Production Designers are often faced with the challenge of balancing their creative vision and the reality of their financial limitations. Our contributors share their advice and experience.
"Restrictions can be very helpful as long as you’ve had a chance to figure out what the story is about."
"There will always be obstacles, but it's how you react to them that is paramount."
"My design process doesn’t vacillate much from project to project, or budget to budget."
"The differences between high and low budget films are just the zeros following the number"
May 2nd, 2017
How do budget limitations affect your design process?
Scott Dougan began his career designing theater sets, and continued as an art director for films “Bridge of Spies”, “Collateral Beauty”, “Allegiant”, “Five Flights Up”, and TV show The Deuce, set to premier in 2017. He recently production designed “American Animals” and “One Mile to Run”.
Designers are the link between the practical world and the aesthetic and creative world of the film. We are responsible not only for developing a look, conjuring a new place or long ago time, but for making that world present. We build sets or find locations that tell our story. For us, the story is manifest in the things we make, the spaces we dress, the walls we paint. Unlike cinematographers and editors, our world is real and tangible. But, and maybe even because of the practicality of our work, sometimes it’s easy to forget that we are dealing with the same questions of story and character as the cinematographer, editor and actors. So, for me before I’m able to start thinking about budget, or art department resources in general, I try to focus myself on the core elements of the story—the basic ideas that drive the plot, character and design.
From place to period, scale and structure, the stories we tell vary widely in their needs. But, every production has limits, big blockbusters and little indies alike, and designers and the art department are often forced to deal with those limitations before other departments. For this reason, I think it’s important not to impose limitations until I’ve had a chance to solidify the main story ideas with the director. My experience as an art director really helped to reinforce this idea. It’s hard, if not impossible to cut ideas unless the designer has a clear sense of what’s most important both to him/her and to the director.
Timing is important. Restrictions can be very helpful as long as you’ve had a chance to figure out what the story is about. And sometimes producers aren’t completely sure how to budget for design, so preliminary budgets might not account for all the films needs, or the director’s ideas. First, construction is budgeted differently from other departments, and it’s up to the designer and art director to allocate labor and materials. Set dressing is often budgeted like other departments, with man-days and purchases/rentals separated out, but unlike grip and camera equipment, you can’t call up a rental house and ask how much a period bedroom costs and get three competitive prices. Experienced producers know this for sure, but it’s impossible to make these choices without designing the sets first—developing a look, printing out pictures and making choices with the director. Whether it’s illustrations, period research, or reference stills pulled from YouTube, to me it’s all the same basic stuff and you can’t budget without it. Once you’ve printed out the ideas, sat down with the director and producers and chosen the right pictures, then you can settle in on how much it’s going to cost. And inevitably ideas will be lost, but at least you’ll know why you’re losing them, and hopefully you’ll know the right ones to keep.
Alan Lampert lives and works in New York, NY, believe it or not.
The first project I designed was roughly 10 or 11 years ago for a feature by the name of Stoner that was made for $20,000 in Austin, Texas during a muggy summer – all of my experience prior had been as a grip or AC on other student projects. Essentially my design process at that time was makeshift, shoddy, and completely improvised, but so were the actors, AD, craft services, locations, DP; even the animals used in the film were borrowed and unprofessional (side note: I lost my neighbors cat during a night shoot, nearly destroying our friendship, only to find the gato the next day in a nearby alley. The cat’s name was “Shitty” and lemme tell you, there are few things worse in this world than losing a friend’s pet. It’s also difficult to get the general public to take your “Lost Cat” signs seriously when you write “Responds to ‘Shitty’” across the top.).
I’ve since relocated to New York (about 7 years ago) and I’m currently designing a television show on a majors contract – a far cry from Stoner, but interestingly the same sense of dread existed / exists for me on both projects in much the same way. It’s certainly on the smaller end of the spectrum in terms of its budget and scope, but let’s be honest, it’s a big step for me, and as usual I find myself slightly out of my element, vaguely behind the curve, and in a constant, quiet state of debilitating anxiety that is probably burrowing a hole in my stomach as I type. Much of my experience in between these jobs was initially art directing on indie films and smaller TV shows, and ultimately designing similarly sized projects. I’ve never had the opportunity to ‘learn from the best’, and perhaps I never will (I’m stubborn). I could certainly benefit from shadowing other designers and gleaning helpful tactics for conveying one’s ideas clearly, fastidiously, and effectively, but I have yet to find where this internship program exists that still allows you to pay the cost of living in New York (rent, beer and shot specials, the three kittens I inadvertently adopted after finding their dad torn apart by a raccoon in my back yard three days ago).
