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Production Designer

Last updated: May 19, 2021
Reads: 25,336

Career Overview

The Production Designer manages the Art Department on a set and oversees the visuals of the film. They participate in location scouts and design sets.

Alternate Titles

PD

Salary Range

$450 – $2K a day

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Career Description

Production Designers are in charge of the visual look and feel of a production. They design the movie, TV show, or commercial’s overall concept to reflect the story’s location, time period, and emotional tone.

A Production Designer’s work takes place in the pre-production and principal photography stages of a movie.

Pre-production begins with the Production Designer reading the script and discussing with the Director what they want for the visuals of the production.

The Production Designer then communicates the Director’s vision with the project’s Producer(s) and negotiates the budget required to achieve that vision. Once those elements are agreed upon, there is a research and design phase where the concepts discussed with the Director are refined and finalized.

The Production Designer also discusses the lighting scheme for the project with the Director of Photography. Discussions are likewise had with the Costume and Hair & Makeup Departments about the project’s overall color palette.

With the script broken down and artistic ideas in place, it’s time to hire the crew and delegate jobs.

Once the production moves into principal photography, much of the Production Designer’s job becomes a juggling act of working with multiple split crews.

A segment of the Art Department will be on set to ensure that all visual elements are correct and in place for filming while another crew works on the next day’s environment.

It’s critical for the Production Designer to smoothly manages their crew at all times, as other departments are reliant on them. For instance, only once the Art Department dresses the set can the Grip Department begin its job of properly lighting the stage or location.

The Production Designer typically works on the next set to be shot but is in constant communication via walkie-talkie with their Art Director. If there is an issue, the Production Designer needs to be able to return and fix it. However, much of the Production Designer’s job is about being proactive so no issues arise.

It’s this constant multitasking between the creative and management of crew that constitutes most of the Production Designer’s job while in production.

To learn how to become a Production Designer, we spoke with:

  • Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends)
  • Ashley Fenton (Horse Girl, Together Together, The Card Counter)
  • Elisabeth Williams (The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, Channel Zero)

What does a Production Designer do?

Elisabeth Williams (The Handmaid's Tale, Fargo, Channel Zero)

A Production Designer’s job is to create a world for the story to take place in. This world needs to contribute to the story in the sense that it should set the mood and the tone of the film/program.

Whether in the studio or on location, each set is designed to fit inside this world and the Production Designer ensures that there is a visual unity throughout. She/he chooses or approves all the materials and finishes and oversees a large crew, which includes Set Design, Graphics, Construction, Paint, Set Decoration, Props, Greens, Picture Cars, Special Effects, Locations, and some parts of Costumes.

Finally, but mainly, the PD works closely with the Director of Photography and the Director in breaking down the script and telling the story in the best visual way.

Ashley Fenton (Horse Girl, Together Together, The Card Counter)

Wikipedia defines a Production Designer as the person who “is responsible for creating the visual appearance of the film–settings, costumes, character makeup; all taken as a unit.” This is likely the truth for some Designers.

There are many types of projects and equally many levels of budgets. Each project requires the Production Designer to be something specific for the job at hand. The Wikipedia definition, while offering a jumping-off point, is not the whole story. There is one thing every job has in common though: the Production Designer is a trusted expert in design and style.

Hopefully, one is hired because of their vision and ability to communicate it, but frequently the Director or ad agency know what they want their project to look like before the Designer is even hired. In those instances, the Designer is responsible for elevating the given brief to reflect their individual expertise and ensure that what is collectively desired is realized.

Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends, Snoop Dogg & Friends NYE Live Pre-Show)

The Production Designer leads the Art Department and oversees the visuals of the film. They participate in location scouts and design atmospheres that reflect the intentions and lives of the film’s characters.

Salary

Estimating an average annual salary for Production Designers is challenging at best.

Income levels vary widely between non-union and union Production Designers. Moreover, the nature of this career means that some weeks are fully scheduled, and others have no work at all.

