What steps did you take in order to become a production designer?
I didn’t know that I always wanted to be a production designer, so I went to a school for architecture. I started out as a physics major, then decided to go the architecture route. I then graduated university and found out that architecture wasn’t as glamorous as I thought it would be. I had an opportunity to start drafting on the soap opera, Days of Our Lives, and worked my way up from there.
How much detail are you generally given in creating a scene?
It does depend on the show, but generally I find that there isn’t as much information as you would like. So it’s great sitting down with the creators and creating visual palettes. I love to sit down with my director and my decorator and try and figure out who the character is. Down to what they collect, who they are and what their state of mind is. This also helps the actors.
When creating the world of the story, how do you balance the demands of the director with the creativity of the artists involved?
I usually find that the best looking shows have the best collaborations, so people are willing to sit down including the DP [Director of Photography] and have a discussion. I try to work with everybody and try to get them on the same page. We even build in some of our own lighting. We talk to the directors to figure out what shots they are looking for and try and assist them with a set that is easy to shoot. Again, collaboration is huge and in some shows we don’t get that.
How often are scene concepts scrapped?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have never have had to do that. I’ve been on shows with other designers where there were last minute changes. Someone says “we hate the paint color! “ and then everyone is scrambling to repaint the set. But again, when I was talking about pre-managing expectations, it hopefully prevents this from happening. I think when you do something as visual as we do, you have to have everybody on the same page, so there should be no surprises on the day of shooting. If the set is blue or the furniture is modern, they all need to be aware of all that stuff ahead of time so that you don’t run into those problems.
What about in the conception phase?
Conception phase is so important. I might do it in Photoshop to show them the wallpapers, the colors, the furniture, and anything else they need to be made aware of. A picture is worth a thousand words.
Does that go through a lot of drafts?
Actually, it’s not so bad. Once in awhile they will say, “I love it, but I want modern furniture” or “I love it, but I want a different wallpaper,” but in general once you sit down ahead of time and talk with them [the creators] it’s usually settled then.
What sorts of challenges do you face when designing the setting?
The only thing I find really tricky is I will read a scene and I don’t know what they are talking about. Sometimes when I have the hardest time designing something it’s because there is something that is not intuitive, and so I talk to them and have them sometimes rework the script a little bit. It’s always a sign that when I can’t design something there’s something really wrong or there needs to be more explanation.
How do budgets effect the way you work on a film, if at all? If so, how do you deal with those types of restrictions?
It just depends. If we don’t have a lot of money, sometimes we will find a location, but you try to convince the producers that sometimes building on stage is, while expensive up-front, in the long run a much cheaper solution. It helps when you are not moving crews from location to location, and there is already pre-built in lighting. So it’s kind of managing their expectations and saying, “hey let’s build this because we’re in one place for 10 episodes and then we’re only in this other place for one episode.” I always feel like there is a way to make it work, and if it really is just ridiculous, and you can’t afford to shoot it on location or build it, then the other solution is to rework the script.
How do you determine when it is best to use CGI for a scene?
It’s when it’s on a massive scale or it is something that physically can’t be done. In television we don’t use it as much but there are scenes where you do supernatural things like vampires feeding or killing their prey, and you can’t get blood everywhere. That’s when it comes in handy. I haven’t had to create fictitious worlds like in Game of Thrones, but that is another great use of CGI.
Do you have any advice for aspiring Production Designers?
Learn as much as you can. Production designers aren’t just designers, I feel like they need people managing skills, as well such as learning to communicate with other departments. It’s easy to just design a set, but then you have to realize that the lighting people have to have time to do their thing as well as the decorators. It is key to keep everybody in mind. I think people forget that it isn’t just about designing, but about creating an overall look and I feel. Art departments are at the hub of the show, in that they have the most information because we start early and we are involved in almost every aspect. It’s about dispersing that information and making sure that everything is clear.