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Finding, interviewing, and hiring your production designer.

by Ted Hope and Scott Macaulay

You’re a producer working with a first-time feature director, someone whose last short film was shot in a dorm room. You’re now producing his or her feature, the first film the person hasn’t had to do it all – write, direct, edit, design – all by themself. To top it off, your director is nervous and convinced that there’s no one else on earth who shares his or her vision. How do you strike up and then develop a relationship with a production designer, one of your film team’s key personnel? How do you find the right person who can develop a common language and work with your director to realize that vision?

If your director is organized and has thought out the visual scheme for the film, then it’s surprisingly easy. A good production designer is first and foremost a collaborator, a person who will take the characters your director has written (or optioned) and find appropriate, psychologically resonant places for them to live and breathe.

By following some of the suggestions below, a director or producer can build the team needed to create a well designed, visually impressive film.

Finding the Designer: Where do you look for a production designer? First, you and your director should view a lot of films. Look at the work of other recent independent filmmakers, and watch for films in which the design elements really add to the storytelling. Look for people who seem to have done a lot on what you know to be a small budget. Network with other directors, find out who they interviewed, and field recommendations.

If you don’t turn up enough names, go to a below-the-line agent. These agents rep key creative personnel – DPs, production designers, costume designers, editors – and can put you in touch with many talented people. If they like your project, they might view it as a chance for one of their clients to gain some valuable exposure. In New York, Tom Turley and the Gersh Agency, among others, represent designers while the Doug Apatow Agency and Paul Gerard Agency are places to call in Los Angeles.

The third place you can look is within the art departments of other recent indie features. There are many art directors and set decorators looking to make the leap to production designer. Good art directors can often successfully make the step up as they must already be familiar with art department budgeting. They will also have a wealth of contacts – from crew members to vendors – that they can bring along with them. When interiewing an art director for the PD job, look for a person with personality, enthusiasm, and who grasps the broader aesthetic issues involved in production design.

Interviewing the Production Designer: Make sure to send a copy of the script to every designer to be interviewed and watch for their response. Look for a person who is truly enthusiastic about the material and has already come up with intelligent suggestions regarding color schemes, set decorations, locations, etc. Don’t worry if these initial responses aren’t exactly what your director had in mind for his or her film. Look for a collaborator, someone who is not afraid to throw out ideas and then work on altering, refining, and shaping them. Proudcers should push their directors to come to these interviews with a well-thought out set of visual references – other films, paintings, photos, design styles, etc. – already in mind.

Every designer you interview will bring a copy of their "book," a portfolio of photos and drawings. Look for before and after photos that show the production designer’s transformation of a space into a set. Look at their renderings – the early sketches they made for past projects. Do these sketches successfully suggest a visual style that was carried over into the film? Look at the quality of their stills and their past jobs. Were these well-designed films? Also, some designers may show you a copy of past art department budgets. That cool futuristic loft could be a truly amazing accomplishment if it was accomplished on pennies.

Ask them about their influences and their background. Do they come out of theater design, like the NYU Theater Department? Did they work themselves up from an art department PA? What artists and photographers do they admire? Do they share a compatible set of visual reference points with your director? Talk to designers about their process. Do they work on instinct, coming up with images and designs from their own imagination or do they take a more research oriented approach? Do they focus on objects, props, and set decorations or are they more color scheme oriented? What sort of technical knowledge do they have? Are they aware of how the look of their design will be affected by different lighting and film stocks? Can they discuss the difference between a wall painted with a flat matte paint versus a semi-gloss? You might also ask them about their own personal work. Many production designers are talented painters or craftsmen and their other artistic pursuits can be enormously illuminating.

Once you’ve narrowed down your search, you can check references. I recommend speaking to people from three different production levels. First, talk to a director your PD candidate has worked with. Also speak to a line producer as well as someone from his or her art department crew. Did the production designer create an appropriate look for the film, collaborate well with the director, come in on budget, and treat his or her crew fairly? These are all things you’ll want to know before hiring your designer.

Pre-production: Once you’ve hired your designer, you’ll want to immediately set up lines of communication between you, the director, the DP, and the PD. They should watch films together and note how production design and cinematography have worked together in similar types of films. Early on, these three should be building a common vocabulary and visual reference points.

Set up a script read-through just for the art department, having them stop the reading at points to talk about design issues.

Make sure that your location staff is in sync with the art department. In fact, some designers argue that location scouts should be part of the art department. On many low-budget films, the location provides 90% of a scene’s visual power so it’s important that the person scouting these spots has an eye. Ideally, the location department should provide several choices for each key location and the production designer should see these choices early, before the director. Then the production designer will be prepared to walk the director through the visual possibilities of each space.

As a producer, keep the lines of commuication open with your PD. If a few dollars will radically improve the look of a film, you should want to know about it. Make sure that the production designer, set decorator, and props person are all bringing in polaroids of props, objects, and set dressings for the director to approve. You don’t want the director to walk on the set and be shocked to see that his Harlem crack house looks like a suburban rec room. Remember that renderings by the production designer can help an inexperienced director develop a look for his or her film.

Make sure that the production designer is integrally involved in the shot-listing process. By doing shot lists, the director, designer, and production designer will be defining what will be seen on screen. The production designer will apportion his or her work accordingly. Are you going to be covering that big party scene with a master for most of the scene or will you quickly punch in to tighter coverage? Make sure that your director won’t suddenly be calling for 360’s when the production designer has only dressed a room looking one way.

Finally, as you move into production, make sure that the production designer stays on the set until filming begins. The PD should be immediately available to address any last minute problems or changes in plans.

Through intelligent interviewing and working early on developing common languages and reference points for your creative team, even a producer of the lowest-budgeted film can wind up with a visually dynamic picture.


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