Overview of Project


The first aim of this study was to consider the evolution of production design and examine the different methods used by production designers in film when making creative choices. By contrasting the works of a production designer who uses traditional methods with that of a production designer that invents or adapts new technology based methods, one can begin to analyse the influence and/or advantages of each process.

I began this project with a limited understanding of the role of production designer and found there was not a great deal of research of this role. While reading what articles and books I could on the subject, I discovered the art department of a film is usually the largest department involved in the production; therefore, I wanted to discover to what extent the production designer controls the outcome of the finished film. Not only would a lot of influence come from other people in the art department, the director, DoP and post-production department would also affect the final look significantly. The contribution the production designer makes to a film arises from the skills he/she can employ to design the set before filming takes place. Hence, I looked back through my own skills and experiences to find what could be successfully used in this field.


My background in animation provided me with knowledge and skills in storyboarding and model making.  Experience with storyboarding was useful as it allowed me to break down the plot into key points. This meant that it was easier to design a set around a narrative and highlight key areas of the set, which would be under the most scrutiny, if it were to be filmed.

Having prior knowledge of modelmaking became very useful when it came to building scale models of the set designs. Without having attended David Neat’s short course the summer before, I might have only been able to create very basic white card models which, along with the technical drawings, carry enough information for the set to be built but might not demonstrate the full design of the set to those unfamiliar with set design, as they may not read the design notes on colour, texture, etc.


To further understand and research the role of production designer, I attended multiple lectures given by production designers, set decorators, directors and DoPs in both Manchester and London to give context to the role and to identify any overlap. The husband-and-wife team of David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco gave the first lecture I attended which was part of the Masterclass programme at BAFTA. Their lecture, and body of work, gave me insight into the importance of the use of colour and style in production design. Their work, while distinctive, varied greatly to fit the personal preference of each director they worked with. Inspired by their designs, I began to look at other films for their use of colour and style.


The first film I chose to analyse was the 2006 film, The Fall. The majority of this was filmed on location, but was a good example of how style can affect story. The narrative fluctuated between fantasy and reality. The hyper contrast and surreal settings reinforced and separated the moments that were set in fantasy.


Another film I studied for its use of colour was the 2009 film, A Single Man. The colour saturation was used to express the lead character’s emotional state. However, in this case, it was controlled through cinematography and post-production colour grading.


Moving away from the use of colour, I also chose to examine the 1920s film, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. For this film, the set design was used to disorientate and unsettle its audience and to enhance its gothic narrative. The final look of this film is highly stylised, with forced perspective and expressionist inspired backdrops. It is possible that Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari would not have become quite such an iconic film if it were not for its set design.


After examining the effect production design has on a film, I wanted to more clearly define the role of production designers and isolate their particular influence over the look of a film. To understand the role, I located multiple articles and interviews with production designers. One particular interview and view on production design stood out from the others. Alex McDowell’s clarity of explanation and diverse body of work made me want to study his work further. His techniques for maintaining control over the appearance of the films he worked on seemed to be different from other practitioners.


In his earlier work, Alex McDowell was shown to use traditional processes of production design such as the use of sketches and white card models, but as new technology was introduced, he made sure he still had the same creative control over the process. His work seems to heavily lean towards science-fiction/fantasy genres; however, since the invention of green-screen technology and CGI, the final say of the look of a film seemed to fall to the post-production department rather than the art department. Alex McDowell’s solution was to incorporate the same technology and software into his pre-production designs. Therefore, the production design was not left to other departments to interpret but was fully designed and set out for them to build, either physically or digitally. His willingness to adapt to the use of technology in design seems to have made him one of the most prolific production designers for science fiction. For genres that required a less fantastical or futuristic setting, this flexibility would have been less necessary, but probably still valuable.


Another production designer I researched was Sarah Greenwood, who also held a BAFTA Masterclass lecture that I attended. Part of Sarah Greenwood’s design process involved using the skills of concept artist Eva Kunst, who used photo collage to express the style and mood of a scene. I really liked the speed and efficiency of this technique, especially when used for dressing locations. I felt that when designing a set from scratch, the technique became less successful as there were limitations to the design based on what images could be found. This process also could use a lot of time and resources if the set dressing required was more specific or obscure. I decided that I would refer to this technique but not study Sarah Greenwood’s work in great detail.