Whether a Production Designer works on a film, TV show, music video, or commercial, each project will demand a different scope of work and subsequent investment of time, which inevitably impacts the amount of money earned.

On average, the annual salary for a Production Designer is between $65,000 and $70,000, and a Production Designer’s daily rate can be anywhere from $450 to $2,000.

Freelance Production Designers set their own day rates based on their level of experience and the budget of the production. After joining the union, they can expect to earn more based on the union’s established rates.

How much do Production Designers make?

Elisabeth Williams (The Handmaid's Tale, Fargo, Channel Zero)

A Production Designer can make anywhere between $450/day to $1,500-$2,000/day. This will depend on the budget and size of the show, the experience or resume of the candidate, and the ability to negotiate.

Ashley Fenton (Horse Girl, Together Together, The Card Counter)

It’s particularly difficult to estimate an accurate annual figure like this because film professionals mostly don’t work for annual salaries. The project-based nature of our work makes for wildly uneven income across the calendar and reminds of often of the polar idiom: feast or famine.

Movies are often long enough projects that one or two larger ones can make for a great year… or you can spend a year in holding or chasing the next one. Episodic content often comes with longer schedules and more regularity.

An important dividing line for crew rates is union vs. non-union projects. Most film professionals aren’t eligible for union membership when they start working and work in the wild west of non-union music videos, low-budget commercials, and sometimes smaller films. Even after joining a union or guild (the Art Director’s Guild in my case), rates start at a standardized baseline but are negotiated above that per project. The lack of transparency in these negotiations is a contributing factor in the disparity of compensation between the genders and for minorities.

For example, The Art Directors Guild has their union rates listed online as weekly sums. According to their information, Art Director scale at the low end is generally about $2,000/week on some tier-one as-negotiated shows. On the high range, they suggest people can command fees of $8,000-10,000 per week for a big-name Designer on a bigger film. However, it seems that most union Production Designers and Art Directors earn between $4,500 – $7,000/week. Though I really can’t speak from a place of authority.

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Career Outlook

A great Production Designer can leave an indelible imprint on a project.

At the top of their field are individuals such as Rick Carter, Bo Welch, and Rick Heinrichs who were the Production Designers on Avatar, Edward Scissorhands, and Captain America: The First Avenger, respectively. As any movie fan can attest, each of these films immediately evokes a clear and memorable look, which all leads back to the Production Designer on it.

What makes a Production Designer someone who is in demand and continually working?

For one, they must have a keen grasp of the creativity that goes into world-building.

Whether they are creating that world from scratch on a sound stage, finding it via real locations around the globe, or a combination of the two, a Production Designer must be able to realize a world that is faithful to both the script and Director’s vision, and just as importantly, that makes sure audiences do not question it.

Two, as mentioned, a Production Designer must understand how to bring the Director’s vision to life.

That means knowing how to communicate well with not only the Director but also all those other creatives, including the Cinematographer and Art Director, who will be helping to realize that vision as well.

Three, Production Designers must be malleable to each project.

Some Production Designers may establish a reputation based on a particular genre or niche. For instance, they become known as a “horror-only” Production Designer.

However, most people in this career must be able to work with different types of scripts and projects if they want to remain employed. That means being open-minded to all the many options available for the look of a given project and not stuck on a single preferred style.

Career Path

Aspiring Production Designers can kick off their careers while still in college if they choose to pursue higher education. Multiple schools including Chapman University, UCLA, USC, NYU, and AFI offer programs for students looking to become Production Designers.

College often provides the foundation of a career path for emerging Production Designers because of both the instruction offered and the opportunity to put those new-found skills to work on student films.

While still in school, aspiring Production Designers can also look to locally produced short films for additional experience.

It’s on these types of projects that emerging Production Designers can gain the type of expertise that will propel them to larger and higher-budgeted projects.

Those who dream of becoming a Production Designer can also enter the industry as an Intern or Production Assistant on a production.

Since many jobs are found through referrals, it’s important that aspiring Production Designers make a point of forming professional connections and nurturing them throughout the course of their careers.

