Posts Tagged With: TV design

The Role of the Production Designer: Case Study 1 – Part 4

Later on during the first afternoon I had a chance to talk with Matt about the role of Production Designer and filming TV and features in general. I asked him about various aspects of his work and below are the paraphrased notes from the discussions we had:-

Post production, CGI and the future of production design:-

Matt has little involvement with post production on many of the dramas that he designs, however there are occasions when he will discuss possible digital set extensions. Most of the time when filming starts on features his role ends. He did answer a few questions I put to him about how the role of the production designer will evolve.

Do you think that given how technology is advancing  there will be a sharing/merging of skills between the VFX artists and Production Designers?

It’s unlikely. The Production Designer has so many other jobs to do, to take on work that forces them to sit at a computer for hours like a CG artist would be a waste of time and skills. A CG artist is trained to spend hours on one job and do it to a higher standard. Production designers need to evolve and embrace the changes or be left behind. They need to find ways of being involved and guiding the design. Designers like Alex McDowell are doing it right, they have a great approach to the whole film process.

Will we always need production designers in film genres such as Sci-fi?

Yes, there will always be a need for someone who can visualise the entire film. They offer different skills and experience. They build relationships with people and they have the ability to interpret a script in such a way that a concept artist or CG artist cannot. The best films are when the relationship between the designer, the director and director of photography is good, when they are friends.

Are there any other differences between TV and film?

Concept art is rare on small budget TV dramas. There’s usually only enough time to do a drawing or two. That tends to happen more in film where there are more people in the art department and there’s a larger budget.


How the case study relates to my practical project:-

Although my project is based around turning a book into a film rather than a lower budget TV drama there are still elements that I can take away from the experience.

Location:- My film designs rely heavily on actual locations that exist and that need adapting as I’m opting for the combination of real places, built sets then using the CGI where it is needed method rather than all CG. There is no replacement for hands-on experience of locations and how to go about saving money, logistics and working with people in reality. No matter how big the budget is or the story, these things will always need consideration. For example, I have to find locations that are suitable, not only for the story but for the budget, whether it is practical to close a street off…whether it has enough parking for the crew? There are considerations when dealing with making alterations, such as returning the street/buildings/walls back to their original state after filming. This doesn’t change whether it is a blockbuster film or TV show. Nor do the relationships that you build with the people you work with.

Good relationships:- When dealing with locations it’s important to keep the location owners happy, after all you want to save money and maintain a good working ethos; if all goes well, the location might be hired out again for other productions. If the owners have a bad experience or if anything is damaged it can have implications for the budget therefore might be the difference between you being employed again or not. Film and TV is a word of mouth industry and if you save money and are easy to work with you get more work. Although this is a theoretical project it is  something I need to consider when designing any alterations, as is the use of location.

The relationship between the Production Designer, Director and Director of Photography is vital. Matt explained that working within this trinity is important for a good production. They have to be your friends as do the members of the art department such as location manager, art director, set dresser etc. You spend most of your time with this group of people, more than family sometimes and you need to be able to get on with them and place a lot of trust in them as they do you.

My own portfolio:- Although my project is about Production Design it is important to know where I stand in terms of gaining work at the end of my course. I was given some advice in terms of portfolio. There are two routes to the Production Design career. One is to work on small budget productions as the designer, do a bit of everything and work your way up to bigger projects, the other is though the art department. This means having a speciality to offer. You are employed on how well you fit into an art department skills wise. This is important in how I shape my project. There are certain aspects that have to be addressed for the success of the project and fulfilment of the question but I also have to consider my strengths as well as my skills learning curve. I want to walk away from the course having pushed my self to learn new things; skills and aspects that are industry standard. At the same time I also want my portfolio to show a mastery of something in particular. I consider that my model making skills and general drawing skills, particularly with figures and costume are probably my strengths so will aim to achieve a high standard in these. This will mean improving my concept work with software and maybe exploring this further during the summer and autumn. I’m also looking to working with different materials in terms of model making, such as the Huntsmen concept/model realisation, so expanding my skill base. Also to look at using the 3D printer and laser cutter in some way.

As a production designer you need to have an overview of the film and be able to multi task. It’s also good to be able to do some design work to a high standard.