I’m rambling but the point is that my design process doesn’t vacillate much from project to project, or budget to budget. Certainly the parameters in which I’m forced to work will change, my day to day tasks are altered (e.g. a union shop constructs a set for me versus I’m covered in paint, crying at 3am in a warehouse in Sunset Park, nearly dismembering my hand with a chop saw from sleep deprivation as I wonder why I didn’t just become a damn veterinarian and who are these producers anyway!?), but I approach the script, the story, the characters, and the sets with a similar mindset. I’m almost certainly going to be designing in the indie film world for years to come, but a low budget doesn’t change the emotion of a scene, or the motivations of a character (which ultimately is reflected by their environment). I would say perhaps one becomes more reliant (with a lower budget) on the locations department and should work closely with them to find spaces that arrive interesting, dynamic, and give one a good base with which to work, but that remains true on a larger scale as well (though perhaps you would construct it on a stage when more money is available).
Look, I don’t really know what I’m talking about – my experience is so limited - but I can say with certainty that TIME is affected with a smaller budget. With less money comes less resources (crew and otherwise), and with less crew comes more physical labor for me, and more physical labor means less time designing and more time injuring my back and developing a furrowed brow. In these situations I attempt to, pay or no pay, start the project as early as possible, often before my regularly scheduled prep period begins. The more research I can collect, and the more days I can spend simply ruminating on what the spaces could and should be without the relentless shooting schedule breathing down my neck, the more at ease I am the night before a shoot bleaching fabric in my bathroom without proper ventilation, building a hospital set in my basement so the production company can achieve the NY tax credit, or making the director’s brother’s shoe store into an ice skating rink because shooting at an actual ice skating rink is cost-prohibitive (and it’s summer!).
Ask me this question ten years from now (if I make it that far) and I’ll probably look back and say “I WAS EXACTLY RIGHT – Alan, how were you so clairvoyant?” but more likely I will laugh at what I once thought “designing” meant. It’s an ever-evolving process that is fraught, stilted, and often involves lying through your teeth, pretending that you’re someone that you are not until you are. How do any of us get better? Probably in much the same way. P.S - Don’t forget to call your mothers – I believe this is being published on Mother’s Day. You wouldn’t be reading this without her, though I’m not so sure you’re going to read this anyway. Regardless, give mama a call.
Elizabeth Jones' production design credits include Bart Freundlich's "Wolves", Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress" and Rob Meyers' "A Birders Guide to Everything". Her commercial credits include ad campaigns for Verizon, Coca Cola, Citibank, Converse, and Macy's. She most recently completed "Lizzie", a thriller about Lizzie Borden starring Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart directed by Craig William Macneill.
Budget limitations are about managing expectations but can also inspire creative problem solving. Being resourceful and thinking outside the box are key.
For instance, on my most recent film project, a tier 1 period film, my team contacted a big budget tv show that was shooting in the same town. After meeting with the designer and art director of this show, we were able to re purpose a vast number of materials from that show's sets that were no longer in use. This allowed me to design set pieces that would have otherwise been beyond our means. It was certainly a jigsaw puzzle but you would never know from the end result. And recycling materials is always is a plus!
No matter what the size of a project is when I first start to design process I like to think big. It's important in the beginning not to be afraid of what limitations may bring to the design. As time progresses I zero in on what are the most key elements for the director, the dp, and myself, while still working to maintain overall themes and concepts for every set (it's best to give every set your touch, no matter how small).
Also, however difficult, I try to not let the budget limit my creative process or that of the director. I try to entertain all ideas and work with the producers to manage these expectations. And more than anything a positive attitude helps things to run more smoothly. There will always be obstacles, but it's how you react to them that is paramount.
Maximilian Lange is a Munich, Germany based production designer. Among his works are high budget - as well as low budget - TV and feature films. His work includes films "Autumn Blood", "Milchwald" and "Kaddisch für einen Freund."
For me there is no particular difference designing high budget or low budget films. Creativity is not a question of the budget, but the budget will be handled with creativity. Starting a new project I always try to push away any thoughts of money. In focus is the story and the look we want to create. So visualization of the summary of all ideas in the room is the first and most important step to finding a base of agreement for the look of the project. Next step is to get as close as possible to that by finding solutions for all the big and tiny challenges. But the challenges wouldn't be ones if there would be enough money and so making a film is always talking about money - and there's always a lack of it.
The differences between high and low budget films are just the zeros following the number. High budget films have challenges according to their budget, therefore finding solutions is the same matter as for low budget films, with their comprehensively small challenges.
But you only get shine by friction and so I believe the hassle with money is also a chance; sometimes constraints guide you to new, never-thought-before solutions. It's important not to become stuck on solid problems, losing overview over the project. Be flexible in finding solutions - be firm in defending the look.