Production design is the gold dust that allows the audience to escape into the magical world of a film. A production designer creates the style and look of a film through the costume, sets, props and location choices, enabling us to dive into an alternate reality.
Production design should keep the audience visually bound. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as the surroundings complementing or contrasting with a character.
By concentrating on the production design instead of putting all your focus into the equipment and camera, you are more likely to draw audience in and make your indie short film stand out. Realistically, no one wants to watch a dully dressed film.
In order to understand how crucial production design is, it is important to reflect on some of the top production designers of our time, and the worlds they have created for us.
(Wes Anderson’s – Grand Budapest Hotel – Image courtesy Fox)
Director Wes Anderson is renowned for his attention to detail and the importance of Production design in his films. Anderson always works closely with his production designer to ensure the colour palettes are memorable and the designs directly correlate with the story telling. Production designer Adam Stockhausen designed ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel‘ shot by shot to obtain Anderson’s vision. Usually a Production designer would look at 50% of the shots. In this case it was crucial for ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel‘ that Stockhausen went above and beyond to create the fictional sumptuous pink Eastern European Hotel set in World War II.
In the search for a hotel for the film, the production team discovered a abandoned department store in the city, Karlovy Vary. Stockhausen took this blank department store interior and transformed it in to the interior of the hotel. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel‘ emphasises how production design is used to magnify a character’s personality, with the hotel matching Ralph Fiennes character. The character of M. Gustave is known to be very exact, particular, and flamboyant, hence the hotel’s order, immaculacy, and vibrancy.
Stockhausen was challenged further with the film’s flashback structure. This involved shooting the 1960’s hotel back to back with the 1930’s hotel. The team built a set within a set, allowing them to shoot the 1960’s interior and peel away the decor to reveal the 1930’s interior. As the design of the film was inspired by things in real life, in pre-production Stockhausen travelled to similiar locations around Eastern Europe, gathering ideas to create the authentic atmosphere of the hotel.
Stockhausen’s remarkable eye and perfect outlook for the production design on ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel‘ not only made it one of Wes Anderson’s best films, but was noticed and praised at the Oscars in 2014, winning him the Academy Award for Best Production Design.
(Avatar – Courtesy 20st Century Fox)
“As a production designer, I ultimately have to be specific about the imagery I put before the audience. I feel responsible not only for the look of the physical or digital setting of each scene, but also for helping to evoke a specific spirit of place as well as an emotional reason for it to be there in the movie.”
Rich Carter, Production designer for ‘Avatar’ comments on his job.
Director James Cameron was selective in picking his production designers for ‘Avatar‘. He plotted ideas for new technology to be used on ‘Avatar‘, making Rich Carter’s experience on ‘The Polar Express‘ invaluable. Rich Carter had not only worked with new technology but also had a backlog of incredible works such as ‘Jurassic Park‘ , ‘War of the Worlds‘ and ‘Forrest Gump‘. James Cameron has found the production designer to complete his vision for ‘Avatar‘.
In order to fully dissolve into the fictional ‘Avatar‘ world, Rich spent 3 and a half hours reading the script. This allowed for him to discover the boundaries this film was trying to cross in developing a entirely new world. Overwhelmed with possibilities and ideas Rich was inspired by a line,that was later removed from the script, enabling him to relax.
“When you see everything, you see nothing”.
This lead to Rich stepping back and allowing for the world to unravel , rather than visualising every aspect to a T, he decided their was too much to see. Rich’s production design on ‘Avatar‘ lead to him Winning The Production Designer Oscar.
(Trainspotting – Courtesy to Channel Four Films)
In 1996 influential Danny Boyle directed ‘Trainspotting‘, this film quickly became a classic and made a difference on the young 90’s audience. To accompany the outstanding acting and script, it is clear the production design work was heavy. To make this film hit such a nerve Kave Quinn (‘Trainspotting’s production designer) had to master the brutal imagery of reality and surreal scenes burried in the script.
For seven weeks in 1995, the cast and crew teamed up in Glasgow in a disused cigarette factory, during this time Danny Boyle shared a book of images he had collected to project his vision to the crew. Kave Quinn took these images to create the colour palette for the film.
‘Trainspotting‘ is a example of stylish contemporary production design, as although it is set in council houses, Kave Quinn has managed to give the locations a cinematic quality through hightening the colours and boldness of objects throughout.
( The Great Gatsby – Courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures)
Director Baz Luhrmann and production designer Catherine Martin have never failed with their bombastically excessive sets; perfectly executed. The married couple have worked together on multiple films, however nothing is quite as bold and extravagant as the production design in ‘The Great Gatsby‘.The sets juxtaposed with the music aim to establish the characters.
Martin and her team were given 14 weeks to create Gatsby’s mansion, including the grand ballroom, library, master bedroom, entrance hall and terrace, not to mention the garden. Baz visioned Gatsby to be building a fantasy, with the feel of the Disneyland castle, however authentically based on early 20th century homes on Long Island’s North Shore.
(Mulholland Drive : Courtesy Universal Pictures)
Surreslist director David Lych relys heavily on the production designer to bring his hypanagogic visions to life. Jack fisk has been friends with Lych since year 9 at school and has the ability to understand his methods. David is known to visulise everything in his head, giving Fisk the task to create physically Lychs thoughts.
( Courtesy of Studio Canal UK)
Director Jon has a unique way of insisting to shot chronically, igniting a challenge for the production designer Chris Oddy to overcome on ‘Under the Skin‘.
‘Under the Skin‘ is a fascinating film when it comes to production design. Chris Oddy is given the task to create a uncomfortable alienating atmosphere. The locations appear basic to the novice eye; however every castle in Scotland was seen as a option, forests were searched to exhaustibility and even the chosen forest had to have 20 treetops removed to provide lighting.
In a interview Oddy explained the Black ‘Void’ in the film and the production design behind it.
“That was built on stage. When the alien takes the victims into that black world, that threshold, the transitional place was a building in each case and was very heavily designed. The black world was entirely created on a stage on a black glass floor. Jon’s idea was a joining between the (alien) world and ours. The floor that they’re walking on was a complete reflection. We had a tank set in the floor of the stage surrounded by black glass and then a mechanism in the tank to lower the victim into the floor on camera. And then a system within it to counteract the overflow. Obviously if you put something in a liquid bath, you get the Archimedes effect and the liquid overflows so there was something in the tank that diminished at the same rate that the person was going in. The glasses were four metres by three so they were big pieces of glass painted black and it was a big area of eighty by sixty feet’
‘Under the Skin’ is a prime example of the innovative skill set required in a production designer to create the directors vision.
Please see our interview with Under the Skin’s cinematographer Daniel Landin
Written by April-Rae Hughes