How the case study  relates to the question:-

Everything that I experienced with Matt related directly to the pre-production stage of TV. I saw examples of set dressing, props buying, meetings, discussions with art directors and construction men. I saw how budget controlled elements of design and how choices were made concerning locations and set builds. I also had chance to discuss other elements of design such as film design, the future and CGI.

All of these are integral to the early stages of film and TV design regardless of genre or budget. What is different is how it fits with post production in regards to CGI etc. A TV drama may need no more than some colour correction whereas a Sci-fi or fantasy will need more advanced design work.

One element that may have changed is the way that ideas are presented or designed due to the advancement of technology. This speeds up the design process with  3D design software like Sketch Up or Auto CAD.  The principles of design however remain the same.

All of this affects my project to some degree, particularly when dealing with location and CGI.

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The Role of The Production Designer: Case Study 1- part 3

Work Shadowing Day 2:-

The second day took on a different pace compared with day one. Instead of being at one place and filming we were to visit a couple of locations that were being dressed for filming the following day.

The day started at 8am and we all met at the front entrance of Tower Hamlets College which was closed for Easter. Along with Matt and I there was a small team of construction men/fitters, the set dresser and Art Director. The school had been chosen because it fitted well with the architectural features of the hospital location and was being dressed to be used as a continuation of that location. The writer and Director were both keen on the idea of the secure hospital taking on a more school like appearance rather than a prison. The Tower Hamlets location also had some features that would provide visual interest on camera such as the main atrium area in which the character uses the phone to make a call. Originally this space was going to be dressed as a recreation area with a pool table and places to sit but it was decided that the space had such a nice reflective floor it would be better to polished it and leave the area stark.


Other alterations that were being made were the covering of the poster boards with blue felt. This was also used in the other location to help with the design and continuity. A phone was also being added.



The phone had to be fitted to the wall in such a way that it didn’t damage the bricks and could be removed. The frame had to be built to allow space behind as there was an electrical box that couldn’t be removed. It was decided that it would be  set away from the wall slightly to allow for this.

I was shown around all the other  set dressings that were going to happen that day. The corridors were to be dressed with the same flooring, wall details and general decor as the corridor back at the hospital to allow a seamless edit between both locations. In one room they were getting ready to place chairs in a circle. The chairs had to look as though they were fixed to the ground. Often with something like this, props or sets are not fixed in case they have to be moved. Instead Matt chose to fix metal braces to the chair legs to make it appear that they were fixed while allowing the director to come in and move them if needed.

Our next location stop off was an addition to an earlier episode that had been part edited. It had been decided that they needed to film more scenes so added a police conference to the story. We visited the chosen location with the location manager and set dresser with the intention of measuring up, working out where the screens would be fitted etc. With a dress like this Matt would not draw up a plan or sketch, instead he would be on site for the dress. The important part of this location visit was to get rough sizes and locations of plugs and other technical information as there would be some form of screen displaying graphics also designed by Matt’s team.


The location was part of a college building and had all the necessary components so dressing would be minimal, therefore cheaper.

As we were leaving Matt received a call about using another section of the building for an additional office scene.

This was one of the points where I really got to see how quickly the Production Designer works.

Matt and the Marshall (set dresser) got to work photographing and measuring a small class room in prep for turning it into an office, getting the dimensions of the pillars, internal window for blinds, wall lengths etc. They then discussed possibly using some of the existing furniture in some way. Lighting was also discussed. There was an internal window that led through to a wood workshop that was perfect for setting the lights. With blinds in place, it would appear to be an external window. As the filming was to be 5 days later, they had to work quickly, ringing around and ordering blinds and planning a visit to  the props house in West London. At this time the financial go ahead had not been given, Matt had calculated the dress would be around £2000. As time was against them they went ahead and planned for the dress.

Before heading to the props hire houses Matt needed to return to the office in central London briefly to discuss graphics with the team and also draw up a rough plan of the new office dress.

Back at the office I read some of the scripts and observed how Matt worked alongside the graphics team, discussing sizes of signage for the police conference and watched as he drew the plan. This was done by hand on a A4 piece of paper and then photocopied and given to Marshall.

scan matt

A layout was drawn up with the walls and furniture to scale 1:50 so they had a good idea of what needed hiring.

