As television production becomes more diverse and its storytelling more involved, many production designers nowadays move between film and TV design. PDC member and production designer of the TV show “Billions,“ Mike Shaw, asked his colleagues about their experiences working in both fields.
“Television is exhausting. Decisions are made in the blink of an eye. (Don’t forget to clear everything! Even pillows can be suspect.)“
“I know in the back of my head that camera angles and such might have to be a certain way to accommodate TV’s aspect ratio, but fundamentally the line between the 2 seems to be blurring.“
“Nobody noticed that the new guy was missing as they pulled out of the parking lot of Silvercup without me.“
“Whereas in film there’s generally one voice that is followed, I quickly learned that in TV there are many.“
October 15, 2015
Designing for TV vs Film What are the challenges, advantages, and differences?
Kristi Zea was nominated for an Academy Award for her production design for “Revolutionary Road,“ directed by Sam Mendes. She has received worldwide acclaim for her work as a production designer, costume designer, and producer. Her design credits include “The Departed,“ “Goodfellas,” ”Silence of the Lambs,” and “Brodcast News” among others. She recently designed the pilot of the HBO show “The Leftovers“ and the season of NBC‘s “American Oddysey.“
“No money. No time. No crew.” Is this an indie film, or a television pilot? Let’s face it…the Golden Age of Filmmaking is over. Now the bottom line is the bottom line! I like television because there’s no pretense. The money simply isn’t there! No one gets a big paycheck and the budgets are non-existent so the choices are very easy. Get it done. Get the best look possible under the circumstances. And be quick. Not for the faint of heart, or the divas of design. Television is exhausting. Decisions are made in the blink of an eye. (Don’t forget to clear everything! Even pillows can be suspect.)
Designing a TV Series requires a whole other skill set. The Budget is STILL King, but make sure the Art Department has an excellent coordinator! Good construction and scenic crews are essential. Sets are repurposed, and stage space is limited. Building, and striking often happen at the same time. Sometimes two or three episodes are shooting at once. Sometime there are two or three different directors working at once. Diplomacy and a sense of humor are essential. Good luck!!!
Bob Shaw designed the pilots for Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, winning an Emmy award for each. Other credits include The Sopranos, Nurse Jackie, Too Big To Fail, The Wolf of Wall Street and the pilot for HBO’s upcoming Vinyl.
My first job as production designer in episodic television was season 2 of The Sopranos. I was surprised to learn that on day one of prep the director, location manager, assistant directors, producer, production manager and I were all going to pile into the scout van after looking at photos of a potential locations for half an hour. Spending several weeks in the car with the location manager before presenting selects to the director is the norm on a feature. I wasn’t used to the “everybody into the pool” approach that is a necessity in series. Nobody noticed that the new guy was missing as they pulled out of the parking lot of Silvercup without me.
The next surprise was on day three of shooting Episode 201. We were opening a big new set that morning. I was in the scout van in Newark prepping Episode 202. The scouting on a series never really ends. Someone once calculated that on a typical season of The Sopranos I would spend the equivalent of the month of February in the van.
On a feature film the phases of research, design, drawing, scouting and shooting follow in progression. In series television all of those phases are always happening at the same time. I liken it to the guy who used to keep ten or more plates spinning on the top of poles at the same time on The Ed Sullivan Show. Each time one of them seemed to be wobbling he would rush over and give it a few quick spins. If none of them fell, he was doing pretty well. On some occasions they would spin in perfect unison.
Some of John’s most recently designed movies include “Wild,“ “Dallas Buyers Club“ and “Kill The Messanger.“ He has just wrapped the second season of “The Leftovers“ for HBO, and is starting “Big Little Lies,“ also for HBO.
I fundamentally approach TV as I would Film, asking the same questions as I read the script – what is the core of the story, what is the proper atmosphere for the world(s) depicted, and how can I direct that visually? I know in the back of my head that camera angles and such might have to be a certain way to accommodate TV’s aspect ratio, but fundamentally the line between the 2 seems to be blurring.
In my film experience when I get a script the story arch is pretty much set. The dialogue may change, but we know the beginning, middle and end. One interesting thing about TV is that scripts are being written as we go. On THE LEFTOVERS, I had the privilege to provide visual and conceptual input as the story was developing, a rewarding experience that would not happen on a film.
I have found the writer-centric format of TV to be a different kind of collaboration than in film, but one that has it’s own rewards. And as I bump into directors that I have worked with in the indie trenches, I am convinced that TV now has the same zeitgeist that independent film does.
Beth Mickle designed such films as “Half Nelson,“ “Focus,“ “Drive,“ “Only God Forgives,“ and Ryan Gosling‘s directorial debut “Lost River.‘ She is currently designing the HBO pilot “The Deuce.“
Film has always been my first love. I learned how to be a production designer on the sets of small independent films, where everyone was learning as they went along, and departmental responsibilities were often blurred as we each helped one and other get to the finish line of a mad-dash 25 day shoot. I’ve always considered myself to be a “film designer,” and I’ve always been in awe of the endless variety of finished products that can emerge from a film production.
So as we’ve watched this current Golden Age of television be ushered into our industry by the likes of AMC, Netflix, and HBO over the last several years, I’ve found myself asking if the term “film designer” would need to be broadened and if this side of the industry was something I should be exploring. When I was offered a period pilot for HBO this summer, it became the perfect opportunity to dip my toes into television and see if my experience as a film designer could be easily translated into this arena.
From the day I started, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the learning experience one moment then feeling entirely lost in the next. The pace is quite a bit faster in TV, the budgets are structured very differently, and terms like “amort” and “cross-board” are slipped into nearly every conversation. However for me, the biggest challenge was grasping the overall dynamic. Whereas in film there’s generally one voice that is followed, I quickly learned that in TV there are many. Admittedly I found this daunting at first, and like any film-lover I was somewhat uncertain as to how efficient a process like this could be. Initially I found myself concerned that a vision outlaid by not only a director---but also by a show-runner, writers, creative producers, studio/network execs, and more---could only lead to inconsistency and a scattered final product.
However, over the course of this HBO pilot I saw the distinct benefits of this structure. Every voice that I listened to offered an original perspective, championed unique goals, and raised interesting points to think through. Ultimately when all of this boiled down, what was left was a blending of the most inspired ideas and cinematic goals of all the ones put forward, and this piece of storytelling became the most enriched version of itself. The content on our flatscreens at home has never been more sharp and sophisticated than it is right now---perhaps this is one of the reasons why.