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The Lean Forward Moment: Production Design

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The look and feel of the worlds that the characters move through need to give a deeper look into their personalities and the script’s meaning. In short, the design of the film must perform a storytelling function without using words. Otherwise, it’s just radio. And that is what this chapter is all about.
This chapter is from the book
  • If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.
  • —EDWARD HOPPER

Edward Hopper was referring to painting, of course, in the quote on the previous page, but the look of a film must also add to what is written in the scripted dialogue. The look and feel of the worlds that the characters move through need to give a deeper look into their personalities and the script’s meaning. In short, the design of the film must perform a storytelling function without using words. Otherwise, it’s just radio.

And that is what this chapter is all about.

What Is a Production Designer?

Michael Provart, who has worked as a production designer and an art director on features and television, defines these jobs as:

  • "The Production Designer [comes] up with the design, the broad strokes and meanings of the sets to tell the story. Once those broad strokes are chosen, the Production Designer [works with others] to get his/her vision on its feet.
  • "The Art Director is the facilitator of the Production Designer's needs and primarily functions as a facilitator to make sure everything keeps moving, while the Designer is meeting with the "top folks" refining or changing designs.
  • "Every relationship between an Art Director and a Production Designer is unique of course and the Production Designer is always conferring and keeping an eye on the overall conceptual 'meat' of the film throughout."1

Put another way, the production designer and his or her team are responsible for creating the world that the characters will inhabit. It involves the physical space that the people will move through, the colors that they will live in and wear, the objects that they will handle, as well as the underlying concepts of tonality (for instance, will the film have a somber look to it or will it be bright and happy?).

William Eggleston, production designer on the animated film Finding Nemo, puts it another way.

  • "My role was to work with a team of artists to provide a visual style for the film, with the backgrounds and the characters."2

Both Eggleston’s and Provart’s points about working with others are quite important. The production designer works with the director of photography, the art director, the prop master, the set decorator, and the actors as well as the producer and director to fulfill a vision of the script. In fact, the design of the project’s production can never be separated from the story. If the visual image is designed to take hold of our imaginations, as C. S. Tashiro says, then it is also true that it must capture the characters in the story as well. And, for that, we must return to the script, our logline, and our LEAN FORWARD MOMENTS.

Tashiro, in his book Pretty Pictures: Production Design and the History of Film, suggests that the job of the production designer is to spark the audience’s imagination. He says that the “medium depends on an illusion of taking place in space” and suggests that there is a bond between film and spatial reality that allows it to “take hold of our imaginations.”3

There is some controversy, as discussed in Tashiro’s book, as to how closely production design is in service to the story. He quotes Ted Haworth, the production designer for films such as Jeremiah Johnson, Strangers on a Train, and The Longest Day, who believes that:

  • "What you see in real life starts to tell a story better than the script you're shooting. You go half-mad trying to get some of those things into the picture."4

But there is no real conflict between script and style. If you understand your film’s logline, as we’ve described it in this book, and use it to figure out what it is that your story needs in order to be told, then style and story are one and the same. A film’s look doesn’t have to mimic reality in order to convey the emotional story that you want your film to have.

In the documentary “Making Nemo” (about the creation of the animated film Finding Nemo), Robin Cooper, who was the art director for shading, shows a pre-production drawing of the young octopus named Pearl, a friend of Nemo’s who encourages him to swim out to the boat that will eventually take him away. Pearl is a flapjack octopus and the drawing accurately portrayed what that species actually looked like. However, Pearl appears in the opening sections of the movie in which the film is building a sense of the beauty and wonder of the reef where Nemo and his father, Marlin, live. As such, the final version of Pearl needed to have a more colorful and joyous feel than a true flapjack octopus. As a result, Pearl ends up with a strong pink color that gives more of a sense of the spirit of the story and feeling at that point of the film.

There is no conflict between story and reality. It all depends on what you need the audience to feel at any given moment. And that is what this chapter, and this book, is all about.

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