Production Design

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Production Design


Production design is the creation and organization of the physical world surrounding a film story. The term was coined by producer David O. Selznick (1902–1965) to describe the greater-than-normal contribution of designer William Cameron Menzies (1896–1957) to Gone with the Wind (1939), but the exact responsibilities of a production designer inevitably vary from film to film. In some cases, the production designer is almost completely responsible for the overall look of a film; in others, particularly when working with directors with strong visual styles, a designer's contribution tends to be much more limited. Art direction and production design often overlap, although credit for production design is seen as more inclusive. During the studio era, production designers, as opposed to art directors, were the exception.

The production designer's primary, though by no means exclusive, responsibility is the design of the sets. Exact responsibility varies from one film industry to another. In the United States, for example, production design and costume design are usually two separate professions. In other major film industries, the two responsibilities are often held by a single person. Before designing anything, the designer develops a "design concept," an overarching metaphor for the film's appearance that governs individual choices. This "concept" may or may not be established in conjunction with the director. Once settled upon, however, it structures all decisions made, helping the art staff to give an individual film visual distinction.


As in every cinematic subdiscipline, designers begin with the script and make their contributions within the limits and opportunities the story provides. The options available to them move along a spectrum from realism to stylization. (In this context, "realism" should be understood as a particular style that seeks to convince viewers they are watching events unfold in the real world.) The approach a designer takes (strict realism, heavy stylization, or something in between) is often predetermined by the genre of film on which he or she is working.

At the "realistic" end of the spectrum are stories such as war films, police dramas, and westerns. These genres derive much of their power from the illusion of occurring in the here and now. The violence and horror of the war film is most effective when viewers believe a soldier can be maimed or killed by the grenade dropped in the trench next to him, while the police drama convinces audiences that real criminals are being chased when both pursued and pursuer pound the pavement of real cities.

Such a strict notion of realism, however, is just one approach to production design. Another, at the opposite extreme, creates thoroughly unrealistic, heavily stylized environments that make no attempt to convince viewers they are watching any real, lived-in or live world. These designs try instead to create an alternative environment with an internally consistent logic that lasts as long as the film's duration. Films from genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and the musical are often heavily stylized. Fantasy and science fiction require an extreme attention to consistent, self-referring design because of the extra difficulty of creating a world that by its very nature appears odd. In musicals, the alternative reality is less one of space and technology than of psychology, as the characters live in a world in which they express themselves through song and dance.

Somewhere between these two poles of realism and stylization are genres such as the period film or the detective story. Period films are unique because the antiques they pull together to provide the realistic illusion of a particular period are by definition different from contemporary reality, and therefore provide a form of stylization. For example, the audience's expectation of realistic spatial representation would immediately mark an automobile or cell phone that appeared in a story set in 1700 as "wrong." Disbelief could not be suspended, and the reality of the fictional world could not be established. At the same time, objects that period characters might take as everyday objects, such as handcrafted woodworking tools, are unfamiliar to contemporary audiences.

b. New Haven, Connecticut, 29 July 1896, d. 5 March 1957

Probably most famous as the production designer for Gone with the Wind (1939), William Cameron Menzies had a long, distinguished career as an art director and production designer, as well as a less well-known one as a director. As a designer, Menzies's work displays a distinctiveness unusual for Hollywood. While most Hollywood art direction and production design is unimaginative and inexpressive, Menzies had a talent for creating environments that impress for themselves, regardless of story requirements.

His work for Gone with the Wind, for example, has a larger-than-life quality in keeping with the film's inflation of a romantic melodrama to pseudo-epic proportions. The film's impossibly lush and glossy environment is historically accurate, but far too rich (and clean) for a truly realistic depiction of the antebellum South. This somewhat overstuffed environment can no doubt partly be attributed to the pretensions of GWTW's producer, David O. Selznick. Invaders from Mars (1953), however, which Menzies directed and over which he presumably exercised greater control, has an equally assertive, if very different, physical environment. In his designs for Mars, Menzies goes to the opposite extreme of GWTW, creating images so spare they verge on the abstract. And while the camera angles in GWTW are largely the dull, actor-centered, heads-on middle-distances of romantic melodrama, those in Mars are frequently angled to accentuate visual rather than dramatic impact, relegating the actors to little more than décor.