A hand drawn plan makes sense when you are working on a set dress as it’s relatively easy to draw up anywhere. It took Matt no longer than 30 mins to do and covered all the necessary information needed. This is the nature of TV design; a quicker hands on approach that  keeps the Production designer on their toes. We had discussed the uses of software and although Matt uses CAD and Sketch Up he still does a lot by hand. What was important he said was the end result and getting the job done.

Later that day we visited the props hire stores in Acton. After visiting one and ordering some of the furniture we went to Super Hire in which every possible prop and form of furniture can be found, ranging from ultra modern back to Tudor. Super Hire spans several floors and Matt showed me around all the sections before we went to “smalls”, shelf sized props such as phones, files, glasses, kitchen ware etc. This was the section in which Matt and Marshall would find all the small props for dressing an office.

What surprised me was the attention to detail. Matt was experienced in crime drama so knew exactly where to go and what was needed. We visited pictures for wall dressing, computers, coffee machines and all manner of detail objects. The colour scheme was masculine so was kept to blues, greys and blacks. Lamps were chosen for their simple angular shapes. There were also a few personal items chosen for the personal assistant’s desk. I was asked to source all the police files that I could find that matched the three colours of the scheme plus some leather-bound files for dressing part of the filing cabinets and shelves.




The above pictures are the baskets that we filled full of props. Once Matt got the phone call to go ahead with the set dress the props were taken to the desks and hired. They were booked in for collection just before the dress went ahead, just three days later.

After the props hire was complete day 2 came to an end.

Work shadowing gave me a good idea of what it’s like at the pre-production/production phase of TV drama. Due to a smaller art department, the Production Designer seems to be involved in so many different aspects of design and organisation. Decisions have to be made quickly and there’s no time to be precious about some design aspects. The budget and time scale only allow for so much to be done. Sometimes there’s not enough time to dress the set to really show all the finer details or character. A lot of the time there are no detailed concepts, just enough drawn up on Sketch Up or as a plan to allow the job to be completed. The bigger the budget, the more prep time there is.

Having said this, lower budget TV provides a creative challenge in comparison to film. Matt described the film as a more straight forward design project due to the fact that it’s usually designed in a block, then filmed and then the Production Designer is finished. Sometimes the designer is involved in the post production phase, more often that not they finish when filming starts. TV is different in the way that it’s an ongoing process, design backtracking where necessary, responding to script alterations and budget constraints. Pre production and production often merge together.


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The Role of The Production Designer: Case Study 1- Part 2

Work Shadowing Day 1

The first day work shadowing was on an altered set location. It was dressed to represent a medium security hospital for the ITV crime drama Chasing Shadows. I was sent a call sheet/schedule the day before for the exact times and address.

Matt and I met for a brief meeting at the catering van before I was shown around the vast location that used both inside and outside settings. It was a good opportunity to see how an existing building could be altered and to observe all the processes and people who were involved. It would be usual for Matt to visit the set to check if anything needed doing then move on to overseeing other set dressing jobs or locations ready for the next block of filming, but today he was at this location all day due to meetings and my shadowing.

The location used to be an old training venue for HSBC and was set in grounds and gardens. It provided a perfect setting for dressing due to the types of buildings on offer, the space to set up vehicles, catering and network of roads that connected areas within the grounds. Alterations were subtle to the untrained eye. Outside there were signs that had been changed to look more like hospital signs and  extra security cameras. The gardens had been tended to regularly to keep on top of grass growth to provide continuity for outside shots. There had also been a segment of security fencing erected to allow a camera to shoot through.


I was told that this segment build cost £2500 so only a small section was built. It provided just enough area to allow shots of the hospital through the fencing so adding to the illusion of the medium security facility. The camera was on a crane so that a few different height shots could be filmed through and over the fence.

It’s important to note that set dressings are often only small segments of builds or alterations. Why build an entire fence when you don’t have to? On a smaller budget TV drama these decisions and compromises have to be made. The budget for each episode of this particular drama was £35,0000, each episode taking approximately 2 weeks to film. Matt described his job as being 25% budget/organising and 75% design. He also added that smaller budget productions can be creatively challenging and that you have to think laterally. Every production has its differences due to budget and the director involved. A drama series such as Chasing Shadows has different directors for each episode so every episode might have  slightly different approach. Episodes can overlap and often the production designer can be prepping a later episode while overseeing a set alteration, so there’s a lot of juggling and multitasking involved in the role. Research is ongoing for each episode as is location scouting.