Other resources where entry-level jobs can be found are Facebook groups and sites like mandy.com or entertainmentcareers.net.

These types of jobs allow aspiring Production Designers to form relationships with the Set Dressers, Art Directors, and Production Designers on set. Here they can hopefully maneuver for Intern or PA positions specific to the Art Department on future projects where they can further their experience and skillsets.

Should they display a passion for the job, as well as a good attitude and strong work ethic, those new to the industry can eventually ascend to the level of Set Dresser, Art Director, and eventually Production Designer.

Once established in this role, Production Designers can continue to grow the scope of their expertise on bigger and more complex projects.

How do you become a Production Designer?

Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends, Snoop Dogg & Friends NYE Live Pre-Show)

The typical career trajectory for someone fresh out of college is to become a PA for the Art Department. Most of their time is spent helping with logistics or waiting by the truck to run props on set. Sometimes specific tasks will be given by a Set Dresser or Production Designer for them to accomplish, as well. The stakes aren’t as high for a PA and it’s a good chance to learn from others.

A note [for future Production Designers]: there isn’t any balance within the world of production design. It’s freelance. Most days are hard work that lasts at least twelve hours and can begin at any time. Workweeks are five or six days long. It’s good for a non-union Production Designer to try and take about a week-long break between projects to rest up or else they’ll burn out.

Experience & Skills

Polly Platt, the famed Production Designer on films such as The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon had no formal training in the field.

Like many other specialties in the entertainment industry, the experience and skills needed to be a successful Production Designer can be learned on the job.

Whether learned in school or not, though, a Production Designer must have an understanding of how to translate both what is conveyed in a script and through a Director’s notes into what is eventually seen on screen.

Depending on the nature of the project, it might also mean in-depth study of a particular time or place, such as what Peter Lamont did to replicate the visuals of Titanic.

As mentioned, much of what a Production Designer does outside of the creative realm leans heavily into crew and time management. They must have extremely strong skills in terms of making sure their crew of a few people, a dozen people, or even a hundred people are doing exactly what they should be doing–and in the time allotted to them.

Experience is critical for an aspiring Production Designer, as it gives them the opportunity to hone not only the creative skills necessary to creating different locales and worlds, but also those administrative responsibilities that come with rising in the Art Department ranks.

That’s why emerging Production Designers are encouraged to take on whatever entry-level roles become available to them.

Even as an Intern or Production Assistant, an aspiring Production Designer can observe how the Art Department works–and just as importantly–make connections on set that can translate into them securing their next job, thus allowing them once more the chance to learn and grow their skills.

What skills does a Production Designer need?

Elisabeth Williams (The Handmaid's Tale, Fargo, Channel Zero)

A Production Designer needs to know how to read drawings and how to express her/his vision of how things should look. Depending on the size of the show, it can be useful to know how to hand draw, use some of the technical drawing programs, some of the software like InDesign, etc.

Ashley Fenton (Horse Girl, Together Together, The Card Counter)

The skills one needs are determined by the jobs one takes. These skills are also often impacted and change with the tides of what’s fashionable in our industry.

Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends, Snoop Dogg & Friends NYE Live Pre-Show)

A well-rounded understanding of the Art Department is crucial to becoming a Production Designer.

Production Designers may try to do everything themselves but mentalities like that will only cripple a production. Adapting to new situations, discovering the opportunities built into problems, and trusting the crew are all great qualities to have. They are essential to being a Production Designer.


What makes a good Production Designer?

Ashley Fenton (Horse Girl, Together Together, The Card Counter)

An effective Production Designer must be a good team leader. The Production Designer is the head of their department and has the opportunity to define the procedures and workflow for the job early on by making clear the way things should be done. In my experience, the best Designers set these standards while also listening to and learning from their team, who should feel empowered to give feedback and share their past experiences.

Creatively, early on in a project, everyone has thoughts and opinions about what the end result should look like. A good Production Designer is someone who is not afraid to make themselves a part of this conversation.

