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Production Design and Art Department

Do you know the name Cedric Gibbons? Well, he is one of the most successful and award-winning art directors in Hollywood history. He won 11 Academy Awards and garnered 39 nominations. In fact, he designed the Oscar statuette itself. He also married (among others) the talented and beautiful Hollywood star Dolores Del Rio. Yet, even though many millions have watched and loved his films, including The Wizard Of Oz (1939), Little Women (1939), and Gaslight (1944), far fewer know his name or many others on the crew beyond the actors and maybe the directors.

The director gets the lion’s share of the credit when a project is successful, but in reality, many artists and technicians must coordinate their magnificent work behind the vision of the director.

The art director or production designer along with the director of photography are the key crew members who determine along with the director and producers the particular aesthetic or look of the piece: overall dark or light, bright colors or muted, sharp or dream-like, and so on. (see FIGURE 4.14).


FIGURE 4.14 An art director’s rendering of a boutique set


In addition, the production designer must serve the script as the director does, including the following:

  • Making sure each prop and set piece is appropriate to the time and place of the project. Peter Lamont, production designer for the film Titanic (1997), went back to the blueprints of the ship itself to re-create the dining saloon, grand staircase, and other sets as accurately as possible, even contracting with the companies that designed and made the original rugs, furniture, and China plates for the real Titanic. They basically had to re-create the most remarkable ship ever order to destroy it for a film.
  • Make sure that every item suggests whatever is necessary about the character or the environment in the scene. In the TV show The Wire (2000), Jimmy NcNulty is an exceptional Baltimore detective whose personal life is a mess, as reflected by his postdivorce studio apartment dominated by a dirty mattress on the floor.
  • Occasionally, the production designer has to create a whole world from the imagination of the filmmaker. Some directors such as Terry Gilliam (Brazil, 1982) and Tim Burton (Alice In Wonderland, 2012) envision alternate realities in which everything we see is relatable without being familiar. Everything comes from their imagination; everything needs to be designed. If you are the production designer on one of their films, your job will not be finished with a couple of trips to IKEA.

The production designer is responsible for the overall look of the film and coordinates the contributions of key personnel including the art director, the set decorator, and the costume designer to make sure that everything is consistent (see FIGURE 4.15). The art director oversees the art department who make everything that needs to be made for the project. The set decorator decides what needs to be bought and what needs to be made for the sets.


FIGURE 4.15 An art director’s rendering of a bedroom set


  • “If clothes make the man, then certainly the costume designer makes the actor!”
  • —Audrey Hepburn

The costume designer must be every bit as particular as the production designer regarding the wardrobe of the actors. The right costuming can communicate as much about a character’s personality, status, priorities, cultural background, wealth, and even connection with other characters as the actor’s performance.

Like production design, costuming transports us visually and texturally to the world of Jane Austen or Star Wars. Depending on the time period or location of the piece, costume design and creation may involve numerous stages of development, including the following:

  • Researching the place or period as needed to assure the accuracy of the costumes
  • Drawing a costume plot or a list of all the costumes required for the shoot for every character
  • Agreeing on the fabrics and other materials to be used to create the costumes and finalizing the design
  • Making all costumes, accessories, and so on, for the production
  • Keeping track of them throughout production and keeping them clean (or as dirty or worn as they need to, given for the scene that they are part of)

Each individual project dictates the specific requirements of costume design. For instance, if one scene features a fight between six characters on a dusty road, each character may need to have multiples of their costume at varying stages of dustiness so that different parts of the scene can be refilmed as necessary. For low- to medium-budget productions, costumes may be purchased rather than made, still within the parameters set by the costume designer.

In the history of costume design, there’s one artist arguably more dominant than the aforementioned Mr. Gibbons. Designer Edith Head won eight Academy Awards out of thirty-five nominations for films including All About Eve (1950), Sabrina (1954), and The Sting (1973). She didn’t design the Oscar, but she did get an Oscar nomination for a film called The Oscar (1966). And, she was turned into animated character Edna Mode in The Incredibles (2004), which is, yes, incredible.

Game, set, match, Head (see FIGURE 4.16).


FIGURE 4.16 The iconic Ascot dress of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964) designed by Head


So, how, if at all, does all of this apply to either student or low-budget media creation? If your project has a dedicated production designer, consider yourself lucky. Most low-budget productions are forced to take what they can get and shoot within their means.

But that doesn’t mean production design goes out the window. Quite the contrary. Sometimes access to an interesting location or set of props or costumes inspires the production of a media project. The imminent closure of the Thornhill Square Mall in Ontario, Canada, inspired George Romero to use it as the shooting location of Dawn of the Dead (1978), the sequel to his wildly successful zombie flick Night of the Living Dead (1968).

To paraphrase that great professional mentor James Brown, when it comes to making your media project low-budget or no-budget, you have to use what you got to get what you want.

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