I was able to observe some of the external shoots that day. They filmed various shots through the fencing, with cars and people approaching then switched to a camera on the other side of the fence that filmed similar sequences to provide a variety of shots for the edit. During this time the Art Director observed the camera screens, keeping an eye of what was in view and if any of the dressings needed adjusting.

After I’d watched some of the filming I was shown some more of the set dressings inside one of the buildings, these included the security gates, reception, a small cell/bedroom and an atrium/stair area. The photos below are of the reception area which were just open corridors before dressing.


This was one of the alterations from a corridor to reception desk. The front was built-in but in such a way as it could be removed easily. The entire area at the back was dressed with furniture, papers, posters, phones and all manner of office props. The blue signs continued the hospital details along with the security cameras.


An opening covered with lockers that are used when the hospital visitors arrive and are instructed to leave their possessions before entering he facility. On the day I visited they were making a few last-minute alterations.


This was another corridor that was dressed to incorporate the security area which was similar to an airport where the visitors would be scanned.


Lastly I was shown where they had added a set of security doors. These were operated by a rope from either side depending on which direction they were filming from.

This part of the day gave me great insight into TV drama. It’s very much about location, practicalities and being able to think on your feet. What I’ve learnt so far is that the Production Designer in TV has a hand in so many aspects of the production:- set design, dressing, location choice, budgets, props etc.

I was also shown the set for ITV’s Lewis which was filming in the same building. We discussed the importance of location choice on lower budget productions. Matt said that it was all about how they could save money by making the right design choices, location being one of the most important. You save them money, they employ you again. You don’t want to be spending too much money on things that can’t be seen, for example, the lighting cranes for the windows that are positioned outside. To make this more affordable it’s all about the practical aspects, so if the location dress is at ground level, the lights can be rigged at ground level avoiding any need for platforms or cranes. This means there is more money to spend on what can be seen, such as important design features for set dressing or prop hire.

Locations are chosen for how little they need to be altered and how they fit to the script.



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Case Study Breakdown

My case studies are a combination of academic research, question and answer sessions, work shadowing/ observation and studying elements of design that have come before. Each case study will have its own focus and approach and will encompass more than one genre. What will link them will be what I want to find out to answer my MA question:-

Given the post production techniques available today, what is required from the Production Designer at the pre-production stage in terms of scenic design?

From this I will look at the Production Designer and their role, write-up any observations or research relevent to the pre-production phase and how it follows through to production/post production. I am looking in particular at what needs to be done in the early stages of design, the planning that goes into design for later stages particularly in film and the relationship between the designer and the art department/director/director of photography. One of the most important parts of the research will be how it informs my own practical project, so each case study will have a reflective element. The majority of my findings will be based on qualitative research rather than quantitive as it’s more relevant to the question, as is the hands-on approach to some of the enquiries.

Case Study 1:- The Role of the production designer in pre-production/production: Matthew Gant

This case study comprises of several research approaches:-

An overview of the designers work

Q+A session

My work shadowing and observation of his role (2 days)

Reflective write-up and how it relates to and informs my work



Case Study 2:- The role of production designer in science fiction film: Alex McDowell and Minority Report

An overview of the design/designing the future

The relationship between the designer/director and post production

The future of the film industry/production design role

How designing science fiction and post production relates to my work



Case Study 3:- Production design in the post apocalyptic and horror genres: Various designers of The Walking Dead

An overview of the design and designing the future/adapting the graphic novel

Production design relationships with post production/special effects

Horror/futures in TV

How horror/post apocalyptic genres relate to my own project



Case Study 4:- The Production Designer in Derren Brown’s Apocalypse: A different kind of Apocalypse (Dom Clasby)

An overview of the designing of a reality TV show

Production designer role

Q + A session

How it relates to my own project work




Categories: Case Studies, MA project, post-apocalyptic film and design, The production designer and art department | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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