Many actors experience "stage fright", many writers have "writer's block". Have you ever had a "designer's block" and if so how did you overcome it?
"No Designers Block, just communication and drawing upon our craft."
"The most important thing when you are experiencing one is not to go down the rabbit hole of self judgement."
"Anyone involved and anything around you as a designer can help to provide inspiration, especially when it’s most needed. "
Sara K White
"When I hit a block, I usually go back to the script"
November 15, 2016
Have you ever had a "Designer's Block"?
Jane Musky has spent 40 very fulfilling years as a Production Designer for theatre, film, television and commercials. Her films include "When Harry Met Sally", "Ghost", "Hitch", "Mona Lisa Smile" and "Glengarry Glen Ross", among others. She has had rich collaborations with Directors; Francois Girard, Peter Bogdanovitch, Joel and Ethan Coen, Rob Reiner, Michael Mayer, Alan Pakula, Gus Van Sant, Mike Newell, Diane English, Ivan Reitman, Andy Tennant, Jerry Zucker and George Tillman.
I have never thought of Productions Designers as being allowed to have Designer's Block. There have been times when I don't quite understand a Director's point of view or when working with a weak script I have to struggle to find a home for the character or characters. In these instances I fish. I delve into my books, my image bank, research to try to find a catch; an idea or visual cue to spur the visual identity for the story and characters.
There is no Block just digging and digging until something hits, refining, calling upon experience and then working up a presentation for the Director of the idea. This idea could be wrong but at least it gets the conversation going.
I am very mathematical in my initial approach in Designing a film. I set up the story in layers on paper; separating each character into a pod of sorts and drawing arrows of interactions and importance and then work on each individual. I reach further out visually at first to stretch the ideas and by doing this the "Block" will always be at bay. By setting free and broad ideas early on it then becomes easier to tailor the evolution of all these ideas into one visual story style and trigger ideas that will help the Director embellish their take on the script and move them forward visually.
It is also very important to carve out time early on with the Director one to one to entertain this exercise. Many times we both might be stumped at an approach but talking and refining ideas together we hit on it most of the time. No Designers Block, just communication and drawing upon our craft.
Sam Lisenco is a New York based Production Designer, and graduate of Boston University. His work ranges in scope from minutiae to grand, and from film to television.
Creative blocks for me are a common occurrence, and help me re-examine the progress I’ve made on a particular project and allow me a little breathing room to reassess things and approach from another angle, or ask help or guidance from others whom are aesthetically invested in the project (often other people in the art department). I think it’s incredibly important to create a feeling within a crew that encourages emotional involvement. It’s important to remember that anyone involved and anything around you as a designer can help to provide inspiration, especially when it’s most needed.
Occasionally I find that the more fantastic a set is, the more removed from the everyday experience that I can immediately recall, the further it will be for me between reading and executing. Sometimes this means that I have trouble visualizing a scene, or assigning the right course of action for the look of something based solely on the script pages. There are tricks that I can use to help, no doubt image archives and old coffee table books are always a welcomed cheat sheet, but often times I think that when I get to a place that I’ve really not grasped a full vision of, I turn to mindless craft to help me get to a place where I can feel creative and useful in some way. This can mean anything from re-wiring a lamp or refinishing some furniture at home, or dressing a completely secondary set from a more hands on place, or even organizing my work space.
When I first worked in films when I was in high school I worked for a casting agency, and when business was slow we would always lay a fresh coat of oil paint on the old tanker desks in the office. Inevitably, the phone would ring.
Tania Bijlani is an NYC based production designer, from Mumbai, India. Her film credits include "Sleepwalk with Me", "I-Origins", "Shelter", "Humor me" among others. She is graduate of the MFA program of Design for Stage and Film at Tisch, NYU and is currently designing Season 3 of MADAM Secretary.
I think blocks are common from time to time. The most important thing when you are experiencing one is not to go down the rabbit hole of self judgement. Be kind to yourself and find the source! I find that I usually get blocked when I am simply too tired or I am unnecessarily editing myself because I am feeling insecure.
If the block stems from insecurity I remind myself that I have been invited into this room, whether it is for an interview or for a presentation on a project I am already on, because these people believe in me and they want me to succeed. That reminder helps me to allow the creative process to flow.
If I am just tired I give myself a real break. Depending on how much time I can spare, whether its a full day or just 1/2 an hour, I commit to completely disengaging from the project. I sleep, get a massage, shop, exercise, go to a Museum, for for a walk, cook a meal, watch TV or read (something completely unrelated to work). When my mental vacation is over I usually get back into it by re-reading the script if I feel its necessary or just scanning through and making a list of the locations on paper. Then I jot down any thoughts I have and scribble little sketches WITHOUT editing myself. Sometimes I have to remind myself this is just for ME so I don't self edit. After that I hit the search engines, magazine, books and collect any and every image that inspires me and put them into folders. By this point I am usually feeling inspired and rejuvenated and ready to get back into the game.
Sara K White
Sara K White is a Production Designer whose credits include Neil Drumming’s “Big Words,” Sam Fleishner’s “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors,” Gillian Robespierre’s “Obvious Child,” Maris Curran’s “Five Nights in Maine,” Sîan Heder’s “Tallulah,” and is currently in prep for Casey Affleck’s “Light of My Life.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of this job is providing the ability for an audience to understand and inhabit different worlds. For me, learning about and exploring different cultures and their design norms for their homes and communities is incredibly rewarding - but in order to do it, and do it well, I can find myself outside of available points of reference or documentary evidence, and the task of making a location beautiful and authentic while under the gun feels out of reach. When I hit a block, I usually go back to the script, stuff my brain full of my notes on the characters and the space, and take a walk to let things percolate, go through the actions, brainstorm the history of the characters, and work to solidify the job of the space in the film - usually that's enough.
If it isn't, I talk it out with everyone I can - with the Director about the characters, the DP about how the scene will be shot, the Costume Designer about how the actors will be dressed, and my Art team about the resources we have and how the space is coming along, preferably while we're standing in the middle of our photo collages or our storage space filled with what we've been accumulating. If that still doesn't work, I doodle and google until I fall asleep, wake up the next day and gather my team to start something. Anything. Even if it's based on ideas I already threw out the window, it gets the momentum back and lets me respond to the design in a more concrete way, making it easier to change the layout, the palette. And when my team is right there working with me, it usually comes together pretty quick.