Menzies's most famous film as a director was his adaptation of H. G. Wells's Things to Come (1936), for which he was not credited with production design. Visually, it bears greater similarity to Mars than to GWTW, possibly because both are science fiction films. Menzies's propensity for low angles that pose the actors against the set and show off the architecture is notable in both films. What is certainly as true of Things to Come as of either GWTW or Mars is the assertiveness of the physical environment. It is therefore possible that much of Menzies's reputation as one of Hollywood's preeminent production designers rests on the obviousness of his contributions. While most Hollywood films from the classical period deliberately and systematically suppressed the physical world in favor of story, Menzies managed to make viewers aware of the physical environment. His triumph was to impart a degree of individual expression to the typically impersonal world of Hollywood design.


As Production Designer: Gone with the Wind (1939), King'sRow (1942), Pride of the Yankees (1942); As Director and Production Designer: Invaders from Mars (1953); As Director: Things to Come (1936); As Associate Director and Associate Art Director (uncredited): The Thief of Bagdad (1940)


Frayling, Christopher. Things to Come. London: British Film Institute, 1995.

Haver, Ronald. David O'Selznick's "Gone with the Wind." New York: Bonanza Books, 1986.

Charles Tashiro

With mysteries, the primary appeal is intellectual rather than emotional. The goal of the filmmakers is to keep one step ahead of the viewer's ability to figure out

the solution. The physical environment then takes on a uniquely assertive presence, as objects themselves (murder weapons, stolen jewels, bits of clothing evidence) become a greater focus of attention than in most films. Who owns what particular object, or when it was visible or available and so on are central questions to unraveling the mystery. The British television series Poirot (beginning 1989), for example, takes the mystery genre's attention to objects to such an extreme that the series verges on the fetishistic.

Of course, there are innumerable exceptions to these generalizations. Generic precedents are at most guidelines filmmakers know about when starting a film, but which they are always free to ignore. Generic expectation is important in understanding how a designer may approach an individual project. Designers naturally stress how their choices have been shaped by an individual story; nonetheless, prior models always operate in the designers' minds as they make decisions. While the options available are vast, they are not unlimited, nor are they as wide as filmmakers would often like the public to believe.

The relationship between the look of films in the same genre becomes apparent over time, when the publicity used to distinguish one film from another has died away and nothing is left but the films themselves, For instance, Hollywood musicals from the early 1950s, despite being examples of one of the most stylized of genres, theoretically should be individually distinctive; yet they are remarkably similar visually, with spare sets, bright Technicolor photography, posh upper or upper middle class settings, and so on. Biblical-era epics from the same period manage to make ancient Rome and

Judea look remarkably the same, regardless of whether they are telling the story of Christ (The Robe [1953] , Ben-Hur [1959], King of Kings [1961], Barabbas, [1953]), dramatizing earlier events from the Bible (Solomon and Sheba [1959], David and Bathsheba [1951]) or dealing with nonreligious topics (Spartacus [1960]).

When a film does manage a distinctive look, it frequently becomes a model for others so that its innovative style gets lost in a sea of imitation. The highly stylized evocation of Fascist Italy created by designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti (1941–1994) for Il Conformista (The Conformist, 1970) became the model for several subsequent fascist revival films in the 1970s. The vision of the future as a bleak, wet, trash-filled nightmare so powerfully evoked by designer Lawrence Paull (b. 1938) in Blade Runner (1982) became almost an instant cliché in 1980s dystopian science fiction. Even as highly unrealistic a period environment as that created by Luigi Scaccianoce (1914–1981) for Fellini Satyricon (1969), which consciously avoids the clichésfor depicting ancient Rome, has direct descendants in films such as Caligula (1979).

