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.

Toby Corbett

“A hand drawn line in and of itself inherently has more character than a computer assisted line.“

Lilly Kilvert

“I have seen a total switch in the way a film is conceived from paper to film (or digital).“

Molly Hughes

“The dawn of the computer age seemed to happen before my eyes during my eight years working on the Harry Potter movies“

Michael Shaw

“The speed and consistency of computer drafting has enabled me to fine tune the construction process and avoid confusion or mistakes.“

June 20, 2015

Have digital painting and drafting impacted your design skills?

Toby Corbett

Toby Corbett’s career began in as a scenic artist and designer in theater. His television collaboration with Tracey Ullman on her HBO show resulted in three Emmy nominations. Corbett is also known for his film work with writer-directors John Sayles and Wayne Kramer, as well as foreign directors Kihachi Okamoto, Hiroaki and Werner Herzog.

Two of the defining elements of production design are character and space; character conveys the essential nature of the person, group, or organization within a specific space. Simply put, a three dimensional rectangular space can develop character with the addition of a bed, sloppily made or hospital tucked. A simple line drawing can easily and quickly define the character of a space but is very limited in conveying the space itself and presenting it in a way that a director can understand. Especially when the scripted space of a particular scene extends beyond the “theatrical” confines of a simple rectangular room.

When the camera was first “unchained” by F.W. Murnau for the film Der letze Mann, filmmaking moved beyond theatrical space and finally began utilizing true cinematic space, a move (excuse the pun) that revolutionized filmmaking. Computers have brought about the same revolutionary change in how a modern art department works. And the ability of architectural software to not only convey but visually create three-dimensional cinematic spaces is unbounded.

My own work is more often than not “character” based so I always have a pencil in hand. But I also rely upon architectural software, specifically SketchUp, to help define the specific environments of a film. Although ideally suited for pre-visualizing three-dimensional spaces, architectural software has an inherent lack of character. A hand drawn line in and of itself inherently has more character than a computer assisted line. Both however are valuable tools in the art department toolbox. Good design begins in the head and the heart and ends in the hand however that hand is emplyed. A designer’s “design sense” doesn’t change with the application of different tools -- it is only broadened. And that broadening definitely has a profound impact on a designer’s skillset.

Molly Hughes

Molly Hughes spent a decade as Art Director, most notably in London on six of the Harry Potter franchise films with Production Designer Stuart Craig. Her production design credits include “Two Night Stand,“ “Every Secret Thing“ and “The Fault in Our Stars.“

The dawn of the computer age seemed to happen before my eyes during my eight years working on the Harry Potter movies. When I began as a draughtsman in the department back in 2002, we worked solely by hand; there was a fair amount of competition about who had the prettiest drawings with constant discussion of shading, line weight, and speed.

Over the years, as visual effects advancements threatened the possibility of lack of control of key elements of the design process, our Production Designer Stuart Craig decided we needed to speak their digital language in order to maintain visual control of the films. So Warner Brothers bought half a dozen computers and Vectorworks for the art directors, a tutor was brought in to teach us, and we were off and running. I must admit that while I managed to work with Vectorworks for the last year or two on the films, I have never fully embraced it. I always request a drafting table in my office on a film, and still insist on doing a pencil-drawn ground plan of a set before I hand it off to my digitally-savvy asst. art directors. That is how I think best and I am somewhat envious of those a bit younger than I who can think with a Wacom tablet or mouse.

Now, ten years later, it is clear that the demands of vfx heavy films mean that art departments will become more and more sophisticated with computers. I am sure we will eventually merge with the visual effects department; it’s important to maintain a good relationship with them from day one, providing information in a format they can use, so the design process is grounded in the art department, and not lost on it’s way to one of a dozen visual effects houses that end up working on some projects. But that is worth a whole other discussion!

Lilly Kilvert

Lilly Kilvert's design credits include nearly 30 independent and major Hollywood feature films. Her work on "The Last Samurai" and "Legends of the Fall" garnered her Academy Award nominations. Most recently she's been a judge on the Syfy Network's reality show "Hot Set", wihch features extreme production design challenges.

I have been designing films for over 30 years and have watched the world of sketching, drafting and painting move to the world of cad, sketch up, and computer concept drawing. I have seen a total switch in the way a film is conceived from paper to film (or digital).

Though there are many positive things to say about the new world, I believe we have lost the art of story telling to the world of what amazing things can be created. Sometimes I think we create things simply because we can.

Location scouting was a big part of my world, now we find a piece of something and visual effects expands it. In that process alone you lose reality and the vastness removes the sense of our world.

We are so quick now to say: ”we’ll fix it is post” - that magical place that takes no time and costs no money. At that point the designer is removed from creating the visuals. This results in an incomplete vision, as somebody unrelated to the process of making a particular film fills in the blanks.

So I am turning back the clock as much as I can. I am shooting the second season of Marco Polo (set in the 12th century) - instead of using a computer generated backdrop, I am using painted drops. This allows the camera to see the way your eye sees, things in the distance are softer. The new digital HD has been a great challenge as it is as sharp in the foreground as it is in the background, creating a totally flat image. So we must create the middle ground to replace a feeling of depth in order to give the real perception of the human eye. This is accomplished with atmosphere in the air, smoke, dust, feathers and a slighlty softer use of fabric etc.

I think we go to the movies to be taken to another world, another life. To experience empathy with another world. What the last years have brought us is worlds with more busy-ness to stimulate the eye and less story to follow. Designers are storytellers, not illustrators. They create the world a film lives in.
I like to believe that world could exist.

Michael Shaw

Michael Shaw studied painting, sculpture & film at the Rhode Island School of Design. His film credits include “Boys Don’t Cry,” “You Can Count on Me” and “A Home At The End of The World.“ Michael’s television credits include three seasons of “The Big C” and two seasons of the highly acclaimed Netflix show “Orange is the New Black.”

In my art department office the art directing team sits quietly drafting away in the glow of monitors ironically perched on top of drafting tables. This has been the case for many years now and I find the fundamental transition to digital has only widened my design tool kit. The speed and consistency of computer drafting has enabled me to fine tune the construction process and avoid confusion or mistakes. Changes are relatively effortless.
I use 3-D modeling for set design and set walkthroughs on every project and this has transformed the communication and approval process especially with a more often than not distant creative team. Of course research has been transformed for the better with all the search engines available. Digital mat painting and set extensions, budgeting, and graphics… the list of advantages for the design process is endless. These incredible digital advances have made my work life more efficient in almost every aspect and it’s hard to imagine doing without any of it at this point.

The challenge for me in the face of all this efficiency is keeping the thoughtful and intimate design process at the heart of what I do separate and grounded. The creative process is not necessarily efficient or fast. Ideally it meanders and backtracks. It daydreams. The good ideas come when you’re not looking for them dead on. It’s a highly imprecise and intuitive process at odds with all this technological speed and perfection.

To that end the drafting table in my office is for hand to pencil to paper and keeping it that way facilitates my design process. I learned my craft without computer assist and although I have been very lucky to work with a wealth of talented computer proficient art directors, there is still nothing more beautiful to me than a finely hand rendered set sketch or working drawing complete with smudges and erasure marks. The exquisitely constructed, detailed scale model that you can touch. For better or worse, seeing the human hand at work. Part of me is nostalgic for the countless inefficient hours spent researching a new project in the public library picture collection with its added bonus of bumping into other designers doing the same.

But filmmaking is still inherently “hand made” and even as we use these highly precise tools we are still creating imprecise illusion. I have come to embrace this contradiction mindful not to lose what’s at the heart of the creative process.

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