A BEGINNERS GUIDE TO PRODUCTION DESIGN: Asking the right questions

By - CTL
May 9, 2018
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By Brass Tacks Production Design.

Production Design seems to be thought of as a mystic art to those who aren’t familiar with our role in the film industry. Brass Tacks Production Designer’s, Courtney Westbrook and Ara Nuri Steel, would like to share some valuable questions to the new designers in the industry, in the hope that you start asking questions that may not immediately come to mind.

Each project that we have worked on has bought us a fresh challenge and new skills, due to each film being vastly different. Owing to this, we have developed a list of questions to ask our collaborators before working on an aesthetic and final design package. We hope that these questions help you like they have helped us.

  1. What is the exact use and action of each prop, and how is the prop being used? If it is a disposable/consumable prop how much is needed for each take?

During the filming of Soulless, popcorn was consumed by actors and during Sublime, copious amounts of purple slime was used to supplement bodily fluids. We found it useful to ask not only; how much was needed for each take, but also how many takes the director wanted prior to the film day. It is important to know the fine details, so the actors don’t eat more than you have planned for.

  1. Does the actor have an allergy to any food, material or animal? Does the actor have a phobia, moral dilemma or fear?

This is an important question to ask when you are dealing with things such as consumable props, unusual costume materials and specialist make-up/masks. During the filming of Soulless, our actor was wearing a full head and shoulders mask that was both heavy and constricting. Due to the difficult nature and time spent removing and reapplying the mask, the actor stayed in it for many hours. It is important to make the actor aware of the nature of each costume element prior to casting, so you don’t end up casting someone with claustrophobia. Its sounds like an obvious question, however some people don’t know they have certain fears until they are confronted by them.

  1. Costume Doubles; How many takes are needed of a messy scene? How many days of shooting are being scheduled?

For Sublime the actresses playing the twin alien beach babes had to cover themselves in the purple slime (nicknamed Sublime Slime). Previously mentioned the budget only allowed for one set of matching costumes, which dictated one continuous take. The nature of the slime meant it could be only washed off in hot water and having to transport the actresses by car back to base, meant we had to budget for thick blankets and towels to protect the car interior.

  1. Location flexibility and freedom; what design elements can be used in a space? Can artworks and posters be hung from the walls? Can the space be painted? Can location furniture be moved? What are the hours of access to the location/set for pre-production and post-production?

For Soulless, the video store owners allowed us to paint the original purple interior, to the orange, blue and green colour pallet of the film’s 90’s aesthetic. Make sure you understand the possibilities and limitations to the space during your location scout, so you know how much time is needed to execute your design. For example, to get Soulless’ floor plan correct for the action of the film, we had to move crates of thousands of DVDs, whilst maintaining the order of the DVDs and signage for each category. We did this as the video store was open for business during the days whilst we filmed during the night.

  1. What is your access to power-points, extension cords, bulbs and practical lighting?

Make sure you ask these questions to the camera and lighting departments during pre-production. It is also wise to state any practical lighting that you have sourced and ask if they would like specific bulbs to manage colour, light levels and strobing on camera.

  1. Are copyright-free artworks, posters and graphics needed? When can approved graphics be sent to us for printing?

Blank white walls on locations and sets provide a challenge for lighting and camera. As designers it is important to make sure you have plenty of wall hangings on hand, for example client approved company branding, and logos to break up blank walls.

  1. How much pre-production time is needed to create artworks, specialist props and effects?

Often there is quite a short lead up to projects, and the sheer size of artworks, props or sourcing to create a sumptuous design. For Brass Tacks this has meant organising workshop days with our assistants to create artwork for shoots like NAB: Mini Legends. During this shoot we needed to cover the school hallway with kids AFL artwork. Having many hands to create this artwork saved us a lot of time. “Craftanoons” with our assistants have become a necessity on shoots such as Soulless (creating Halloween decorations) and Sublime (creating puppets and a miniature painted set).

  1. What is the actual size of an object?

Pictures can be misleading; it is easy to mistake a photograph of a kid’s deckchair advertised on gumtree for a full sized one (Sublime). Asking for specific measurements prior to sourcing will help you to avoid making easy mistakes. Ask the seller for measurements, or a reference image of the object next to a reliable size reference object (a banana is not a reliable measurement).

  1. How many locations need set dressing? What is the schedule?

Working as a duo has benefits when it comes to working with multiple set dressing within a location. Leap-frogging from one room or set to the next, one designer can be overseeing the setup of a space while another is overseeing pack up of another. It is also good to take before photos of each space to allow for a space to be put back to its original state by your assistants if you are busy. (Wolfenstein, NAB: Mini Legends and Google Home)

  1. When would clients/companies/directors/producers/cinematographers like the design/mood boards by?

Documentation, treatments and mood boards are crucial to collaborating with other departments and clients. As a visual form of communication, the earlier it is sent out to clients and companies the better as it allows for the feedback and alterations. On commercials there are often more departments involved in the final design, so the sooner the design is sent out the more time is allowed to ensure that all parties involved are happy with the final look.

Questions like these are just the beginning of a long collaboration between directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and many more. A major part of what makes a designer’s job so interesting is all of the different departments they work with to create something beautiful. We hope that these questions help you in this collaboration. Thank you for reading.

Follow our adventure: www.instagram.com/brasstacks_productiondesign or shoot us an email brasstacksproductiondesign@gmail.com

 

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