Undue emphasis should not be placed on the relationship between story and design. For while designers start with the script, there are often competing demands that emerge from the effort to serve the story. The most common factor competing for the designer's attention is the demands of characters when they work against the overall design scheme for the story. For example, the hard-edged, material glitter that structures the design for The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) gives way to fairly drab, routine materials in scenes in the police station, or in the police lieutenant's home.


Even the best and most famous production designers are constrained by the collaborative work environment of the typical movie production. While charged with creating the physical world for a movie, the designer usually has little control over how the design is lit or photographed, or how actors will be positioned in relation to his or her sets. The look of a film is really achieved in collaboration at least with the director of photography (DP), who in turn answers to the same master, the director.

At the simplest level, this collaboration dictates how much of an environment the designer has to create. In a brute, literal sense, a production design always ends exactly at the edge of the frame. Thus the designer must have a sense of how much of a set or location a director or DP wants to show, which in turn is determined by the photographic process (academy ratio vs. widescreen, or anamorphic widescreen vs. matted) and lens choice (does the director prefer wide angles, or have a fondness for close-ups?) Also, different film stocks may have particular sensitivities that discourage the use of colors in a given range, or be particularly poor in resolving objects in shadow. At a more sophisticated level, the designer has to consider technical issues, such as whether or not the DP wants some kind of "practical" (i.e., visible) lamps on the set to serve as the (illusory) lighting source. Will the characters enter a dark room at night and turn on the light that will become the "key light" (primary illumination) for the scene? If so, the production designer will not only have to find or make a lamp that fits into the design concept, he or she will also have to be certain that its placement will not interfere with the lights on the set that are the true illumination.

Similarly, when working with a director who plans to use a lot of camera movement, the designer and DP must be certain that some walls can be rolled out of the way quickly to accommodate the camera crew as it moves with the action, that there is sufficient space for the camera and crew regardless of where the camera is pointed and where it is moving, and so on. Sufficient space for camera and crew is one of the major considerations in deciding whether or not to use a sound stage. If the director insists on elaborate camerawork, and a location set cannot accommodate camera and crew, a sound stage is a must.

Beyond such technical considerations, there is the subtle, ineffable, but necessary question of what simply feels "right" for a particular design. While designers may have a lot of say in creating or finding these details, it is ultimately the director who decides what is included or excluded from the frame. And because it is ultimately the director who makes such decisions, it is also ultimately the director, not the designer, who determines the final visual style of a project.


While it cannot be quantified or otherwise evaluated scientifically, there are differences between the contributions of a production designer and a director with a strong visual sense. To understand why, it is necessary to understand what the two positions have in common and what they do not. After the director, the production designer is the person with the most comprehensive artistic overview of a project. Their functions are so close in pre-production and early production that it is not much of an exaggeration to think of the production designer as a second director.

b. Potenza Picena, Marchesa, Italy, 6 March 1941, d. 20 April 1994

A successful scenic designer before entering film, production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti rose to prominence on the basis of his collaborations with directors Luchino Visconti and Bernardo Bertolucci. It was Scarfiotti's first film with Bertolucci, Il Conformista (The Conformist, 1970), that especially assured his reputation. While not as well known as Bertolucci or cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, Scarfiotti is at least as responsible for the influential look and feel of the films they made together.

Although there is a tendency towards the baroque in much of Scarfiotti's work, like that of most production designers it embraces a wide range of styles. Such blatantly stylized and designed environments as those created for Flash Gordon (1980) and Scarface (1983), for example, contrast with the more realistic environments in Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice, (1971), Daisy Miller (1974) or Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972). His work in The Conformist brings together artifacts, fashions, and architecture from the 1930s that are perfectly believable as everyday objects, but which nonetheless have been carefully selected for their visual distinction. The film has a complex richness, not inherent in any one object, but present in toto. American Gigolo (1980) seduces the viewer into sympathy with an unattractive character by wrapping him in the sexy stylishness of high fashion and self-conscious design. In Death in Venice, the protagonist's loneliness and ill health are made compelling by cushioning him in lush fin-de-sìecle trappings almost suffocating in their rich heaviness. It is impossible to imagine any of these films without their environments, for their spaces and objects are integral to their meaning.

