top of page

Writing and Teaching Production Design: Jane Barnwell

Jane Barnwell is a Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Media Practice at University of Westminster,UK, where she teaches practice and theory. Graduating from Leeds University and the Northern School of Film and Television she began her career at the BBC, before working as a freelance production designer. She is the author of three books: The Fundamentals of Film Making, Production Design for Screen, and Production Design: Architects of the Screen. She sat down with the PDC to talk about how she set out to create these accessible resources on film theory and practice from a designer’s point of view, why recognition for the field is limited, and where she sees change afoot.

How did you get your start in film? And how did you end up teaching?

At university I did a course that had a little bit of film in it, but not a lot. After university and before I went to film school, I worked on a lot of productions and thought, “Yeah, I definitely want to go into this further.” So that’s when I went to film school. I specialized in production design. It was interesting because it was quite difficult to find out what production design was at the time. There weren’t that many books that taught it. After film school, I did lots of freelance work, then from doing freelance work, got involved teaching. On a film that I was working on, part of the deal was that the heads of each department had to give a kind of masterclass to trainees, people who were currently unemployed. It was like a day-long workshop, for about 10 people. And I actually loved it. So I got a taste of teaching from that. That was the first time I had to teach anything. I started doing more and more teaching and that’s how I ended up going in that route. It happened really organically. It was never really a decision to teach; it just happened from this one film project I worked on.

Are your students generally film students who’ve chosen to focus on design for film or do you get students who are just interested in film production and you’re introducing them to production design for the first time?

More the second. [The students are] really into the moving image; they’re interested in filmmaking. My teaching is introducing them to visual storytelling, the tools that are there with production design that you can employ, even on a really limited budget. The idea that you can vastly strengthen your work, use the space thoughtfully and use every detail in that space in a meaningful way.

That’s got to be rewarding, or maybe it depends on the student! Opening their eyes to that potential, a dimension of the medium that maybe they hadn’t thought about. I was on a set yesterday for a commercial, and there were some film school interns there. It was a small shoot, small set with some prop styling. They were film students and yet they were completely shocked at the number of props and set elements; they kept saying, “Wow! I had no idea it involved all this stuff!”

It’s funny isn’t it. They’re studying film and they don’t know. That’s something that I’m really keen on doing, trying to filter the practice into people who are purely looking at the theory, getting them to appreciate it. Even if it’s people who are purely interested in the theoretical side - by understanding the practice, they can enrich the theory to such an extent. Just being on set, for example, getting a sense of how things actually work, is so useful.

You mentioned that when you were in school there weren’t any books about production design. So did you just reach the point where you thought, I’ll do it myself?

Yes. Pretty much.

What’s your process in writing your books?

The first book ("Production Design: Architects of the Screen" published by Columbia University Press) I did was really investigating things that I would have liked to have known when I was studying design myself at film school. Going right back through and just looking at where design fits into broader film history. It wasn’t being made clear at all in other material that was available to me at the time. I also began interviewing designers. I wanted to look at production design from a historical point of view and I was also thinking about the role of the designer. So the first book was very much answering questions I had from film school. My film school experience was brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but there were big gaps there. I started contacting designers and arranging some interviews; it was quite an organic process. Through that I came up with the different chapters in my first book, just looking at things that I thought were really interesting. The two key things in the book, apart from the historical chapter, are thinking about place and thinking about how different periods are represented on screen.

And your more recent books, "Production Design for Screen: Visual Storytelling in Film and Television" published by Bloomsbury Visual Arts and "The Fundamentals of Film-Making" published by AVA Publishing?

For the more recent ones, I set out with a much more succinct idea of what I wanted to do. By this point, I had come up with this methodology. I’ve interviewed so many designers now. From these interviews, I came up with this approach that I think can be applied from the theory or practice point of view. "Production Design for Screen" is divided into these chapters: space, in and out, light, color and set decoration. Five key ways that the designer actually tells a visual story. And then I give examples as evidence and illustration of the way in which that is achieved, how those five tools are managed by the designer.

