Learning on the job is an essential part of the filmmaking process, and production design knowledge continues to be acquired long after any formal studies are over. We ask our colleagues to share lessons they've picked up along their career path.
"I have found that most people react negatively when their suggestions are rejected off hand."
"Create rather than procure."
Valeria De Felice
"Managing a crew can be the toughest but one of the most stimulating aspects of being a production designer."
"Being a source of light on set always pays off."
September 4th, 2021
What lessons have you learned from your experience on set?
Loren Weeks has been designing for film and television since 2003. His projects include "Gossip Girl" (the original) "Jessica Jones" and "Dickinson". He is currently on "The Crowded Room", a new series for AppleTV+. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
Having worked mostly in series for TV and streaming platforms I haven't spent a lot of time on set. As I finish prepping one episode I’m off to another, it’s my life in the van. So my lessons learned have been mostly from prep.
I bumped from art director to production designer on the NBC series "Third Watch" at the start of its 4th season. I had not been at the job for more than a month or so when a set PA came to me in my office and said I was needed on set immediately. I will admit I felt a moment of panic. Shit! What did I do wrong or forget? Being put on the spot, on set, with the entire crew standing by, un-nerved me. I took off towards the stage, passing a grip who called out to me as I raced by him “Never let them see you run”. Considering the man’s beer belly it was probably spoken more out of self preservation but I slowed immediately, to a brisk walk. I have lived by that rule ever since.
When scouting I’m often put on the spot by directors. “What would you do here?” they ask, 10 minutes after we land at a location we’re seeing for the first time. If I'm lucky I may have an epiphany that I know is the brilliant way to proceed. But for the most part I don't like to be put in a position where I feel I'm being asked to do a magic act. I never hesitate to say “I don't know off the top of my head, let me think about it.”
This may be followed by the director/producer offering an idea. It may be a good one, it may be a terrible one. I may know without a doubt why it's a terrible idea and all of the ramifications that would result from taking that course of action. I never dismiss it off hand. I have found that most people react negatively when their suggestions are rejected off hand. I say “that’s an option, but give me a little time to see what else I can come up with.”
Valeria De Felice
Valeria De Felice is an Italian production designer based in New York City. She designed the acclaimed independent films "Night Comes On", "Selah and the Spades", "The 40-Year-Old Version" and "I Carry You with Me". Valeria has recently designed the first season of "That Damn Michael Che" and is currently designing the limited series "We Own This City".
Back in 2003, when I was at the first year of the Academy of Fine Arts in Rome studying set design for theatre, I thought the hardest part of being a set designer would be the design aspect itself: finding great ideas in a short time and selling them to a director and a producer.
After over 10 years working in the film industry I still think that finding the right idea is hard, but like in a treasure hunt it’s just waiting to be found. The design solution can reveal itself by taking a walk, browsing your photos, talking to a friend/colleague or going through your entire book and magazine collection. It can take 15 mins or a week (a luxury whenever it’s available!) but the idea always reveals itself.
Something that I could only learn by being on set, is that the hardest part for me isn't finding inspiration but managing a crew and finding the right balance in each situation and with each person. Whether your crew is made of three people or 50, it’s still very hard.
In spite of all the possible variables, in each situation I find that motivating my crew is key, and micromanaging is the nemesis of motivation. I like to give a good degree of freedom to my crew to express themselves, and the only way for this to be successful is to have a defined idea of the mood, concept and style for each set and communicate it in the clearest way possible (this also revealed to be a hard task!).
I found that giving my crew the possibility to express themselves empowers them and brings added depth to the design. It’s always fascinating for me to discover how my decorator will interpret my mood boards and descriptions: I like to be surprised by a choice I would have never made/thought myself and I love to find how it perfectly expresses my initial thought in a language I am listening to for the first time.
Visual arts are always experimenting with new languages we don’t yet speak. Interpreting a work of art can be difficult at first but after that first glance we slowly start to understand shapes, color and how they interact with each other. We process it all and we build up our own concept. Does this concept match what the artist initially imagined? We don’t know, but we are approaching a new language and we are making space for it. I see production design as a similar process, but backwards: I establish the concept and the style, then I let my crew express it through their language.
Managing a crew can be the toughest but one of the most stimulating aspects of being a production designer, there is no textbook for that and I will keep learning as I go. I take this chance to thank all the people who worked with me and I can’t wait to encounter more crew and more visual languages.
Ericson Navarro has been part of the Philippines' production design industry for 25 years. He has worked with respected veteran filmmakers as well as independent directors with radical themes and ideas .He is recognized as one of the best designers in the fantasy and horror genres and has collected a handful of accolades in this field.
As a production designer, you create the world where the story is, so it is important that you create a believable world the actors can work with.
How will you achieve this? By using the actual location as the main source of your materials. You create rather than procure. You have the power to see things differently. A good example is a simple pail you see on location that can be transformed into a chair, a table, a decorative art piece, a plant box, or even a costume.
You use creativity and resourcefulness to create set pieces, props, or even costumes. These are your main tools in your arsenal, rather than things you can buy in a store. That way, the pieces of the world you create are already part of the actual location.
Ashley Fenton is a production designer based in Los Angeles. Working mostly in film and television, she often collaborates and co-designs with her twin sister Megan. Her latest film project "The Card Counter" is premiering at this years Venice Film Festival.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my experience on set is that kindness and a smile can make even the biggest of failures feel like a small success - at the very least you learned something, right???
Having worked on a wide range of projects, at every budget level, I can tell you that it takes persistence and hard work to remain considerate, but that being a source of light on set always pays off: whether it’s that people find you more approachable and offer suggestions that elevate your design, or that you build trust in the collaborators around you and are more in-the-know. I personally never feel more capable than when someone gives me a critique with a smile. It makes me feel like they want the best from and for me and I want that from others.
I’ve also learned less profound though no less important lessons: flexibility is important. Follow protocol but know which rules can be bent and when to do it. Respect boundaries: the minute you start to waver in your own boundaries, other people will take it as an opportunity to push them. Time off set is very important and should be protected and respected. I often think about this email signature of a fellow production designer, it went something like "My work day may not be your work day, do not feel obligated to respond outside of your work hours". I loved it.
These are just some of things I’ve learned on set that have been important to me lately. It can feel rewarding to put positive vibes out there I encourage everyone to try it.