art & design, filmmaking, interior design, musings, set design

production designer job description

taken in 2005 on the set of kaleldo, the 2nd feature length film dante mendoza directed and i designed for. here actress cherry pie picache is fixing her lapel while we look on. crazy times.

stumbled upon setdesign’s tweet about skillset’s article on the responsibilities of a production designer. although i took up architecture and interior design (once upon a time) and eventually got a degree in fine arts, i never really studied production design. there is no course on production design here in the Philippines, just a 3-unit subject offered under the film program, which i never took. in high school, i yearned to direct movies but never to design for film.  i counted on cesar hernando as a mentor in college but my training came from cannes winner brillante mendoza, when he was still known as dante mendoza, the production designer.   a friend of a friend recommended me to mendoza back in 2004 when i really didn’t have an idea what i would be getting into except the fact that i’d be involved in a shoot.  you may call me an accidental production designer, like most designers i know.

production design in the philippines is a tricky sort, one that hasn’t been formalized and standardized.  there are expectations but the working styles, commitment and the art department designations vary per designer. more often than not, here in the Philippines the production designer is a designer, art director, set decorator, wardrobe and props buyer in one.  when i was an apprentice for dante mendoza, i learned to juggle different requirements for various tv commercial projects all happening at the same time. our team ranged from 3-6 people per project with overlapping responsibilities. i later learned other tvc designers, like butch garcia and adelina leung, would have a different art department team for each project.  practices in production design also adjust slightly when working on film (independent and mainstream), print media, tv shows and music videos.

was offered to work as art director for an international ad recently. i immediately said yes, not only because i was excited to work with the celebrity talent but more because i would be working with an international production designer (and production staff).  the prospect of learning something new and hopefully improving my work as a designer and that of my team thrilled me.  add to this the fact that the director used to be a production designer as well raised the stakes but i was stoked and was more than eager to get the work started.

the skillset article breaks down what would be the ideal setup for the art department, something we local designers can hope to have and given the budget of most productions in the Philippines, we can only dream of. im reposting the whole article below

Production Designers are major heads of department on film crews, and are responsible for the entire Art Department. They play a crucial role in helping Directors to achieve the film’s visual requirements, and in providing Producers with carefully calculated schedules which offer viable ways of making films within agreed budgets and specified periods of time. Filming locations may range from an orderly Victorian parlour, to a late-night café, to the interior of an alien space ship. The look of a set or location is vital in drawing the audience into the story, and is an essential element in making a film convincing and evocative. A great deal of work and imagination goes into constructing an appropriate backdrop to any story, and into selecting or constructing appropriate locations and/or sets.

Directors of Photography and Production Designers are largely responsible for informing and realising the Director’s vision. Production Designers begin work at the very early stages of pre-production and are requested by the Director and/or Producer. They work on a freelance basis, and may have to prepare detailed drawings and specifications in order to pitch for work on a number of productions before they are offered work on one of them. Although the work can be very demanding and the hours long, this is one of the most highly skilled, creatively fulfilling roles within the film industry.

What is the job?
Production Designers may be asked to look at scripts before a Director is approached, to provide estimates of the projected Art Department spend on films. When Production Designers first read a screenplay, they assess the visual qualities that will help to create atmosphere and bring the story to life.

After preparing a careful breakdown of the script, they meet with the Director to discuss how best to shoot the film, e.g. to decide: whether to use sets and /or locations; what should be built and what should be adapted; whether there is a visual theme that recurs throughout the film; whether there are certain design elements that may give an emotional or psychological depth to the film; whether CGI (computer generated imagery) should be used. Production Designers must calculate the budgets, and decide how the money and effort will be spent. These discussions are followed by an intense period of research during which Production Designers and their Specialist Researchers source ideas from books, photographs, paintings, the internet, etc.

Production Designers deliver their design sketches (detailing mood, atmosphere, lighting, composition, colour and texture) to Art Directors who oversee the production of technical drawings and models, which are used by the Construction Department to build the sets and to adapt locations. Props Buyers and Set Decorators liaise closely, sourcing props and organising the manufacture of specialist items. As the start of shooting approaches, Production Designers manage a large number of individuals, prioritising the work schedule and carefully monitoring the budget. When shooting starts, they are usually on set early each morning to view each new set up with the Director, Director of Photography and Standby Art Director, responding to any requests or queries. Subsequently, in the Art Department office Production Designers check on the construction and dressing of other sets, and sign off on sets/locations for the following day’s shoot. Although Production Designers usually finish work on the last day of principal photography, on larger films they may be involved for longer periods.

Typical career routes
As the head of the largest department on a film crew, Production Designers must have extensive experience gained over a number of years, usually by progressing through the various Art Department roles: Junior Draughtsman, Draughtsman, Assistant Art Director, Art Director. They may also have a background of working in theatre, where they learn the art of set design and construction as well as how to conceptualise ideas and create a sense of drama through visual spectacle. Graduates who have studied Film and Theatre Design may also gain experience working on short films before progressing to junior roles on feature films.

Essential knowledge and skills
Production Designers must have expert knowledge of many art and design related subjects including draughtsmanship, technical drawing, colour theory, architecture, building and construction, history of design, interior design, cameras and lenses, lighting, etc. Production Designers must also have full knowledge of computer budgeting software and computer aided design programmes (CADS).
Key Skills include:

  • excellent visual awareness and design skills;
  • ability to inspire and motivate a team towards a common aesthetic goal;
  • excellent management and leadership skills;
  • ability to prioritise and to meet deadlines;
  • good communication and presentation skills;
  • tact and diplomacy;
  • knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.

Training and qualifications
Production Designers are usually graduates of Art, Architecture, Theatre, Interior or 3D Design courses. Subsequently they usually complete a specialist course in Film and/or Theatre Design.

Individual course accreditation in certain subject areas is currently being piloted. As part of Skillset’s and the UK Film Council’s Film Skills Strategy, A Bigger Future, a network of Screen Academies and a Film Business Academy have been approved as centres of excellence in education and training for film.


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