Obviously it’s a collaboration with the director and the DOP on every project. But essentially showing how important the designer’s input actually is on these things that we see on the screen. Something that gets wrongly attributed quite often to this notion of mise en scène, that is the director’s responsibility, you know it’s not usually the case! Usually the visual style of the project results from this collaboration that happens between the key heads of departments. I wanted to show how the space, in and out, light, color and set decoration were very much driven by these choices made by the designer..

In speaking to the designers, did common methodologies emerge or are these the five tools that come up across different designers’ processes?

Most of the designers I’ve interviewed use all five of those elements, but they use them in different ways. So certain designers will have something that they go to out of that list of five things; it’s the key for them to finding the visual concept. It can vary enormously. I do ask designers which one of those is the most important ingredient in their design. For Stuart Craig ("Dangerous Liaisons", "The English Patient", "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"), light seems to be his foundation point, and then from there he’s looking at other elements. For Gemma Jackson ("Game of Thrones", "Finding Neverland"), it’s often about the movement, so getting characters from one place to another, which falls under the category I term the "in and out”. And then other designers like Alex McDowell ("Fight Club", "Minority Report") will say it’s all of those things; he could never choose one. Of course all designers say it’s about the script. It’s all coming from the script and all about telling the story. But it’s using those ingredients to visualize the story in a meaningful, interesting way.

Do you feel the landscape of teaching production design has changed?

I’m not sure. Have you studied production design?

No, I studied interior architecture, but after other totally unrelated degrees. I came to film in a very round-about way.

There aren’t actually that many courses that are purely teaching production design in this country. There’s a few, a handful of post-graduate courses. But there are a very small number of undergraduate courses in production design. So I think that’s a real shame. When you think about how many courses there are in film production, it would be really nice to get more focus on production design specifically. Because it does have this lack of visibility and lack of understanding around how fundamental it is to what appears on the screen.

In New York there are graduate programs for production design, but many people also get into it following more of an apprenticeship model, learning by being on different productions. I don’t know if that also relates to the recognition, or if it’s sort of chicken and egg. That connection between the fact that it’s not taught as a discipline broadly and that it’s not acknowledged.

I think so. I’ve been talking to tutors who teach at USC. They get these students who are there for filmmaking in general and then enlighten them as to the wonderful world of production design. There are a lot of people around at the moment who are keen to do that. There’s still a huge lack of awareness absolutely. To be fair, back to that apprenticeship model, in this country, that’s true of most filmmaking [not just for production designers]. It’s very much about taking baby steps toward building up a reasonable kind of body of work, getting taken a bit more seriously, and maybe even actually getting paid (laughing).

I’m curious about how gender dynamics might play into these questions of recognition. Obviously anecdotally on indie projects, you tend to have a lot of male directors and cinematographers, and often but not always more female art departments. It’s hard not to wonder how or whether that might relate to the lack of visibility of production design in the industry or beyond?

I’d be interested to look into the statistics of it. Similar to you I have a sense of this kind of split, but I don’t know what the reality actually is. And also, if you look at the past, I don’t think that gender can be the answer. Historically you had these key designers from the studio system who were predominantly male. But now, it would be useful to examine the figures and see what’s actually going on there. There’s certainly a lack of women cinematographers and directors too. But I think the situation of the production designer, in terms of lack of recognition, existed before these questions related to gender.

What are some common mistakes you see your students make?

Not thinking about the concept. We’ll look at films and talk about what their visual concept was and how the designers made all of that gel. And then you still find that there’s a gap between appreciating that idea in someone else’s film and actually being able to create that in your own design. I’m not sure why that is. But that is something that I think students have trouble getting to grips with.

Understanding that you need a chair and a table in a room, but then making the conceptual leap that’s required to really tell a story with what chair, which table, where they sit in the space… it’s a jump.


I appreciate the way you map the relationship between technological advancement in filmmaking and the design process in your books. Now, for example, it’s commonplace to see so many films with elaborate special effects. Where do you see the future of that relationship?

