Scott Chambliss collaborated with J.J Abrahams on the “Star Trek“ franchise films, and also designed "Mission Impossible III", "Salt", "Tomorrowland", "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." and "Godzilla: King of the Monsters", among others. He won an Emmy and ADG award for his design for the TV show "Alias".
If the movie you are designing relies on digital effects for its visual storytelling in a meaningful way, chances are that you as the production designer will not be allowed to complete the job you were hired to perform, as your contract will most likely end when principle photography wraps.
Yet the design process will continue until the last production design-related visual effects decision is made in post production. These decisions will be made by your de facto surrogate, the visual effects supervisor, someone who most likely was not involved in every significant design development meeting you had with the director and is therefore unaware of much information that can prove vital to the post process. This means the responsibility for carrying the film’s visual storytelling concept through to completion rests firmly and only on the director’s shoulders. The accepted assumption is that any director will be fully capable of solving any visual storytelling problem that may be revealed in post, with the sole assistance of the vfx supervisor. As most designers who have worked with a not-so-visually-oriented director know, this is a faulty assumption which is unfair to all parties involved as well as to the project itself.
Given the choice, most production designers would prefer to complete their jobs as cinematographers, costume designers, editors, and other collaborative team leaders are allowed to and expected to do. However for us to achieve this we must become consistent members of the post production team, and we shouldn’t expect our agents or union to make that happen for us. They don’t have the power. We ourselves have the power, and we need to become the salesforce for change in this circumstance.
It is up to us to recognize in preproduction when it’s useful to point out to our directors and to our line producers the significant amount of visual effects oversight our design work will require in the editing/post process. We need to clarify that we are the most qualified collaborator to support the director with that oversight, and that the visual effects supervisor is not the creative equivalent of the production designer in post. Though he or she is a valuable creative team leader of the digital output of a production design concept, the vfx supervisor does not have the procedural knowledge nor designers skillset to supervise the overall visual concept itself. We must also point how unsupported a director is when left to solely complete the visual storytelling of a film in post without her or his primary conceptual design collaborator. In the world of VFX-heavy studio tentpole filmmaking that is a complex burden for a director to fluently negotiate alone.
The too-often neglected remedy to this problem is simple and available, and we all understand what it is: production designers must be contracted to participate in the post process regularly as non-consecutive consultants for an agreed upon period. This is not a significant expense for a production, but it is an insurance policy that can save the studio valuable time and considerable money. This production design consultation process can consist of contributions as basic as the designer choosing between options A, B, and C of a given subject, or can be as complex as guiding the post team through what a director views as visual roadblock so catastrophic that an entire sequence of vfx work must be thrown out and begun again.
Having been involved in both types of consultation as well as the wide spectrum of post-consulting experience between them, I have yet to encounter a “disaster” that can't be remedied by simple, economical adjustments. But in these dramatic occasions the solutions haven’t been apparent to anyone else on the team- the director included- as I was the only collaborator present with intimate knowledge of all the components of the overall design concept- from the director-led decision making processes that led to the current crisis to the existing digital output itself. And this overall knowledge is what allows a designer to address visual problems in post with surgical acuity at a fundamental structural level. And the results are usually effective, timely, and economical solutions that benefit everyone. This is in fact the very soul of what the production designer is contracted to provide a project throughout the entire filmmaking process: a coherent, multi-layered structural visual concept for filmic storytelling that can be modulated as necessary at any given moment in production by the responsible party: the production designer.
This crucial unifying contribution we provide should be as supported through the post production process as it is in pre-production and filming. Because we are fully equipped perform the task better than any of the director’s other primary collaborators, it is our job as production designers to shepherd the visual concept of the film for the director from the beginning to the very end of the filmmaking process. That we production designers regularly remain uninvolved in the final completion of our increasingly vfx-intensive films is an unfortunate artifact of pre-vfx filmmaking alongside uninformed present-day producing economies. Our industry needs to abandon outdated, counterproductive habits and adjust directly to the needs of current filmmaking methods and technologies. Production designers have a proactive role to play in making this evolution occur.
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