How to create great Production Design for your Film.
4106_D015_00585_R_CROPGary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

How to create great Production Design for your Film.

Why you need great Production Design for your Film.

Many new and emerging filmmakers forget about Production Design. This is to detriment of the film.
Production Design on a lower budget really involves two areas. 
Area one — Location Scouting and finding a great location that is visually appropriate.
Area Two – Props – The Colour scheme and Set Dressing.

Firstly what goes wrong with poor or no Production Design on a low budget film? 
When I am teaching filmmakers to make professional films, I notice that they spend very little time finalizing their locations. They are so happy to get anywhere to shoot in, they will accept a poor location. For example a kids bedroom. Sometimes you get a room that is very small and has pure white walls.  They decide to shoot in it with no props or set dressing and the result is a visually boring set with white walls. If there is any lighting in the room, there will be nasty shadows on the wall.

There is an attitude of “That will do”.  As a film director or filmmaker, you always want to go the extra mile and get the very best location you can and dress it up to represent the character in your film in an interesting way. Work on your Locations Go out and scout till you feel that “Yes” Moment. This means  you see the location and you get excited about its visual aspects and intuitively it feels just right.

Sometimes this will happen after viewing two – four locations or sometimes it takes more time and locations to scout.  Whatever, place time and effort into your locations. Every film is a mixture of Cast Crew Film Equipment and Locations. Every filmmaker puts extraordinary time into finding great cast and crew and equipment. And then often they accept the first free location that comes along.  The locations get short shrift and the film suffers. Do not let this happen you.Locations can be either free or very inexpensive. The only thing that will cost here, is time. Generally emerging filmmakers will have plenty of time.

The second part of Production Design is Set Dressing, Props and colour schemes.

In bigger budget films, a professional designer is hired and they will have a budget. They work off a Directors Brief. Generally they will sit down with the Director and show the various examples drawn out or a photography of something similar. The director will make suggestions and the production designer will finalise a design that is in accordance with the directors vision.  This is great if you have budget to pay for this.

Many times the filmmaker will be on a micro budget and working off $300 – $1000 for the whole ten minute film. If this is the case, you will need to be innovative and go to 2nd hand shops and get props and set dressing as cheaply as you can.  You will also garnish props and set dressing from firiends relatives crew or from you home. So much props and set dressing can be found amongst your network.

You will also need photographs of the characters in their previous happy years or a Magazine or a certificate or other items like this that are written in your script.  They will all have to be made and created.  This is the Art Departments area, headed up by the Production Designer.  doubling up on a micro budget film that has to do this job.

Or if it is a super low budget film, it may be you, the director,  or one of your co-collaborators, doubling up and doing the Production Design.   One thing we always do on any of our film course films is have a  production meeting dedicated to art department.  A  We will first up make a list of items for each scene and then ask the crew “ Does anyone have a portable radiator or a what ever might be on the art department list. This is very effective and it will find most of the props from a group of people.  It takes very little effort and can be accomplished in an hour.

The rewards of making the effort with Production Design,  are well worth it. Your film will look and feel like a movie. People who watch your film do not point it out. Often a well crafted production design will be credtited to the cinematographer and audiences will think. The Film looks amazing Who was the DOP? A DOP will be only as good as a great production designer. Make sure your films look great with the following three. Awesome Cinematography, Great Colour Grading and Correction and superb Production Design as outlined above. 

Here are two examples from Tabernacle 101

Example One  Meredith’s Shop.
I did the location hunt for the shop. It took time to find. Eventually I found the place out in a country town. I negotiated with the owner who was delighted for us to shoot there.
We shot for a full day and the set looked fantastic. The interesting thing is that there was no need for producton design. The Shop already looked this way. The location hunt found the perfect set.  Boom.

Example Two   The Possessed kids bedroom

The bedroom required a load of production design. Initially it had just white walls and a bed. It was very boring and drab. We had to make it look good for the film. The Designer took my brief and then filled the walls and the rooms with visual interesting pictures and props. They all signified an aspect of the character including Route 66. As he is possessed by evil energy, we had all the props and set dressing signify that.

In summary, Production Design is a must for the Emerging Filmmaker. Place as much effort here as you would for casting your film. It will pay off in a visual and successful film.

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