By contrast, Scarfiotti's more obvious designs are less successful. In the quasi-Camp environment of Flash Gordon, for example, one is aware of the intention to produce a comic-book world, but it never comes to life. The fantasy sequences in Cat People (1982) are sketchy and under-realized, as if both director and production designer were not quite certain what the sets were meant to achieve. The over-the-top visuals in Scarface convey nothing more than the effort to be flamboyant.

Scarfiotti's main gift, and probably his greatest influence, was his ability to create highly stylized visual environments that were never completely removed from what seemed at least theoretically possible in the everyday world. His legacy lies in finding that point of equilibrium wherein production design ceases being a passive background and becomes an integral part of a film's meaning without overwhelming it with visual excess, even as it creates a hyper-real sensuality.


Il Conformista (The Conformist, 1970), Morte a Venezia (Death in Venice, 1971), Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972), Daisy Miller (1974), American Gigolo (1980, uncredited), Cat People (1982), Scarface (1983, uncredited), The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (Il Tè nel deserto, 1990) Toys (1992)


Sklarew, Bruce H. Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor": Multiple Takes. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998.

Thompson, David. Last Tango in Paris. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Charles Tashiro

Once production begins, however, the designer's importance diminishes considerably. While designers are likely to remain on payroll through production, and are often asked to perform work during shooting, their creative input at that stage moves from the conceptual to the technical. That is, they are less involved in making artistic choices than in supervising the execution of decisions made earlier. The creative function has shifted from

the design to the photography and staging, to the realms of the director of photography, the actors, and the director. And, of course, the designer is not needed at all in post-production.

However, many directors do not involve themselves in these matters either. This is a significant factor in whether or not the director's work will, in fact, have a strong personal style or will be mainly a record of collaboration. In the latter case, the designer's impact on the film's visual style will be much more apparent as the trace of the primary personality involved in the creation of its visual aspect. Yet even in such cases, it is rare for designers' work to have as distinctive a look as that of visually assertive directors. In other words, when working for a director with a weak visual sense, the resulting images will almost certainly represent the designer's sensibility more than the director's; but that sensibility will be difficult to discern in other films, particularly when the designer works for a strong director, because of the designer's subordinate position. The relative strengths of a designer and a director can be found by looking at the work of famous designer/director pairings, and comparing them to work either partner has performed with others. Such partnerships as Richard MacDonald (1919–1993) and Joseph Losey (1909–1984), Ferdinando Scarfiotti and Bernardo Bertolucci, and Santo Loquasto (b. 1944) and Woody Allen offer object lessons in understanding the contribution of design to cinematic visual style.

The partnership between MacDonald and Losey is one of the most famous, and Losey openly acknowledged the importance of production design to his work. While each was responsible for over thirty feature films, they worked together on nine. MacDonald worked with several other well-known directors, including Ken Russell, Fred Schepisi, and John Schelsinger; Losey worked with at least one other designer, Alexandre Trauner (1906–1993), as well known as MacDonald. There is little in subject matter to tie the late film noir atmosphere of Losey's The Criminal (1960) to the quasi-comic melodrama of The Romantic Englishwoman (1975) and even less to tie either to the theatrical artifice of Galileo (1975) or King and Country (1964). The photographic styles do not help much either, veering between the low-key, chiaroscuoro black-and-white lighting of The Criminal to the bright, colorful, op-art-inspired Modesty Blaise (1966).

Yet all nine films exhibit a similar sensitivity to architecture and its relation to the human form. This in itself is a clue to who was primarily responsible for their look, since the director, not the production designer, would place the actors in a space. Similarly, the nine films Losey and MacDonald made together tend to have few close-ups; scenes often play out in relative long shot, maximizing our perception of the characters in relation to their surroundings. While this sensitivity to architecture and self-conscious positioning of characters in relation to it is a common visual trait in these nine films, the collaborations between Losey and Trauner (Don Giovanni [1979] and La Truite [1982]) reveal the same fascination with architecture and the human form. There are differences in emphasis in the Losey-Trauner collaborations. Losey's work with Trauner tends to be more decorative, with very lush details filling out the frame. But the angles are just as wide as Losey's work with MacDonald, the compositions just as elaborate and self-conscious.