In some independent film work I did alongside my course, I used this technique to quickly put together a design plan using images of the props available and the location we were to use. This work was independent from my course and voluntary, but I thought it was important to put practical art direction skills into practise to understand the responsibilities of a production designer, or art director on smaller films, once production has started. Due to the often-fluid nature of film making, a lot of last minute changes are made due to unforeseen circumstances. I worked on three independent short films during my course so that I was able to compare the experiences.

The last film was the most extensive, as I was required to design and dress six different locations and source props and costume for the entire production. On a large film this could have been considered a production design role rather than an art director role as I oversaw three separate departments, art direction, costume and makeup.


After this research of various production designers, DoPs, directors, visual FX artists and their work, I felt ready to set my intentions for the project. I wanted to look at what were the most effective methods and processes used by production designers, and whether particular methods and processes lent themselves to certain film genres. I also wanted to discover whether or not these processes affected the production designer’s design choices, such as the use of colour and style. Therefore, the study focused on the different methods used by different production designers to identify the advantages of each.  I chose to focus on the work of Eve Stewart and Alex McDowell, to consider the issues of technology replacing traditional methods, and the difficulties of maintaining control over the final outcome.


The practical part of the study was designed to test both methods by applying them to the same source material and analysing the differences in the final design to discover what influence the process had. I began sketching multiple rough ideas and doing extensive research on the theme I wanted for the set, as Eve Stewart would have done. To study her fairly traditional processes, I began by writing an overview of her career. I was initially surprised at how much of her work I was familiar with, as she has worked on a variety of film and television drama. The second thing I noticed was how much of her work fell into the Period category of film (and television). The film categories used by the Art Directors Guild for their production design award are Period, Contemporary and Sci-fi/Fantasy; therefore these are the categories I used in my research. I learned a little about her process of working and use of extensive research from interviews and articles I found online and in a few books, but after being fortunate enough to attend another BAFTA Masterclass, this time with Eve Stewart herself, I discovered just how much detail she puts into her work. After the Masterclass lecture, I was able to briefly talk with her and gain her email address.


After a few weeks of emailing she suggested that I should come down to Longcross Studios in Surrey to analyse her process in action. However, while I was able to visit Longcross and see a lot of Eve Stewart’s original sketches, I was not able to meet her again due to changes to the shooting schedule of the BBC series Call The Midwife. I also couldn’t post images from the visit on my reflective journal as they were copyrighted. I attempted to gain more information via email after the visit but was unsuccessful. I continued my practical project using ideas I based on her process.


I wanted my designs to have the same level of depth, so I spent some time focusing on the main characters in the story I chose to use. I chose to use a story I had written myself, which may have limited me in some respect as I had less to base my research on, but in terms of being familiar with the character’s motivations and intended mood of the piece, I felt very comfortable with my ability to draw these details into the design.


I drew a lot of inspiration from the three film versions of The Lady Vanishes, as I liked the idea of the items being salvaged from somewhere to be used in the set. My resulting design was a little basic. I had a lot of details, textures and colours that I was satisfied with; however, the use of space was too simple, with only a few features to prevent it from being a box set. I decided, then, to use a different method to explore more interesting shapes and layouts.


For the more Alex McDowell inspired process, I decided to use Google Sketchup, as it seemed to require the least experience with the software. Despite this being the most user-friendly of the Previs software, I still found there to be a steep learning curve and a lot of limitations with the programme. Alex McDowell is currently LA based so I didn’t expect to meet him personally or be able to attend a lecture given by him. He does, however, have a significant online presence. I based my research on a wide range of videos and articles. After extensive research I came across his email address and was lucky enough to receive a response from Alex McDowell himself. I put together a list of questions and after a few more weeks, I received my answers. I found his response very useful for my project and inspirational for my further work.


