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Explainer: what is production design?

Australia’s most prolific Oscar winner, Catherine Martin, was awarded her fourth Oscar for production design on The Great Gatsby. What is it that production designers actually do? AAP

When we watch a movie, how do we know where and when it is taking place?

This is just one of the questions a production designer working on a film or TV show helps audiences answer. They do so through the design of the physical environment that is the backdrop to the story of the film.

Australian Catherine Martin scooped up two Oscars recently for her work on The Great Gatsby, one for costume design and one for production design. Whereas the work of costume designers is reasonably well understood, the contribution of production designers isn’t always clear.

Here are some more questions that production design helps us answer, sometimes in very subtle ways:

  • How do we know what kind of story we are about to embark on?
  • Should we take events seriously or see the humour in them?
  • When should we be concerned for characters in this story?
  • When should we feel relaxed and confident that all will end well?
  • How can we tell what a character is feeling?
  • Where have these characters come from?
  • What has led them to this point in their lives?
  • How do we know if we can trust them?

At times designers will provide audiences with very precise information. A specific date in clear view will show when the film is set, for example.

But most of the time the choice is to give clues rather than being too explicit: using natural textured materials and warm natural colours in a character’s home can suggest they are more caring and humane than the character whose home appears more glossy, hard-edged and more artificial. Production designer Melinda Doring established such contrasts effectively in the TV drama The Slap through the very different home environments of the characters Hector and Aisha, compared to Harry and Sandi.

Trailer for The Slap.

A believable world

Movies ask viewers to enter a world that is not their own and allow themselves to be taken on a journey that most commonly takes the form of a narrative-driven story involving human (or humanoid) characters.

To make this a rewarding journey filmmakers strive for viewers to be affected emotionally. How? By empathising with some of the characters and thereby being affected by the unfolding events of the story. For this to happen, viewers have to suspend their disbelief and accept these characters exist.

The lauded production design on the TV series Mad Men takes the audience into the world of a 1960s advertising agency. AAP Image/Movie Extra

Actors talk about “bringing a character to life” – and production designers work hard at doing the same thing with the world around them. Each depends on the other and if there are flaws in either one, the magic can be broken and the film’s impact lost.

Production design is a major contributor to the mood, or emotional tone, of a film.

This is usually the starting point of the design process. Visual research is gathered that depicts the mood or atmosphere that best supports the story. Assembled, these images become mood boards and are a highly effective means for communicating what is a non-literal quality.

These images are used to reach an agreement with the director on the direction that the design concept will take and form a key framework for the decisions the production designer makes from then on.

Colour is one the most powerful tools production designers have at their disposal.

Agreement with the director, cinematographer and costume designer on the colour palette of the film is one of the earliest decisions that is made. Controlling colour is able to not only give the film a distinct aesthetic, but also create mood, give one object greater importance than others, suggest traits of certain characters, and much more.

Jess Gonchor uses a cool colour palette of mostly browns in her production design of the Coen brothers’ latest film Inside Llewyn Davis to evoke the sombre mood of the central character.

Cool brown tones dominate the production design of Inside Llewyn Davis. Village Roadshow

In the 2010 film Red, Alec Hammond also uses a cool colour palette in the house of the main character, Frank Moses, played by Bruce Willis, to represent his lack of fulfilment in retirement and possible state of depression.

Creating completely new worlds

When a film is shot in a studio, it is easier to see what a production designer has contributed to creating the world within which the story is told.

Decisions have to be made about every element that it built or brought into the studio. Under the production designer’s domain are all sets, set dressings and props (any mobile object a cast member interacts with, like a book). They will design or supervise the design of these and monitor the making, buying, painting and installation of them in preparation for the shoot.

If the film is shot in existing locations, the role of the production designer can be harder to see, but is essentially the same.

An agreement has been made with the director about the visual characteristics of the film and the production designer makes the locations comply with this concept.

But the process of manifesting the design is different. Rather than creating a set from scratch, decisions are made about what to do to an existing space. What should be modified or taken out completely? What needs to be added in?

A production designer never works in isolation. He or she is the head of a team of people known as the art department, which they lead along with the art director, who has a role much like that of a project manager.

The art director’s role is to manage the realisation of the production designer’s vision and deal with the many and varied logistics of filmmaking including, schedules, budgets, and staffing. Depending on the size of the production the rest of the team can include set decorators, buyers, dressers, runners, graphic designers, draftspeople, props makers, and set builders.

What is good production design?

It is important to consider what design actually is.

The generally held position is that it involves creating, or creating a blueprint for, something new in a way that has a refined aesthetic that meets a predetermined purpose.

Good design fulfils a function and looks good at the same time. By extension, good production design is the creation of an environment with a refined aesthetic that enables the story of the film to be told to greatest effect.

For some films this will mean being bold and ever-present much like an additional character.

Catherine Martin’s Oscar Award winning design for The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of this. The viewer is very aware of the design throughout the film. It is startlingly beautiful, energetically filled with sumptuous colour and details creating the effect of a party so extravagant that we know it cannot last.

Trailer for The Great Gatsby.

Less recognised, but no less successful, are the production designs that go relatively unnoticed.

These are for films where the best decision is for the design to still fulfil its function of creating a visually potent world for the story to be told within but to do this must remain discrete and not draw attention away from the action.

Many production designers are quoted as saying that if a viewer claims they did not notice the design, they know they have done a great job.

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