Gothic Mansions and Alien Planets: How to Become a Working Production Designer

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Without the production designer, actors would not have worlds to inhabit.

A future that looks disturbingly close to our own. An impossible cube of deadly traps. Period perfect Victorian London.

A far off land of dragons and wizards, or a modern day Los Angeles where people spontaneously break into song.

Learn more about how production designers do their magic, and how you to can build worlds.

What is a Production Designer?

If you’re already working in the art department, you may think you already know the answer to that question. The production designer is your boss.

The person who decides the look of the film, who approves (or rejects) your designs. Sometimes they’re called the art director. Sometimes the art director works for the production designer.

But if you want to sit in their chair, you really need to understand the production designer and the art director’s job description.

Pre-Production

Before the production designer hires a single other member of the art department, they meet with the director, cinematographer, and other major department heads in multiple pre-production meetings.

The goal of these meetings is to translate the director’s stated vision into the visual look of the film. Everyone will have opinions on this matter, and they might not necessarily agree.

Once that visual look has been agreed and decided upon, however, everyone will be turning to you to put that vision to paper.

Like a crumbling manor house.

Production Designer  - Crimson Peak - ProductionBeast

Crimson Peak (2015). The production design tells you that absolutely nothing bad will happen.

To a boarding school that never existed or even something as relatively “simple” as taking us back to the year 1865.

You will be responsible for producing reams and reams of sketches until a “look” that everyone can agree is finally discovered.

Now it’s time to take those sketches and turn them into actual reality. And you’re not going to do that alone.

Assembling a Team

What is a production designer? A production designer is a department head. And like every department head, they’re responsible for hiring their team.

This starts with the art director, if the shoot is large enough to justify one. Or two or three if you’re taking a truly monumental task.

Once those key positions have been hired, the production designer and art director (or art directors) have to fill a roster of set designers, property masters, draftspersons, and other artists and technicians.

A good production designer has a rolodex of people they know they can trust, but they also find new talent posting on job boards like Production Beast.

Aside from the strength of an applicant’s portfolio and resume, the art director and production designer have to determine if the potential teammate understands the vision behind the film.

Sometimes this is obvious -- someone without any historical knowledge is probably a bad fit for a period piece.

Other times, it’s more subtle, which is where the interview process is especially important. Everyone knows Batman, certainly, but does this person understand this version of Batman?

Production

One the team is assembled, the production designer gets into the weeds of, well, designing the production.

That sounds fun, but this isn’t just creative work.

The production designer has to work within the constraints of the budget the line producer has assigned to them. They have to maintain the schedule so sets and props are ready in time for their upcoming shoot dates.

A good production designer fights for the needs of their art department, but also pushes back when their artists ask for the impossible..

They liason with the other departments -- the cinematographer and his crew will want to know where on set they can set up their equipment.

The costume designer’s work must much the general feel of the sets those characters will be inhabiting.

Depending on the film, the actor themself may be brought into consult. Don’t view this as pandering to a star.  How a character lives will tell the audience a lot about them, and the actor is probably closer to the character than anyone.

The production designer must do all of this while also overseeing every creative decision made by the art department.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. It’s why the art director is there.

Production Designer vs. Art Director

For a long time, running the art department was actually the film art director’s job description.

Then, in 1938, Hollywood legend David O. Selznick hired William Cameron Menzies to work on Gone With the Wind. Selznick sent a memo to everyone on set that “Menzies is the final word” on everything related to the look of the film.

In order to make it clear exactly where he was on the food chain, Menzies gave himself a new title: production designer.

Since then, the names are sometimes used interchangeably. Particularly  on small sets, the production designer will simply be called the “art director”.

On larger shoots, though, the art director’s description is similar to the 1st AD.  

They run the show, taking over the bulk of the administrative duties -- keeping an eye on the budget and the calendar -- so the production designer can focus on their creative duties.

When the production designer can’t be there, the art director acts in their stead. It’s not fun, but it’s the reason the art director’s salary is higher.

If you’re interested in becoming an art director (and if you want to be a production designer, it is often a necessary step), the good news is that it’s the same path.


How to Become a Production Designer

Production designers have a lot of ground they have to cover.  They’re managers, but also creative visionaries, whose portfolio is vast. It’s not just set design, it’s props, hair, makeup, almost everything.

If you’re looking to level up your career, there are steps you can follow to reach your destination. Your journey starts in the classroom.

Production Designer  - Harry Potter - ProductionBeast

Not that classroom. Hogwarts does not have a production design course.

Become a Master

If you’re already working in the art department, chances are that you already have an arts degree. Architecture, theater, and interior design are all popular choices.

That arts degree may serve you well in your particular field, but the production designer needs to think bigger picture. While you can learn a lot from your fellow art department workers, it might be a good idea to go back to school.

Several film schools offer specialized Master’s degree programs in production design, including UCLA, USC, and NYU.

They will give you a deeper understanding of every part of the art department. They will also give you a chance to take the lead on designing a production’s look.

There is a world of difference between following creative orders and forming a creative vision. You can’t just focus on your own specialty.

