Become a Production Designer
“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,” explains Prerna Chawla, an artist and designer who has worked on films that have screened at Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival. All of a Production Designer’s work takes place in the pre-production and principal photography stages of a movie.
Pre-production begins by reading the script and discussing ideas with the Director. The Production Designer communicates and negotiates with the Producer over the budget required to achieve the Director’s vision. Once those elements are set, there is a research and design phase where the concepts discussed with the Director are refined. Usually, the Director of Photography comes in and talks about his or her lighting ideas. There are also discussions with the Costume and Hair Departments about the overall color palette on screen. With the script broken down and artistic ideas in place, it’s time to hire crew and delegate jobs.
Production is a juggling act of working with split crews. The Art Department needs to be on set making sure everything is correct for filming and have another crew working ahead for the next day’s environment. Otherwise, time is wasted because the lighting crew can’t work at the same time as the Art Department. The set must be dressed before lighting can begin. Usually, the Production Designer works on the next set and is in constant communication via walkie-talkie with their Art Director working on set. 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.
The entry-level path through the Art Department is as a PA. “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,” says Chawla.
One good approach to working as a Production Designer is to do student films or low budget shorts. There are more responsibilities and on-set jobs than on a big league set, but these experiences can also be very rewarding when building a resume. As an aspiring Production Designer gets more experience, they can take on larger jobs.
After a few years of work, the issue becomes maintaining a balance between creative and financially rewarding projects. Some work pays well but isn’t going to build the Production Designer’s career. Other projects will be personally fulfilling but won’t cover rent. With time comes experience on set and the ability to find the balance between getting money and artistic fulfillment.
Education & Training
It isn’t necessary to go to graduate school to become a Production Designer but it helps. What’s important is to develop software skills to create graphics, photoshop images, and design plots. These skills help convey ideas and diversify what a Production Designer can bring to a production.
Ultimately each of those jobs can be outsourced if needed but understanding them will help in hiring the right labor. Chawla adds, “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.”
Experience & Skills
Chawla advises, “A well-rounded understanding of the Art Department is crucial to becoming a Production Designer.” They don’t need to be experts at architectural drawing software like AutoCAD but proficiency in building and drawing skills is a huge plus. Every day is a learning process and no one expects anyone to be amazing right out of the gate but being a beginner is still a phase to evolve from. Assisting or shadowing a more established Production Designer gives practical experience on how to be a manager and artist.
Talent isn’t enough to be successful. A Production Designer must also be honest and likable because it’s a team effort. If people get along with them, it’s easier to create better work and get rehired. It’s easy to get stuck in a “my way or the highway” mentality.
“Production Designers may try to do everything themselves but mentalities like that will only cripple a production,” Chawla adds. “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.”
“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. Work weeks 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,” explains Chawla. After joining the union, and getting more money in their budget, the Production Designer can have more regular office hours. They’ll have the manpower to take care of each task so they don’t have to do it themselves.
“The typical career trajectory for someone fresh out of college is to become a PA for the Art Department,” says Chawla. Gigs can be found in Facebook groups dedicated to film industry work or via Mandy.com. PAs should be open to help out in any way needed as long as it isn’t dangerous. This will give them valuable on set experience and the potential to get rehired.
If their attitude is good, the Production Designer will take them onto their next project and possibly give them more responsibility. Nobody likes someone who complains, especially when it’s a fourteen-hour day, so a good attitude is paramount. After they work on multiple sets as a Production Assistant, the aspiring Production Designer will be brought on as Set Dresser and then Art Director. Art Directors are only one step away from becoming Production Designers so at that point they just need to make their own opportunities and apply for Production Designer jobs.
Freelance Production Designers must 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.
Unions, Groups & Associations
“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,” advises Chawla.
- Attend events hosted by the art union.
- Watch panel discussions of working professionals online or at film festivals.
- Ask questions when onset.
- If a film feels special, get in touch with someone who worked on that film and ask them questions over coffee or lunch.
- Learn Photoshop.
- Watch movies and study them. Create a list of innovative professionals and discover what makes them unique.
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“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.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“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 is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“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?
“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 is an award-winning artist and 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.