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Become a Production Designer

All you need to know about becoming a Production Designer from creatives who have worked with Beyoncé and Quentin Tarantino

Illustration by Inga Ziemele

A production designer is the person responsible for the aesthetic of a film or television production. You can think of them as an art director on set — by working closely with the project’s director, they create the visual world of the film. They do this by interpreting the director’s vision and bringing their own creativity to the project, then working with a team across set, props and graphics as well as with location scouts.

It’s a role that brings together hands-on creative work with technical acumen and an eye for the bigger picture. Like every role in film production, it requires great communication as well as being a team player at all times. Art and design skills are essential, and knowledge of 3D design programs is also becoming more integral in this field, but a good production designer will have more inscrutable skills alongside these ones — like the ability to tell a story through objects and images, and the curiosity to discover the vision of others.

We spoke to four successful production designers who have worked with brands (McDonalds), artists (Beyoncé) and directors (Quentin Tarantino), about what they’ve learned in the field and what it takes to start your career in production design.

Nothing beats on-set experience

There’s a lot to be said for classroom learning in creative professions, but when you’re trying to break into production design, real life experience will help you get to the next level. Miren Oller, Production Designer and a D&AD Awards 2021 Judge, thinks assisting an established designer can help accelerate your learning. “Assisting a production designer you admire at the beginning of your career is probably going to make the learning process faster,” she says. “You can ask, observe and learn how to manage teams, budgets and logistics. By working with someone more experienced on larger-scale projects, you can find out which skills and strengths you have, so you know what you can offer in the future. So, if you don't know where to start, assist somebody you like.” 

Sean Hogan, a top-ranking Production Designer at D&AD Awards 2022 who has worked on commercials for McDonalds and the BBC as well as on Oscar-nominated films like Brooklyn (2016), agrees. “There’s no real substitute for on-set experience. Filmmaking is very time-sensitive and it can sometimes feel like a pressure cooker. It’s tricky, but as an assistant you need to strike the balance of knowing when to stand back and observe, whilst at the same time being on hand to spring into action, especially if something unforeseen occurs. Mistakes can seem horrible in the heat of the moment but they’re generally the experiences you learn most from, so don’t be afraid to make more — easier said than done!”

Work closely with directors, and try to understand their vision

The role of a Production Designer is in part about translating the vision of a film’s director into tangible reality. That means that communication and understanding is key to success. Yohei Tanada, who has worked on films like Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War, as well as on large-scale productions at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, says this job requires the sharing of stories.

“Now that everything can be controlled and done with CGI, the director must discuss with the production designer what he or she wants to convey in terms of content, rather than visual expressions,” he says. “The director and production designer must share the story of why they had to create these pieces of footage — the story that led them there — to arrive at a more thoughtful and impactful image.”

Rika Nakanishi, whose portfolio includes Beyoncé’s Black is King, Ava Duvernay’s Naomi, and Lost in Translation, thinks that it’s about aligning with a director on a kind of visual storytelling. “To me, in narrative cases, the most important thing is to understand the director’s and the writer’s vision,” she says. “You have to get in their heads, to visually tell their story. That is a question of understanding the aesthetic and the tone and mood of the material first, before you design anything.”

Find out what your unique strengths are

Everyone on a film set brings different creative and technical elements to the table. As a production designer, your role is both creative and technical. So you’re hired not only due to your skills — but your style. As you start your career, spend time finding what your unique selling point is. Nakanishi thinks your unique essence is what will make you stand out most. “All filmmakers say that they want to make their film look different from others,” she says. “So try to add your essence in your design and explain to them what makes their material visually unique — they'll love that.”

Oller points out that experimentation is a great way to figure out your strengths and styles. “I recommend playing around with your own concepts and experimenting with them. Create your own sets, collaborate with people from other fields, explore creating new images and find what makes you different from the rest. What represents you, what’s your style, what do you prefer doing, what kind of images are you enjoying creating the most?”

Creativity means having an open mind

Film production can be an unpredictable and fluctuating field to work in. That’s part of what makes it exciting, of course, but in order to succeed in production design, you’ll need to be flexible. That means being ready for anything — not just in terms of the nitty gritty, but in the bigger picture too, says Hogan. “Due to the varied subject matter of any given design brief, you never know what you might need to become an overnight expert in,'' he says. “Keep an open mind. When opportunities arise, be prepared for all sorts of random tasks that can often crop up in the art dept - I recently needed a new assistant to get to a remote storage facility in the middle of nowhere to measure a specific vending machine prop. Seemingly quite dull at the time, but also an integral part of the project!”

Oller notes that the role is creative to its core, which means you should be, too. Cultivate your technical skills, she says, but don’t forget about your own artistic interests as well. “Experiment with different materials, develop your own skills - like ceramic or painting, or whatever you feel inclined to,” she says. “Feeling comfortable using 3D programs will always help to get jobs. Read, go to the theatre and to the museum, listen to new music, travel if you can, listen to people and get inspired, and last but not least, don't stop watching films. All these things will just add on anything you do.”

Get more advice and tips from professional creatives and learn how you can land the creative job of your dreams.

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