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This chapter is from the book

When Production Design Happens

You’ll notice that I’ve titled this chapter “Production Design” and not “The Production Designer.” I’ve done that for a specific reason: The process of thinking about what a project will look like starts very early in the project’s life, sometimes even before a production designer has been hired. It is often a product of the writer’s mind. There are other times when producers hire a writer to execute a vision that they already have in mind, and that will normally include the visual design of the film.

It is true that a production designer is often hired to work on a film after the director has been hired, but the ideas that inform the shape of the film are usually created near the very inception, and the look and feel of the film is crucial to that.

The production design team is unique in that it usually works with nearly all of the other teams on a project. The chart in FIGURE 4.1 (courtesy of art director Alex McDowell of the Art Direction Wiki5) gives you a sense of how crucial design is to telling the story of a film. Also note that the story is at the hub of the wheel.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 The story is at the center of all of film production design. Note that the production design process runs all of the way through the process—from the original “design” (on the right) to the film’s actual “production” (on the left).

Ideas for production design come from a variety of sources, all inspired by the story. On a film like 300, which came from a graphic novel written and designed by Frank Miller, production designer Jim Bissell and director of photography Larry Fong used the world that Miller had created as a starting point. Fong notes:

  • "Frank's book was the blueprint for the look of 300. It was a constant reference, though not in any kind of slavish way. The point is that we were not just making the film using his character and story, but we were making a film out of Frank's book, so its style and composition were integral to everything we were doing. But we also took license when necessary and took advantage of what we could do onscreen that's impossible on the page."6

Bisell adds:

  • "It was a matter of taking the most iconographic frames from Frank's book and building some kind of geography around them, because I don't think he ever used wide establishing shots in the book."7

As you can see, production design involves interpreting story, atmosphere, and reality in some combination in order to create a world for the audience. However, simply establishing that world will not be enough to involve the audience in the full shape of the project. That, of course, is where the LEAN FORWARD MOMENTS come in.

Production designers use a combination of tools to shape their work and we’ll discuss these in the sections that follow:

  • Color palette
  • Set design
  • Production design
  • Wardrobe, hair, and makeup
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