Key Collaborators: The Production Designer

I love art - wish I could draw better, paint better and be good at Photoshop.

Production designers do all of these things - and at a very high level.

What cinematographers have in common with production designers, is an acute sense of light and space and how to capture it through a lens. Cooperatively, our combined efforts strive to advance the story, visually. Words turn into light, color, texture and setting. And if they can’t build it - they’ll find a good location that is camera and production friendly.

The production designer will have worked for weeks on a project before the cinematographer starts prep. The initial design of the film is one that I have to agree with or at least get used to. However, in starting later, I’ve never been alarmed by what I see and in fact, always enjoy seeing the plans, sketches and conceptual art coupled with the enthusiasm and energy of an art department busy designing a film. In most cases, the production designer can’t wait for the arrival the Director of Photography*. DP’s illuminate and frame the drama. A production designer needs to know the lenses a cameraman plans to use, the lighting design, camera movement and the tone he wants to create photographically. Here, we forge a wonderful bond that blends the three dimensions of reality with the two dimensions of photography. Ours is a quiet but amazingly exciting relationship where we can imagine, create and promote; and be free and inventive till the realities of schedule and budget bring us back to earth. I love this part of prep and I have never had a bad relationship with a production designer. This is a sand box for grown up kids.

Virtually every aspect of the physical project is reviewed in prep. Here are some examples of what might be talked about: add a window here, make this wall “wild”, go with wallpaper instead of paint, don’t use chrome, not so many mirrors please, I’ll need a ceiling piece for the bedroom set, can a dolly fit through that door, make these light switches practical, we’ll use backings instead of a green screen for the big window in the living room… etc. Lots of things to discuss and agree upon.

The director is very much a part of this process too. He might have a pet color he likes or a location that he likes better than us, but if the DP and the PD present a unified case for something, the director will usually go along with their plan.

It’s important to resolve as many issues as possible during prep, because once the shooting starts the whole mindset of the team changes. It’s not unusual that set construction is still taking place during principal photography. When time permits, I’ll always walk over and see the progress of the new set and start thinking about camera and lighting ideas now that there are walls.

Throughout photography, and on a daily basis, the DP and the Production Designer continue to talk about the daily work and what’s ahead. The PD will watch dailies and will get a clear sense of how the picture is being shot - what is seen and unseen. With this knowledge he may turn his energies to props and set decoration, or foreground elements. He might not worry about the deep background as much since it’s being kept dark in the lighting scheme. He might urge the DP to shoot slightly wider establishing shots to highlight the sets a bit more. It’s a fair request too – the art and construction departments work very hard to build great sets on a tight budget with limited time.

From early on, the Production Designer and the DP work very closely together planning just about everything the audience will see in the film. All that’s missing are the actors, and they’ll weigh in on their new world soon enough.

*A Cinematographer goes by more than one title. Director of Photography, DP, DOP, and Cameraman are all names that describe the same person and the same job.

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