Production design and art direction, while admittedly subtle sometimes, play very crucial roles in bringing a movie to life.
When we think of our favourite film or television series, we usually think of the gripping story, the witty dialogue, and the impeccable performances. But most often than not, production design and art direction, subtlety admittedly, play very crucial roles in a film as well. Production design helps lay the atmospheric foundation, transforming a plain stage into an eighteenth-century castle or a 1970s disco and creating a world for the audience to bring themselves into.
However, not all production design is necessarily created equal. As I have learned more about the art department as a producer, I have noticed that the production design in the average film seems more elaborate and extensive than that of television, especially traditional network or cable television shows.
While more recent shows such as Ajoche on Africa Magic may have some of the sprawling settings typical to film, that is far from the case in most other beloved shows like Fuji House of Commotion or SuperStory which appear to have smaller sets and fewer large design elements.
Originally, sets were fairly flat and simple; as the film became more prominent and sets become more elaborate and artistic, however, the idea of the art department came to be in 1924, sixty-three art professionals in the film world came together and created the Cinemagundi Club, a “social and networking” organization of art directors. Two years after the first Academy Award for Art Direction was awarded, the Art Directors League was formed as a true union for art professionals on film sets. Art directors were eventually able to form the more successful Society of Motion Picture Art Directors in 1937.
One of the earliest successful production designers was William Cameron. He was most famous as the production designer for Gone with the Wind (1939). He had a long, distinguished career as an art director and production designer, as well as a less well-known one as a director. As a designer, Menzies's work displays a distinctiveness unusual for Hollywood. While most Hollywood art direction and production design is unimaginative and inexpressive, Menzies had a talent for creating environments that stood out for the right reasons, regardless of story requirements.
Locally in Nigeria, production design was hardly a thing worth taking as a character in the early days of films, but production designers like Pat Nebo who was the production designer for Kunle Afolayan's critically acclaimed film, October 1(2014), and many others have managed to help create a believable reality for African films through production design.
For production design to have an optimum impact on your film, it is important to note that there are three visual elements that production design employs in the characterization of a set. These distinct elements tell the audience so much more about the story than words often can.
These elements can be found in one, the mood of the film. How do you want your audience to feel when watching a certain scene helps to channel what the production design of the film will be, Fearful? Sad? Tranquil? Whatever it is, that is the "mood" of the scene and production design can help you establish it. For example, if the mood is supposed to be scary, dark, decayed, old, and broken, the set would go a long way in helping to communicate that.
Character: Can your audience tell what kind of person your character is or how they're feeling based on the set design? For example, an unkempt home could indicate that a character is a slob, while a room full of sports memorabilia indicates a character is a sports fan.
And lastly, the theme. The themes of your film can be communicated through your set design as well. Once you establish what they are—human vs. nature, human vs. technology, coming of age, capitalism—you can choose design elements that contain subtext, reminding your audience of what your story is all about.
As technology and film budgets evolve across several film industries, it is important to note that production design is the gold dust that allows the audience to escape into the magical world of a film. A production designer creates the style and looks of a film through the costume, sets, props, and location choices, enabling us to dive into an alternate reality.