The relationship between a designer and their crew is the backbone of the art department, and its strength is essential to the success of any project. Yet each designer develops his or her process individually, thus creating their own language of communication. We asked our colleagues what communication method they practiced in working with their crew.
“Some days I wish my department could read my mind. Most days it’s probably for the best that they can’t…“
“I find using Dropbox as a file sharing tool with the art department efficient, convenient, and successful in many ways.“
“I always think our work as production designers is to help the directors translate ideas and feelings they can’t express precisely.“
“Over the years I've learned that there's one thing common to every project and to every person: TRUST.“
December 29, 2015
What is your preferred method of communicating with your department?
Richard Wright began designing with David Gordon Green’s debut film “George Washington“ and has continued to work on many of his films including the latest, “Our Brand is Crisis,“ and the upcoming TV show “Vice Principles.“ Other work includes Craig Zobel’s “Great World of Sound,“ Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop,“ and Jeff Nichols’ “Mud.“
Some days I wish my department could read my mind. Most days it’s probably for the best that they can’t…and best they don’t have to dig through the jumble of conflicting ideas that tumble around in there.
The film design process for me is more often than not a process of gradual discovery. Whether it’s a yet to be found location, unapproved budget, or existing scene that is promised to shortly be rewritten, there are always unknowns preventing future plans from being much more than assumptions.
With a shortage of time and a valuable team of artists on the clock, you have to “feed the monster.” So when it comes to communicating plans, designs, desires and up to date news: the faster and more widespread the communication is, the better. Of course everybody wants the information NOW and nobody wants to be the last to know.
In the past few years, Dropbox has become an invaluable tool for my team. My first recorded bits of information on any project now begin collecting there and continue to be added and edited throughout the entire process. Research photos and documents, reference photos, location photos, sketches and drawings, graphic files, breakdowns and the latest script notes can all reside there as they develop and even remain for reshoots many months later. All relevant crew can be given full or specific access as needed.
It allows me to collect thoughts as they come to me and keeps them available to be conveniently recalled at any time. It’s there for everybody to access and continue the collaboration when I’m not immediately available. And it is the ultimate notepad when an idea occurs in the middle of the night.
With all the meetings, scouts, napkin sketches, impromptu brainstorm sessions, emails, texts, rainbow colored scripts and endless department chatter…there is a whole lot of information floating around out there. And a lot can be forgotten, misinterpreted or become outdated fast. By collecting a universally accessible and collaborative store of maintained, up-to-date documents and files, Dropbox has brought a versatile and “concrete” communication platform to my department. It saves a lot of ink too.
Anna Falgueres began designing European indie movies, first in Belgium with Joachim Lafosse on “Private property,“ “Elève libre“ and “Our children.“ Lately she collaborated with the French director Mia Hansen-løve on “Eden“ and the upcoming “Things to come.“
I started out working with a tiny team, so I was unsettled by the communication part of the work as my teams grew. During my first experiences I tried to find a way to express myself but above all I tried to make myself be understood on both an artistic and human level. I always think our work as production designers is to help the directors translate ideas and feelings they can’t express precisely. That’s why, in order to build the director’s singular vision as a crew, communication is fundamental.
Concerned with gathering the crew together around the same vision, I established my way of communicating step by step and movie after movie, and strangely, it first came with written words.
In French scripts, the story is often open - there are holes in the descriptions of actions and sets and it’s a tough job trying to fill in the different characters and the different sets. That’s why, before starting to prepare the movie with my crew, I spend a long time writing a comprehensive breakdown, which I make into a little book.
For each sequence I describe all the props, the main intent of the set regarding the characters at the particular time of the story, as well as the desired atmosphere that will convey the feelings we want to share with the spectator. I like this impressionist way of thinking. I have become quite fetishist with this tool, sometimes I even make different book covers for different collaborators of mine. When the little book is ready that means that I have the movie in mind and that we are ready to prepare. The booklet will be the foundation for the first discussions with my crew, and will allow us to return to the main ideas during the whole process.
While I’m working on the booklet I start searching for images of objects, movies, paintings and old magazines if we’re in a period movie. I also like to draw but I’m not real good at it, so in the first days with my crew, I love to source for fabrics and objets that will characterize and give the direction of the design. It can be a strange lamp stand or an old bed-cover but I see them as centerpieces around which we will build more easily the entire set. In a way, these objects will be the soul of the set, expressing hidden parts of the characters. These first choices also help me to share harmony intentions for colors and materials with my crew. Sometimes it’s the very small things that say a lot about the way the set has to be.
After earning a fine arts degree from Parsons School of Design, Roshelle began her career as on David Riker’s “La Ciudad,“ and has since designed a number of notable films including Clark Gregg’s “Choke,“ Todd Solondz’s
“Life During Wartime“ and Lee Daniel’s Academy Award Winning “Precious.“ Her most recent work includes NBC’s “Believe“ and “Quarry“ for Cinemax.
Design is a visual language and members of the art department share photographs and drawings to have a conversation about the art direction. However, when on a project it is so hectic that we are hardly in one place at the same time.
I find using Dropbox as a file sharing tool with the art department efficient, convenient, and successful in many ways. It has a very simple user interface anyone can understand and is compatible with most operating systems. Everybody in the art department owns devices whether it is a tablet or a smartphone and can access Dropbox with a mobile app that is intuitive and easy to use. Another great feature of Dropbox is that it provides a parent folder on your personal computer and changes are instantly available across all your synced devices.
Project drawings and references are well organized in an online file system. I can easily refer to them from anywhere with any one of my synced devices. This is helpful for those impromptu concept meetings anywhere.
When location scouting, I photograph, upload, and share with the art department as I go. This makes communicating scout notes efficient and less work at the end of an already long day.
When prepping a set I use Dropbox to reference files of already shared details reducing the number of “remember? we discussed this!” arguments.
Sharing Dropbox links rather than attachment heavy emails and texts avoids harrowing moments when the director is trying to email you but your server is full.
Best of all, having an online file sharing system eliminates paper heavy binders and files. Go Green!
Todd Fjelsted started his career in the late 90s fine art world with paintings, sculpture, and installation. His most recent work includes two seasons and a finale film for HBO‘s dramedy Looking, Gregg Araki's thriller “White Bird in a Blizzard,‘ and ABC pilot “Exposed“ with director Patty Jenkins.
It probably goes without saying that every project is different and every personality in your department may require a unique approach as well. That said, over the years I've learned that there's one thing common to every project and to every person: TRUST.
There's nothing more satisfying than being trusted to deliver a vision, being given the space to explore and expand upon a concept or theme. Being respected. I try to think of everyone on my team as not just an extension of myself, but as another opportunity for the unexpected. How else can we stumble onto those wonderful happy accidents that surprise and excite us?
Of course control is important, there's a blueprint here, a director's request there, a network or studio's production value at stake. But within the art department - which we all know is basically magic to everyone outside it - there's a collaboration occurring that is quite different from other departments. It's quite tactile and yet also abstract in some ways. I like to think of that collaboration as an opportunity -- one in which each team member has something to bring to the table that the others may not possess. I've been fortunate to work with some amazing professionals, some of whom have been doing it far longer than I have. Others are newer and greener. In either case, I learn from them, they learn from me, we teach each other on a daily basis.
I prefer to communicate in as simple terms as possible, divide out duties accordingly, and then let each person just run with it. Whether working remotely by email with a graphic designer, on a soundstage with a construction coordinator, scouring photos with a set decorator, or tech scouting with a lead man, my approach remains essentially the same. Trust your crew. Respect them. It will be mutual. You'll get a better product and you'll have more fun. Which is why we're all here anyway.