The entire film is your specialty, and you have to pay attention to even the tiniest detail.

Work Small to Build Your Portfolio

Even with a production designer degree and a decade of art department experience, it’s unlikely that you’ll be working production design for an HBO series right out of the gate.

You may have been looking forward to pulling down an art director’s salary, or even a production designer’s salary.

But in film and television, you often have to work for nothing to prove you’re worth something.

Fortunately, the explosion of streaming video has made it easier than ever to find a low budget project to get your start on. Your trusted network of contacts might clue you into them, or you can search for open assignments and new shoots on job boards.

As you add more experience to your resume, you should also be adding footage of your work to your video portfolio.  ProductionBeast allows you to upload your video portfolio straight to your profile -- keep your work front and center.

As always with low budget shoots, we encourage you to do your due diligence and make sure everyone is on the up and up.

Depending on your relationship with the Art Director’s Guild and your own personal work history, your hands may be tied in regards to what jobs you can take.

That’s okay -- the Local 800 has it’s own resources to help their members. Contact your guild rep, explain your situation, and see what can be done.

Learn to Budget, Learn to Schedule

Most production designers for large scale studio shoots have done some time as art directors. That is, the art directors who work for production designers.

Not the art directors who actually do production design. Yes, we know it’s confusing. The film industry has lots of confusing nomenclature.

The key element in how to become an art director is being able to get things done.

Learn the basics of scheduling and budgeting. Not just so you can manage your own cash flow and timeline, but so you can negotiate with line producer for more time and money when you need it.

Develop your negotiation skills, while we’re on the subject -- you’ll need them to negotiate your salary, but you’ll also need them to convince the line producer to dip into the contingency fund.

Seek out line producers and bribe them with beer and coffee so you may learn their secrets.

Especially when you’re overseeing a larger art department, communication is king. You do the director no favors by telling them a set will be done in time when it won’t.

You do your crew an equal disservice by not being open with them about how much money and time they should spend on this project.

Find Collaborators

These are all keys in how to become an art director and production designer. Follow these steps, and you will find yourself pulling down an art director’s salary in no time.

But if you want to become a great production designer, a famous production designer, the kind that earns the Academy Award for Best Production Design; there’s one more crucial step.

You have to find collaborators.

Production Designer  - Lincoln - ProductionBeast

Your own Art Department team of rivals, as it were. Lincoln’s (2012)

The greatest film directors like to work with the same teams. If they appear to be geniuses, it’s only because they surround themselves with geniuses.

It’s not just a matter of talent, it’s a matter of rapport. If you find a brilliant director with whom you just click, keep in touch with them. Work with them whenever you can.

Nathan Crowley has run Christopher Nolan’s art department for every film save Memento and Inception, after earning his art director’s salary on films like “Braveheart” and “Dangerous Game”.

In 2006, he won the Academy Award for Best Production Design for “The Prestige” -- not bad, all things considered.

What works for directors can also work for you. Great production designers are great because they work with amazing teams who understand them.  

ProductionBeast’s networking tools allow you to keep track of everyone you’ve worked with. These people won’t just help you find jobs, they’ll be the ones you call on for help when you land the job.


Making a Living on a Production Designer’s Salary

Now that you know how to become an art director or a production designer, it’s time to learn how to make it a career.

There are hundreds of people out there with the artistic talent and vision to be great production designers. Unfortunately, there are only so many jobs to go around.

And while your passion may be to the craft, your landlord probably wants the rent paid in actual money.

Work as a Freelancer

Like most other film jobs, art directors and production designers are freelancers, hired for each specific shoot. As such, they charge a day rate based on their level of experience and the complexity of the shoot.

Your day rate will increase as you grow in your career. If you decide to join the Art Director’s Guild, your minimum rates are pre-negotiated for you. You can argue for a higher salary, but never a lower.

You should always be looking for your next job. Keep your portfolio as fresh as possible, set job alerts on Production Beast, and let your friends know when you’ll be available for new work.

Eventually you might even consider seeking representation at a below-the-line talent agency -- but finding an agent is a discussion all its own.

Find Steady Work in Television

Television presents a unique opportunity to turn your art director’s salary or your production designer’s salary into steadier income.

Production designers and art directors are often hired in the long term for TV shows. Get work on a breakout hit, and you’ve got steady work for years.

The grind is a great deal more intense on a television show of course, but that’s the price you pay for being able to collect an art director’s salary without thinking about the job after this one.

What is an Art Director’s Salary?

The salaries for production designers and art directors are, like many other on set jobs, incredibly variable.

Production designers are department heads and are paid similarly to other department heads, while art directors are counted as “Key” positions and paid accordingly. This rate can change depending on the size of the production and your experience.

Sometimes it’s worth it to ask for a lower rate if you believe in the production, or if you think it can lead to better things.

Final Touches

Now that you have a better idea of the production designer and art director’s job description as well as how to become a working production designer, it’s time to put this knowledge into practice.

The world is waiting to see those amazing designs you keep locked up in your head.  

Production designers and art directors -- did we miss anything important? What movie (or TV show) has the best production design that no one notices? Start a conversation in the comments below.

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