Did you ever see a movie like Moulin Rouge and wonder, “How the f*#k did they make these sets?” It wasn’t the Director, although they certainly have the final decision. It wasn’t the Director of Photography, although they should be best friends with the person who designs these sets because it makes their job so so so much easier. The magical person responsible is called a Production Designer, and they should be your best friend too.
Any production worth a budget brings a production designer into the process very early on. The production designer should be reviewing the script with the director, and other departments heads, to really understand what the story requires. More time spent thinking creatively about these things begets gorgeous settings for your story to unfold. If you’re shooting practical locations, the production designer should be on every scout, discussing the set dressing with director and DP, and making that list of beautiful and unique props and set pieces. For instance, the scene calls for someone to have a coffee mug. What color should it be? What color should it definitely NOT be? Should it have a funny joke on it? There are iconic props that didn’t show up on screen by accident. These props were chosen by the invaluable Production Designer.
With a recent shoot for Webroot (video on left) we started with a basically empty living room except for a couch and TV. The goal was to have our main character in his living room excitedly watching a football game awaiting his friend’s arrival, so we need to make the space look lived in and ready for a football party. This required a decent amount of props to dress the set but the end result worked out well!
The production designer is highly responsible for the look of your film, just as much as your director of photography or actors. The production designer leads the art department, which is responsible for finding, buying, making and just plain designing every little detail of the world you’re in. Even if you’re not building sets, you should be dressing locations to be exactly what you want them to be. We did this for our client Eventbrite in a convention setting. The brief was to make a (very) boring conference room look like a “music lounge” to be used for interviewing music industry professionals. Jana had a great deal of fun creating the most cozy set up that one could genuinely lounge in and even play some tunes. As you see in the “Before” & “After” picture the background did set the scene perfectly for this purpose.
In larger scale productions, the director of photography and the production designer work hand in hand to build sets with proper practical lighting fixtures and things like wild walls (here’s some awesome DIY set building). If you’re interested in the process from the horse’s mouth, check out Arthur Max talking about The Martian or Judy Becker and Carol. The art department generally is the largest department on feature films, but is probably one or two people on small scale productions. Of course, the more talented people you have working together, the better your result.
We have our fair share of experience with set design, and we’re hungry for more!