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A Production Designer’s Work… An Introduction

A Production Designer's Work... An Introduction

Continuing S&A’s mission to give readers glimpses into the worlds of those who contribute their talents to the production and distribution of the many films we all watch and love…

Being a production designer is a lot like being an architect. In fact, it’s usually the easiest way to describe a portion of what I do – and the basic concept of production design.

In the simplest terms, as a designer I create and build sets. I come into a film very early. Much of the time it’s the director, a producer or two, the locations manager and myself. We spend time looking at and deciding on locations, which places fit the tone, texture and mood of the story and characters. We talk about what sets make sense to build on a stage, or what locations we’re able to change the appearance of by augmenting the interior and/or exterior.

For me, a large part of the job is about working with the director to understand the characters; who they are, their habits, the things they love, the things they have aversions to, the people in their lives, past and present, their idiosyncrasies and so on. All of those things and more play an important part in creating the world in which the story lives, and from this world come colors and textures. The manifestation of these elements is always different given the project I’m working on at the time. For example, it could be a period piece, a project that is very stylized, or a drama. It’s about pushing the boundaries of where you think they are, in collaboration with the director, cinematographer, costume designer and property master, ultimately presenting a consistent look and feel from beginning to end.

I’ve been working in the film industry for about ten years, give or take. I started out in the art department, which has always been my focus. The art direction was always what I concerned myself with whenever I watched a film – certainly when I was making my own films. It always resonated with me beyond anything else.

Initially, my goal was to be a set decorator; my idol has and always will be Nancy Haigh (set decorator for the Coen Bros). I worked my way up through the art department and started decorating. On the film “Cleaner,” the director Renny Harlin said to me, “You should be a production designer. You don’t have to know where every two-by-four goes, but you do have to have a vision, and you have a vision and a point of view and it’s pretty amazing.

Up until that point I had never thought about taking the step towards being a designer. After a couple of years decorating and working with many different designers, observing, asking questions and deciding what I would do and wouldn’t, I made the transition to production designer.

At first, I took a lot of low budget features and short films. I was hungry to work and get the experience under my belt. Over the past two and half years, I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity to work with several gifted directors with whom I share a similar sense of aesthetic. We’ve created some memorable moments, playing with colors and ideas. I look forward to our next projects together.

For me it’s really important to be working with great, talented directors who have a clear idea of what they want their story to reveal in look and tone.

Really, the most important thing to me in any film is the story – it’s what makes me want to work on a film. I love quirky films just as much as I love serious drama. I also like dark comedy and I always love a good period piece; all these things play a part in me wanting to work on a project. I love film and enjoy what I do and more and more, I’m finding the journey is ultimately the destination in this industry.

With more than 9 feature film projects on her resume, New Orleans-based production designer Hannah Beachler most recently worked on “Fruitvale” for director Ryan Coogler and producer Forest Whitaker. Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan, Tristan Wilds and Melonie Diaz star in the indie drama that’s based on the murder of 22-year old Oscar Grant, who was fatally shot by BART police in Oakland, California. 

This Article is related to: Features



This was a good read as someone who’s nervous about trying to go to school for all this. Does anyone know how I’d go about getting into the industry after I finish schooling?

Gunter Blum

is this the same Sarah of GTV Channel 9 fame in Melbourne Australia


Stay away from that awful bruce block book…he knows nothing about designing films other than theory. He’s actually never done the job, and his books are filled with nonsensical graphs with zero suggestion of even the single most important element: CHARACTER. The single best info on the subject is the Vincent Libretto book "Interviews with Film Production Designers." In particular, the chapter on the great Richard Sylbert.


SUPER ARTICLE & Charles you added the maraschino on the top. Would love for the writer to elaborate more on set designing on stage vs location. Simply b/c most indie films can't afford to build a stage and are at the mercy of SET LOCATIONS.


ohh .. unbelieveable !

Charles Judson

In standing out from other films, Production Design is often the least thought about, and possibly underestimated in level of impact, element of filmmaking. While it's obvious that it can be an indicator of budget, too few filmmakers don't use PD to their advantage to help create a believable world, insert character details and control how you react and read a film. A stark example is how often filmmakers dress characters in colors that share the same tone as a character's room, which in itself isn't terribly rich in colors and it flattens the picture, causing the characters to blend in, causing some scenes to much more claustrophobic than probably intended. Same effect happens with how the room is laid out and there are scenes after scenes of very little foreground mixed with lots of middle ground. It's visually tiring to look at heads and shoulders for the majority of a film. Conversely it can be distracting when a key moment is set in an office of someone who has been in business for 30 years and it looks like they just moved in. Or, there's a cacophony of visual information that draws your eye, yet doesn't reveal anything about the characters. When you're shooting on a budget and you're going to set characters in one location for long stretches or there'll be multiple scenes in the same locations, the details will matter and can reveal just as much about the plot and characters as the dialogue. Combined with the low light capabilities of digital, you can combine the need for less lights with strong production design to do many more setups, and more unique setups, to sell the illusion of film than in a conventional shoot. A great book to read is THE VISUAL STORY: SEEING THE STRUCTURE OF FILM, TV, AND NEW MEDIA by Bruce Block. It covers a lot of the basics that filmmakers can use and consider as they're thinking about their films.


Love it! S&A is killing it! So inspirational!


Oh please, stop the presses right now , don't even think different, The Production Designer is the most valuable part of the collaborative device called a films set or production. You can not even think about trying to elevate your project without the PD. And as budgets get rendered lower the PD becomes even more vital. Just take a look at the film Far From Heaven and that says it all, or the Curious Case Of Benjamin Button -that says it all!!!

Adam Scott Thompson

I didn't appreciate the work of a production designer until I watched the movie "Seven" while listening to Fincher's commentary — and he mentions the work of Arthur Max who most recently served as PD on "Prometheus." I used to think the look was all about the DoP and the camera used, but so much of it is influenced — subtly or not — by the choices of the production designer. In the immortal words of Lester Freamon: All the pieces matter. Good stuff!

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