MacDonald's work with Schlesinger and Schepisi is similar enough in subject to his collaborations with Losey that one might expect similar visual environments. Yet while there is some of the same architectural sophistication in Plenty (1985, which, like Galileo, was based on a play), it is largely absent from The Russia House (1990). Similarly, while The Day of the Locust (1975) exhibits some visual excess similar to Losey's collaborations with Trauner, MacDonald's other collaborations with Schlesinger are marked by a realism that verges on the mundane and invisible. None of the work MacDonald and Schlesinger did together shows that effort to use architecture expressively as in the Losey-MacDonald collaborations.


While there have been many examples of film design initiating or participating in fashion crazes, and while it has become almost common since the success of the Star Wars films for movie companies to merchandise objects and memorabilia related to blockbuster releases, production design's most influential relationship with the audience is both more subtle and powerful than individual merchandising strategies. It is the cumulative effect of the narrative feature's designed environment that has to be understood to realize the significance of production design in audiences' daily lives. Production design's influence in these matters arises more from a general expectation that life may be as ordered and beautiful as the average film image. In this regard, it is not significantly different from standard advertising, with one major exception. Because the television commercial or glossy magazine spread is obviously selling a way of life, the ad can be rejected. The narrative feature, on the other hand, is not obviously selling anything beyond itself, while at the same time creating the illusion that the perfect images and ordered lives it presents are feasible.

If it is assumed that the least noticeable production design is at the realist end (because the filmmakers are striving to provide the illusion that the fictional events are occurring as viewers watch them), it also may be assumed that to some extent the designers are trying to embed the story in a physically plausible environment. In other words, the world on the screen has to convince audiences it actually exists in order for the realism of the story to succeed. At the same time, in fiction films even the most realistic of cinematic environments provide a structured, dramatically heightened world. Details are included for their thematic and symbolic relevance to story and character; atmosphere is subordinated to dramatic need. So even a reasonably realistic view of, say, an average, suburban middle-class American home will be improbably neat and tidy because everyday messes are not necessary for the story. And unless it figured in the story in some way, the action would be unlikely to show anyone cleaning or tidying up. For example, despite the fact that Mildred Pierce (1945) works all day at home to make ends meet, has two daughters (one of them a physically active tomboy), an unemployed husband under foot, and no one to help her, her home is impeccably spruce.

Nor is the source of the money that supports these environments depicted very often. When the protagonist of American Beauty (1999) leaves his job, there is no material change in his way of life; it is as if the lush furnishings and draperies of his home exist apart from such contingencies. Even when a character's work is included, it tends to be subordinated to his or her emotional concerns. (Unemployment is significant for the hero of American Beauty because it is part of his midlife crisis, not because he is unable to pay his bills.) In other words, nearly every action in the story is focused on those aspects of a character's life that are "interesting" or "dramatic," rather than grounded in daily, grubby activity. This is the inevitable distortion of art. When combined with physically rich environments and effective cinematography, such dramatic heightening is expressed not only in the story and characters, but also in the spaces they inhabit. Created by sophisticated technicians, production design provides a richly saturated ideal, the contemporary measure of style.

SEE ALSO Cinematography;Crew;Direction;Lighting;Production Process


Affron, Charles, and Mirella Jona Affron. Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Albrecht, Donald. Designing Dreams: Modern Architecture in the Movies. New York: Harper & Row and the Museum of Modern Art, 1986.

Arnheim, Rudolf. Film as Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957.

Barsacq, Léon. Caligari's Cabinet and Other Grand Illusions: A History of Film Design. Revised and edited by Elliott Stein. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976.

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Heisner, Beverly. Hollywood Art: Art Direction in the Days of the Great Studios. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1990.

LoBrutto, Vincent. By Design: Interviews with Film Production Designers. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.

Preston, Ward. What an Art Director Does: Introduction to Motion Picture Production Design. Los Angeles: Silman James Press, 1994.

Tashiro, Charles S. Pretty Pictures: Production Design and the History Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Charles Tashiro