The set design I created using Google Sketchup was still basic, but I found it surprisingly easy to build up texture or patterns on the surfaces. Due to the basic structure of the set, I also found it easy to combine the textures of Google Sketchup with a physical card model.


I was, however, still not happy with the end result of the set design. I decided to look back through my research and reference images and apply their influence more directly to my set design.


My set would reflect period detail and require research (of old railway carriages and the underground), as an Eve Stewart production design would; however, as the film would be a dystopia it would be more grungy, more typical of an Alex McDowell design (such as Fight Club). In my original plans I had decided to imply the desperate, but resourceful nature of the main character by dressing the set with mostly salvaged and second-hand items. One of the key parts of this process was the use of seats from an abandoned train carriage. Upon reviewing my reference images, I decided against taking the seats out of context and made the entire set a second-hand salvage. When designing a set from a single resource, one has a lack of information to work from. By taking one key feature, in this case the red booths, one can build a theme. Secluded red booths combined with the secretive nature of the patrons brought back images of Agatha Christie like murder-mysteries. However, as I wanted the look of the set to be more ‘grungy’, a less ‘romantic’ version of transport than that used in such was more suitable. By setting the bar in an abandoned tube station I could take advantage of both the hidden away location and the presence of train compartments.

I used traditional processes for planning my set as, even with practice, I felt it easier to achieve the look I wanted by drawing rather than using CAD software. Despite being able to design directly in Google SketchUp and enter the specific dimensions of an object or shape, I could not enter the exact location of where the piece needed to be. I did, however, use CAD software when designing the train carriage. The design required a lot of small repetitive details that I found easier to lay out using vector-based software. To simplify the process further, I used a lasercutter to create a physical template and bring together my computer-based designs and my hand-made scale models. I felt that the precision of the lasercutter was necessary for the carriage design, but found that with less repetitive pieces, I still preferred to use a scalpel, as it allowed me to make quick adjustments throughout the process.

For the purposes of the exhibition, I decided to make a fully rendered model with textures and detailed paintwork. A white card model is sufficient for relaying information about the set design so that it can be built full-scale, but since the set was not going to be built, a more detailed model would give a better idea of the final design. I also built a small section of the set design in full scale to be displayed alongside the model. For the full-size scenery piece, I used a 3D printer to make rivets to fix along the side of the piece. Making these by hand would have been tedious and unnecessary. In this case and that of the train carriage, I was grateful for the use of technology. I feel that, had I not redesigned my set, the previs-based process would have seemed like the more successful option. My redesign shows that the decision is more complicated than that of simply choosing one method.

When starting this project I was concerned that the introduction of technology was replacing traditional techniques that still have a lot of advantages. However, with more research, I found that the production design process seems to be most successful when making the most of all techniques, skills and technology available to create as much depth and detail as possible before the set is fully built. Using CAD software rather than drawing boards, seems to be the only part of the two processes that are equivalent to each other as they seem to rely more on the preference of the person creating the technical plans, than the intended outcome. The other techniques seem to need more careful consideration as to what is appropriate for the film. I discovered that genre has less of an effect on this choice than I thought, as instead, the choice should be based on the particular intentions of each film. Often, however, if there is a difficult choice to be made between building a set and creating one in post-production, technology (previs) can be used as part of the pre-production process to work out the advantages, creative and financial, of both to help decide the best option. http://anyakordecki.com/2013/04/28/defining-the-term-previs/

It seems that increasingly, these different design processes and techniques are not only used to design a set, but also used to convince studios to build rather than computer-generate the set. Although I discovered that many practitioners in a range of roles do not want to lose the ‘in-camera-effects’ and traditional processes, many feel there is a studio bias towards computer-based systems. Therefore, they believe funding is more available for postproduction and visual effects, than for pre-production. A man who has this conviction, is Neil Huxley, who used visual effects as a way to establish himself as a filmmaker and now established, is producing short films with no visual effects.

(2013, 13 September 13, The Collective, 6. 24 June 13, https://soundcloud.com/the-collective-podcast/the-collective-ep-6-neil. 13 September 13.)

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