they are gaining insight into who people are by the environments they inhabit.
Whether it’s the era, location, social class, or profession, every choice down to the books on a shelf or photos on the walls offers glimpses into a character’s life the way good costume design does through clothing. Pay attention next time to how much you can infer simply from a well-crafted production design.
It Enhances and Reinforces Major Themes and Motifs
Beyond looks and moods, production design is also a narrative tool that can underscore and enhance the themes and messages that filmmakers want to convey. The symbolic meanings woven into elements of the design deepen the storytelling and emotional resonance.
In Inception, the concept of dreams within dreams and blurring reality is emphasized through the mirrored buildings, geometric shapes, and physically impossible architecture of cityscape dream worlds. The repeating circular forms also evoke the cycles of repetition that trap characters.
In The Matrix, production designer Owen Paterson uses a cold green-hued palette and dense architectural environments to emphasize the artificial, constructed nature of the matrix and the underlying machine control. The muted colors and choices to film in atriums and plazas full of identical pillars and repetition evoke existential themes of being lost in a system.
When production design choices mirror and heighten the core ideas in the narrative like this, it elevates the movie into a cohesive work of art. A highly intentional design supports the storytelling.
It Complements and Elevates Other Aspects Like Cinematography, Score, and Costumes
Production design is also hugely important because of how much it interrelates and complements other areas of cinematic craft. Movies are complex orchestrations of numerous elements working in harmony, so good production designers excel at helping all those layers come together cohesively.
The overall look conceived by the cinematographer, the magical ambiance created by the composer, and the personality expressed through costumes – all these rely on production design as their canvas and context. The visual rhythm created by a DP moves through real spaces defined by the designer. Music is informed by the atmosphere generated by environments. Costumes draw color palettes and inspirations from the unified world built through sets, props, and locations.
When production design harmonizes seamlessly with these other crafts, that’s when movie magic is achieved. Imagine a Wes Anderson film without the strictly defined color schemes and symmetrical production design to anchor the cinematography and stylized acting. Or a Star Wars film without the used, lived-in universe that grounds everything in tangibility. All the pieces come together most powerfully when production design sets the stage.
Conclusion: Why is Production Design Important?
In summary, excellent production design is what elevates a film from good to great. It’s what gives the audience an emotional, visceral experience that transcends passively hearing information on screen.
Movies are ultimately meant to be seen, and production design makes the viewing experience impactful.
The next time you watch a movie, pay close attention to how the thoughtful choices about sets, locations, colors, props, textures, and lighting all work together to draw you deeper into the story and the experiences of the characters.
Notice how the environments seem to take on lives of their own in service of the narrative.
While most viewers may never consciously realize it, the transportive realism of movies owes everything to the craft of production designers and their teams.
Their ability to envision worlds, shape moods, develop characters, and underscore themes through intentional design choices makes them absolutely indispensable. Production design may happen behind the scenes, but its influence is front and center on every shot.
So let us celebrate and appreciate this quietly magical craft that so often goes unseen but totally transforms movies. Just remember next time the credits roll — no production design, no movie magic.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is production design in film?
Production design controls the overall visual aesthetic of a film through choices about sets, locations, props, lighting, colors, textures, and more. It brings the scripted world to life.
Why is production design important for storytelling?
Intentional production design choices about the physical spaces the characters inhabit establish mood, convey information, reflect personalities, underscore themes, and complement other film elements.
How does production design create fictional worlds?
Through extensive research, creativity, and teamwork, production designers build immersive fictional worlds from scratch, making the unbelievable believable through intricate worldbuilding and set decoration.
How does production design convey character and story?
Every detail from furniture to photos on the walls provides glimpses into the characters’ backgrounds and relationships. The visual language communicates nuanced narrative information.
What’s an example of iconic production design?
From Wes Anderson’s symmetrical aesthetics to Blade Runner’s gritty futurism to Avatar’s Pandora, memorable production design transports audiences and makes the movie magic.