It is particularly important for a Production Designer to communicate with Directors, Cinematographers (who can be our greatest ally on set), and Wardrobe to facilitate a cohesive and clear idea about what everyone sees as the end goal. A good PD is also someone who can identify talent in other members of their team and give them opportunities to use those talents. They are a team player. They are also hopefully someone who believes in a project and isn’t fixated on or distracted by the limitations of the budget.

Elisabeth Williams (The Handmaid's Tale, Fargo, Channel Zero)

There are human qualities, creative qualities, and logistical qualities that make a good Production Designer. I believe that one must know how to put story before ego, must know how to respect the limits of a budget, must be able to see the project as a whole, must know how to take counsel from the people in her/his crew, must know to give credit and take responsibility, must be diplomatic, must know when to fight for something and when to let go.

I think that creatively, again, one’s ego has to take a back seat. An Art Department is filled with talented, intelligent, creative people. A good idea is a good idea, no matter whose it is. And a bad idea, even if it is the Production Designer’s is just a bad idea. Humility allows creativity the space and the respect it deserves.

Education & Training

Because so many colleges and universities offer courses specific to production design, it makes sense that many emerging Production Designers decide to go through film school to gain that preliminary experience and skillsets.

Because of the nature of the work, though, some Production Designers instead decide to pursue a degree in interior design or architecture, both of which can prove extremely useful in their careers as well.

Many emerging Production Designers may also form a mentor-mentee relationship with more established creatives in their field, which can allow them to learn on the job and continue rising through the ranks with each subsequent gig.

As any veteran Production Designer will tell you, their education never ends.

No matter if you’re in the entertainment industry for two years or twenty, there is always more to be learned and improved upon. Especially with the common occurrence of using CGI and animation in conjunction with practical sets and locations, Production Designers must continually sharpen their skills to keep up with the ever-evolving world of filmmaking.

What should you study to become a Production Designer?

Ashley Fenton (Horse Girl, Together Together, The Card Counter)

Going to film school is a great way to learn the vocabulary of a Production Designer. It may also connect you to the people who will eventually be your peers in the industry, and hopefully friends as well.

But beyond that, an understanding of Art, History, Design, Construction, Decoration and Psychology are the most important things in my opinion. I would encourage everyone interested in Production Design to reach out to their local union and get involved. Take advantage of the apprenticeship programs, scholarships, and the like.

In the entertainment industry, doors are still opened (at least a crack) by whom you know. Find someone whose work you love and write them and email. I first met and hired an incredible Prop Master who’s now a great friend of mine after just such an email out of the blue–I still hire him when I can afford him these days, which is less often than I’d like! ; )

Elisabeth Williams (The Handmaid's Tale, Fargo, Channel Zero)

There are many paths that can lead to Production Design. Many have a background in Architecture, others have a background in Set Design or Interior Design. Some have a degree in Cinema with some Art History. Most have worked their way up from a job on a lower echelon, some starting on the very bottom rung. No matter the path that you take, there will be things that you are very competent in and others that you will have to learn on the job.

My trajectory is unorthodox at best. I have university degrees in Politics and Education. What that adds to my skills is the ability to do thorough research, the ability to understand story, the sociology and psychology of character-driven dramas, and the diplomatic skills required in my job. After I started in film, I added Interior Design and Drawing classes to my resume as I worked my way up in the hierarchy.

Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends, Snoop Dogg & Friends NYE Live Pre-Show)

Taking a Construction course is a huge asset. It can enable the Production Designer to work on large scale jobs where sets are built from scratch in a studio. Getting on set for experience and acquiring the above skills will provide a great foundation for becoming a Production Designer.

Fun Facts

Cedric Gibbons (The Philadelphia Story, The Wizard of Oz) holds the record for the most Oscar nominations and most Oscar wins for Best Production Design at thirty-nine and eleven, respectively1.

Additional Resources

Chawla notes, “There are various books and online resources that can be Googled. However, the best thing to do is contact the art department union. They have a yearlong course that pairs individuals with big Production Designers to train them.

