Film & TV

Film 101: What Is a Production Designer? Understanding the Role of a Production Designer

Written by MasterClass

Apr 29, 2019 • 4 min read

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Jodie Foster Teaches Filmmaking

Directors, writers, and cinematographers may get most of the glory, but production designers are integral contributors on a film shoot. Tasked with creating the look of a film, the production designer is an artistic jack-of-all-trades and a confident leader who manages the entire art department.

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What is a Production Designer?

Production designers works closely with the director and the cinematographer to create a unified look and feel for the film. Production designers head the art department, and are responsible for bringing the director’s ideas to life by coordinating an overall visual appearance and artistic style throughout the production.

What is a Production Designer’s Job Description?

In order to better understand what a production designer does, let’s look at their responsibilities during each phase of production:

What Does a Production Designer Do During Pre-Production?

The bulk of a production designer’s job happens in the pre-production phase, which can take months. During pre-production, the production designer will:

  • Brainstorm with the director: The production designer reads the scripts and discusses their ideas with the director, developing an understanding of the director’s vision. During this time, the production designer works out overarching creative decisions, such as: whether to build sets or shoot on location; what the mood, tone, or visual theme of the film will be; whether to use CGI animation or live action special effects, etc.
  • Discuss budget with the Producer: The production designer works with the producer and line producer to bring the director’s vision within budget.
  • Research: The production designer researches the visual elements they originally discussed with the director. During this time they might need to research a historical period, read art books, consult other films in the genre, or source images from the internet. A period piece set in Victorian England might require a longer research period than a contemporary romantic comedy set in New York city, for example. Directors and production designers often communicate with each during this phase using mood boards or lookbooks.
  • Design: The production designer will create design sketches or models that communicate the mood, atmosphere, lighting, composition, color, and texture of a film so that all members of the department are on the same page. The production designer will usually have the art director turn these design sketches into technical drawings or models that the construction department will use to build the sets.
  • Hire a team: The production designer hires and manages the entire art department, often the largest department on a film crew. The production designer also maintains the art department budget and creates the department’s daily work schedule. The art department consists of: set designers, art directors, illustrators, graphic artists, wardrobe supervisors, set decorators, propmasters, make-up artists, special effects supervisors, and more. The production designer needs to effectively communicate with all individuals in the art department inorder to collectively interpret a cohesive visual style.

What Does a Production Designer Do During Production?

The production designer’s main job during film production is to monitor the current day’s set while overseeing the set up or build of the following day’s set. During production, the production designer will:

  • Monitor that day’s work: The production designer gets to set early to make sure each set and camera set-up is to their liking. The production designer must also be on location to field any requests or concerns that the director or director of photography may have about that day’s set. If a problem does arise or a plan is not executed like they intended, they have to be able to make quick decisions on their feet so as to not hold up the shoot.
  • Plan for tomorrow’s set: While the production designer is on-set monitoring the shoot, they are also on a walkie-talkie, communicating with their Art Director — the art department’s second-in-command—and overseeing the construction and dressing of the next day’s sets and locations.

What Does a Production Designer Do During Post-Production?

A production designer’s job traditionally ended when principal photography wrapped. In film production today, as more films are completed in post-production with CGI, many production designers stay involved after wrap to provide input anything that will affect the film’s final look, like CGI effects or coloring.

What kinds of skills are necessary to become a production designer?

The production designer is a visually creative and artistic role, though one must also be comfortable managing a large team. There are many skills a production designer should have to succeed:

  • Eye for design. Design skills like building and drawing, plus digital design skills like creating graphics and photoshop images. A production designer must also have a deep knowledge of art and design, including color theory, lighting, art history, film history, pop culture, etc. When a director throws out an obscure visual reference, the production designer should understand the reference fully.
  • Management. Excellent management and communication skills to be able to coherently convey a cohesive creative vision to hundreds of individuals.
  • Diplomacy. The production designer has to reconcile the director’s vision with the producer’s budget to find solutions that work for both.
  • Budgeting and financial management. Art department costs are huge and can spiral quickly if not managed properly.

Learn more about film crew roles and responsibilities with Jodie Foster here.