Production Design: A Primer for Young Filmmakers

Production Design is the visual sense of a film. I guess you could call it the style. It is usually dictated by a director's vision of their story, they outline the sense of the world they are trying to create and the production designer and crew go about making this feeling a reality. The typeface of the credits, the costumes, the color scheme- these are all elements that go into translating a story on the page into a visual one. I'm bringing this up because after months of film screening for fests it is a concept that I think could use some reflection...

And yes, as a director you are probably saying "I am an artist! I do what I want!" (which, folks, is an actual quote from a director I used to work with!) and yes, you can! But there is a difference between simply doing what you want and thoughtfully doing what you want and if you are making any product, creative or otherwise, the packaging is an important factor in drawing people into what you feel so compelled to share. So here's a quick post to help test out your production design that I think might be helpful! Of course these are generalizations and none of these tips will necessarily save a film but I at least hope to open the eyes of young filmmakers a little bit wider when thinking about the task they are taking on. FYI: I'm using Adam Spiegel's (aka Spike Jonze's) Her as a visual case study because I think Prod. Designer K.K. Barrett's ongoing collaboration with Jonze is really present in this film.

1. Typeface: So...why are you using that typeface for your title? I mean, seriously. Have you thought about it? Why would a typeface that looks like kids hand writing make sense? Is the film about chalk? Is your story about children? Okay. It is? Is that too literal of a choice then? Honestly ask yourself: Why did I use this type face to portray my film. Maybe take your title, overlay it on other scenes in your film. Is it visually cohesive or not, and why? Your typeface is your first impression and it should capture the essence of your film's style. It is a very hard task, one that I myself am not great at, but it is an important signifier of your film that should be carefully chosen.

2.  Music: Music is the biggest compliment to your story. It is another voice, another character, on screen that helps create the mood of your film. Common mistakes include: using the same song throughout the. whole. entire. film.,  using a song with really pronounced lyrics that get in the way, relying too heavily on music to tell the story causing music video syndrome/weak acting. Try playing a scene without music. Does it work? It better! Think of all of your favorite movie soundtracks (some of mine: Rushmore, The Crow, The Graduate, The Bling Ring, The Proposition), the songs on each soundtrack have some sense of belonging together. Make a mixed tape/playlist of your soundtrack, does it feel like a concept album? If not, why not? Maybe play your film on mute and play the mixed tape soundtrack over it. Do they consistently compliment each other? Of course this won't always work but I think it can help objectively shape the sensory experience of your film which can so easily gets lost in the mayhem of production.

3. Animation/data visualization: If you are using animation or graphics to visualize some of your story they shouldn't feel like they are living in another story. Split screen an animation still with a film still. Does the anime pop style of the visuals make sense next to a picture of from your documentary about genocide? Rarely! Poor moments of graphic intervention can easily feel disjointed and distracting, they can jolt one out of the film instead of propel it or give pause. Maybe make a list of keywords about your film (ex. future, lonely, technology, love, romance, breathy operating system girlfriend), then write down what you need the animation to do (provide comic relief and advance the story), then think of a visual connection (in the case of Her, artist David O'Reilley provided a soft rounded [romance], future looking, foul mouthed [comic relief], misogynistic [love], interactive [lonely] jerk in the form of a videogame character [technology]). Finding a balance of different modes within the same film is so hard but the alternative is a cluttered, disengaging mess.
4. Costumes: If someone is a tortured painter, they should probably have paint on their clothes while painting. Just a suggestion. Clothes help create a character. Think about who your character is and where they would shop IRL. And if there is no real world place they would shop then you are responsible for imagining the entire world in which their store does exist. Also, think about the scenes and color palette of the film, do you want your character to blend? Stand out? How will they look against the setting? What do you want her dress to convey about who she is & how will the dress appear within the scene/film?

5. Palette: Film color scheme info has been big on the internet in recent days, graphic designers are loving the idea of distilling an entire movie down to its basic Pantones! (FYI: Graphic designers friggin' love Pantone!) It's pretty awesome! And a key element to holding your film together...color swatches folks, color swatches!

Overall your stylistic decisions should interact with the narrative. Think about the world you are creating, not just each scene. Think about the reasons you are making the film and how to sensorially get your point across to an audience. Production design should be seen as an extension of your story and solid design separates amateurs from auteurs. if this post only stops one person from using the American Typewriter typeface I've done my job!

With love & bloodshot film watching eyes,
Donna K.



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.