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Asking the Right Questions - Six Questions for the Emerging Designer

Production Design seems to be thought of as a mystic art to those who aren’t familiar with this role in the film industry. Ara Nuri Steel and Courtney Westbrook (ARACOURT) would like to demystify some of the pre-production work of the production designer, by sharing six questions they have found invaluable in starting a new project. With each new project we work on, provides new challenges. Owing to this, we have developed a list of questions to ask our collaborators prior to commencing work on a design. We hope that these six questions help you, like they have helped us.

1. What is the brand/aesthetic of the company/client you are working for? Do they have colours, textures or tones they would like to avoid that might be off-brand?

Having this question answered by a company/client is a great way to narrow down your options for researching and developing a design brief. It is slightly daunting to look at a design concept development with no parameters, as anything and everything is an option. This helps to focus your research, and assists in sticking to the clients vision (unless why they are hiring you is to break that mould).

Hot tip: Creating a quick 'look book' or 'mood board' is a fantastic way to find out what is working for the client and what isn't. It's a great way to visually communicate what direction you are thinking and a good early step to take in getting feedback before committing to a design.

2. When would your 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 allow time 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 there is often a sheer number of artworks, props or sourcing that is required to create a sumptuous design. For ARACOURT 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 miniature painted sets).

5. 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 filming days. It is important to know the fine details, so the actors don’t consume more than you have planned for.

6. 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 locations to be put back in its original state.

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. If you have any more, please leave a comment.


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