It still seems to be very much evolving. What I’ve noticed is that some designers are concerned about the lack of coherence because they designed their part and then the VFX kind of take over and it’s out of their control potentially. But then I’ve also spoken with other designers, such as Alex McDowell, who says that he thinks that VFX is actually being wrestled back into the art department. He’s kind of taken that into his terrain. It’s more coherent that way, instead of being a whole separate department. It certainly makes sense to me that you would want to have those elements working together instead of potentially pulling in different directions and creating tension in the coherence of the work. So, that’s one thing. The other thing I think is that design is all about the context of the specific story. There will always be a kind of diversity in the approaches that reflects the actual story, whether it’s some sort of VR project or something online or for a cinema screen. The designer’s approach adapts and reflects what the aims of the particular project are. I think design for different technologies is going to coexist without anything necessarily coming out on top. Is that what you’re asking?

I guess I wondered if somehow the role of “production designer” would fracture or would be bifurcated, so that you would have different jobs entirely, maybe designers who do a particular kind of film, that requires a command of certain technological mediums, but then a different type of role for designers who do things entirely practically? Or is it just that designers become more adaptive to whatever the demands of a particular story are?

I think it’s difficult to know how that’s going to play out. I think it would be quite healthy to have designers who have that overview [across types of technology], who can move between different types of projects rather than necessarily ending up in one or the other. It’s so fluid and becoming more so.

It makes me think of an interview I read with Adam Stockhausen. Not so much about technology but just about the adaptability of designers. He described how for "Twelve Years a Slave" he basically had to design in 360 because that’s how Steve McQueen wanted to shoot, allowing his actors to live in these environments. But then he did "Grand Budapest Hotel", which is a radically different approach to design, tailored to the demands of that story and Wes Anderson’s vision. It blew my mind that a single designer could do both.

It is whatever visual story needs to be told. Designers love that challenge. They will do what’s necessary to respond to the brief, whatever it is. That’s a lovely example, two such different projects and they’re both amazing.

What are some of the differences you see between film in the UK and the US?

I see some differences, but I see more similarities in a lot of ways. . Although obviously there is the whole studio system in the US, there is also a lot of independent work, which enables diversity to a certain extent. In Britain there is such a vibrant and diverse film culture that would benefit from more robust funding structures.

The main difference I would say is the actual volume of work. In the US, there’s the sense that studios can produce such a volume of work. But then, there’s so much co-production as well; so much that gets made in the studios here, using a lot of British talent, but American funding, so it becomes a gray area. How do you define what people do as British or American?

What you do think needs to be done to promote production design within the industry and beyond?

I’ve been talking to the Art Directors Guild about that. My PhD that I’ve just completed is called The Designer’s Story. It’s about filmmaking from the perspective of the production designer. In terms of ways of raising awareness, I’m working on a getting some funding at the moment for an idea: quite a large scale installation that would also be working through ideas around the designer’s contribution to filmmaking. But I shouldn’t say too much more about it at the moment. I would love to come back and tell you all about it when it’s a bit closer to fruition.

It would be geared to the general public?

Yes, the idea would be that it would be for anyone. It would be really accessible. For people interested in design, but also anyone interested in film. People are fascinated by the behind-the-scenes of filmmaking. I think by generating interest in the general public as well as a more specialist audience, that could really help build awareness around what the process really is.

That sounds like so much fun. Recently in Manhattan there was a Downton Abbey exhibition, some kind of experiential thing. I didn’t see it. I was skeptical, thinking it was like an amusement park attraction, but at the same time I realized people experience design so differently when they’re physically in a space. You can try to talk to someone about how design makes us feel, in the abstract, telling someone that design choices have all these emotional and narrative consequences. But it’s very different for a person to physically experience those things; I think they understand it so differently.

Absolutely. The idea that someone could inhabit that space that they’re familiar with seeing on the screen. And then they can actually enter that space.

What projects do you have on the horizon?

At the moment, I’m focusing on funding for this installation. In conjunction with that, there would be a publication, as well as a documentary, filming the process and the talks and events that would be built around it, hopefully to help raise awareness and interest.

I hope you get the funding! I’d love to see it. Jane, thank you so much for your time.

Lovely to talk to you!

bottom of page