The course teaches how to be a professional Production Assistant. It’s a great way to make union contacts and become a Production Assistant on one of the big shows. That will provide a practical foundation that aspiring Production Designers can build off to start trying to make their own work through student films and shorts.”

FAQ

What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?

Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends, Snoop Dogg & Friends NYE Live Pre-Show)

“Having a good attitude on set is probably one of the best things to do for a Production Designer’s career. Skills develop over time but a bad mood cuts that short. Going above and beyond with a smile creates great job security. It will also get people to help in lifting heavy furniture!”

What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?

Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends, Snoop Dogg & Friends NYE Live Pre-Show)

“The biggest mistake Production Designers make is ignoring their personal life and health. It’s easy to get burned out and forget about outside relationships. If that happens, creativity suffers and the Production Designer’s career will start to take a downward spiral. They’ll get bitter and burn contacts. Their career is based on rehires, referrals and networking, so even having a couple bad jobs can be deadly.”

Anything else you think aspiring Production Designers need to know?

Ashley Fenton (Horse Girl, Together Together, The Card Counter)

A final note from me: As the production designer on a project you will likely never make everyone happy. When you’re on a job take confidence in the knowledge that you were hired because of your own specific vision of the project, but do not expect everyone to have the same vision as you.

I also believe that filmmaking is a collaborative effort. Movie magic happens when everyone who is working together does so in a way that elevates the project to a place it never could have gone with just one persons input. Try to push your collaborators but also push yourself.

What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?

Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends, Snoop Dogg & Friends NYE Live Pre-Show)

“What effort went into creating a space or background?

“Audiences never understand the effort that went into making a cinematic image. When the work is good it can almost become invisible. The film’s world sucks its viewers in. This can lead to underappreciation for the Art Department. Sometimes, even the Director and/or Producers think the Production Designer is a magician. They think the Production Designer can easily paint walls or redress a set with no time or money.

“This leads to animosity through misunderstanding. It’s important to not only show the work done but also discuss the effort that went into making it. Most importantly, it’s good to communicate what resources it will take to change course. People want it cheap, great, and fast but they can’t have all three.”

What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?

Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends, Snoop Dogg & Friends NYE Live Pre-Show)

“Is film school worthwhile?

“A lot of people ask if they should go to film school. It helps give a good foundation and contacts. The school doesn’t have to be very expensive but formal training is important. It will help in the long run when designing. There are a lot of Production Designers who just start working but it’s easy to see the difference between them and someone with an education.”

If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?

Prerna Chawla (The Night House, Burning at Both Ends, Snoop Dogg & Friends NYE Live Pre-Show)

“Teamwork.”

prerna_chawla
Prerna Chawla

Prerna Chawla is an award-winning Production Designer, Set Decorator, and artist/designer for film and theater. She was born and raised in Mumbai, where she completed her bachelor’s in architecture. The art of storytelling has been a prominent part of her culture and upbringing. She is particularly fascinated by interpreting storytelling’s profound cultural influences and the indelible impressions it leaves on personal and collective histories and vice versa.

Her interests include films, music, art, blogging, traveling, food, and photography. Since she moved to Los Angeles in 2009, she has worked on several films and theatrical productions. She holds an MFA in Scenic Design from CalArts. Her films have screened at Paris, Toronto, Cannes, Helsinki, and several festivals in the United States.

Production Designer Ashley Fenton
Ashley Fenton

Ashley Fenton is a Los Angeles-based Production Designer whose recent projects include the upcoming The Card Counter (dir: Paul Schrader), Together Together (dir: Nikole Beckwith), and Horse Girl (dir: Jeff Baena). Her TV credits include episodes of Vida, Difficult People and Oh Jerome, No. She has worked on commercials for Sonos, Pandora, and Stella Artois, and music videos by Kesha, Phoenix, and Best Coast, to name just a few.

Production Designer Elisabeth Williams
Elisabeth Williams

Elisabeth Williams is an Emmy Award-winning Production Designer known for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, and Channel Zero.

  1. 1IMDB. "Cedric Gibbons". IMDB. published: 2021. retrieved on: 30 July 2021
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