The giant integrated machine of making a movie or television is vast in its parts. So many cogs of this machine work together for the common goal of a smooth and under-budget production. Part of that machine is an important role known as the production designer. What is a production designer, you may ask?
A production designer is an individual that works closely with the director and cinematographer to help unify the vision of the film or television. Production designers are head of the art department and work in tangent with other important departments around a movie or TV program. We got to speak to Production Designer, Steve Arnold, to find out what a production designer is and how someone might make it in Hollywood in this art form.
Steve Arnold has worked with Ang Lee, Rober Zemicks, David Fincher, and Mike Flanagan. He’s helped on some of the most visually stunning programs audiences have seen. Here we get to ask Arnold what it takes to be a production designer and how they could find themselves in a successful career in this art form.
What’s your background?
— I was born and raised in Seattle and went to the University of Washington for a while. Then, I went to Western Washington University in Bellingham, right up by the Canadian border. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for quite a while—kind of bounced around, different things. Ultimately, I found Theater and Design for Theater Scenery. I went to grad school back east at Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in Theater Scenery Design.
How did you get into production design for movies and television?
— I kind of fell into the whole film and television thing. I was still a grad student, and the head of the design department came to me one day, saying, “I’m doing this little film.” Since he was a full-time professor, he couldn’t be there all the time. So he said, “Would you be my assistant and help me out on this project?” And that’s how I got into doing films and television.
What’s the difference between production design and art direction?
— The production design job is really to work with the director after reading the script and everything and try to come up with an overall sort of global vision for the whole—if it’s a television series, the whole series. Or if it’s a film, the overall visual look of the film. They’re kind of at the top of the food chain in terms of the art department. We work with all the other departments. The camera department, the props department, the set decorating department, costumes, and anything that’s visual.
If we’re not building a lot of scenery, we spend a lot of time with the locations department. We go around and look at different locations that might be suitable for a particular set or a particular sequence in a film. We pick all the colors and have the final say on many things. Working with the director, they might have a very specific idea for how the show should be.
David Fincher, whom I’ve worked with several times, has very specific kinds of things he likes to do and something he won’t do. That’s the production design job.
And what about art direction?
— The art director is more like the person who makes everything happen and gets it done. Works with set designers, who are the draftsmen or the draftspeople who draw up things that need to be constructed by the construction department. They work with many other departments but are responsible for making things happen and always being there. Supervising many other people in the art department, the set designers, and the assistant art directors helping that person out.
Sometimes there is a supervising art director, which is a little bit more global–maybe there’s a big show. Let’s take Game of Thrones, for example; they shoot in several different countries. And so the designer can’t be in all those countries all of the time. So there would be a supervising art director that would probably have a bunch of art directors to oversee to ensure everything is happening and gets done on time.
Is there anything else that an art director does?
— The other thing that art directors tend to do quite a bit is the scheduling part. For example, “We need to have this set built by a particular day because it shoots.” We back that up; we have to do lighting, rigging, and other things. So they set a schedule for when to start building it. Then, at various points in the building process, ensure that everything gets done on time.
How does one become a production designer?
— It’s a very interesting question. In the old days, when there was a solid studio system, you worked your way up from the bottom — being a set designer or an assistant for a few years. Maybe then becoming an art director and finally being recognized as having the skills to become a production designer. These days some schools teach film and film design. So many kids who come out of these schools have a degree that says they’re production designers.
Which, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are qualified to be that person right when they get out of school. And a lot of people come from different walks. Like I did, some people go into the film business from the theater. Some people are artists.
Some people have been trained as architects. Some people come out of interior design or even just being an artist, a sculptor painter, somebody with a very strong visual creative sense that needs to be displayed. So it varies quite a bit. And some people come in quite young. They meet up with an up-and-coming director and can have a career that starts as a production designer fairly early, but that’s not usually the case.
At what point does the production designer get involved in a film project?
— So usually, it’s pretty early on. I will often be hired on a project before the director of photography, or the cinematographer is hired. So it varies quite a bit, but particularly if it’s a bigger show and maybe quite a bit of construction and building. The design work for that takes quite a few weeks or months to accomplish. So the production designer is typically one of the first people on.
Take us through your day-to-day on a production as production designer.
— So having been an art director for quite a few years and an assistant art director for quite a few years, I learned early on that being in early can be really useful. So I start very early in Los Angeles. In most parts of the country, the construction department starts working at 6:00 am. So I would always be there, even as a production designer, but usually as an art director or an assistant art director.
So I would be there at 6 am to answer questions, go over drawings, and make sure that things worked out. I found quite early on that more can go wrong in the first half hour of a day than sometimes the whole week. So having eyes on everything and being there to answer questions can be really useful.
What about when it comes to locations?
— Getting back to the “locations situation.” Early on a project, I would scout with the director and sometimes the producer with the locations department. We would go out and look and photograph a bunch of different locations and narrow it down to what would probably be the best choice we could find. That’s part of my day also, particularly when doing episodic television.
You are shooting one episode, you are prepping the following episode, and you’re starting to scout for the third episode. You’re running around and trying to organize and keep everything going while designing sets in the background. I will go in with the construction department and start. I will go to the art department and supervise the art directors and assistants, who then supervise the set designers.
And I might give them a sketch and say, “This is a new set we need. See what you can do with this.” A lot of times, you hand something off, and then various people work on that for a while. Then it comes back to me, and I take it to the director and say, “This is what we were thinking.” And they say, “No, no, no, let’s change this and change that.” So it goes back and forth quite a bit for quite a while.
What’s your process in working with a director or producer to realize the project’s vision?
— Everybody works differently. Every director is different. Some directors give you a free hand and say, “Looking at your body of work, I understand how your design aesthetic is. Just go ahead and show me what you think this should be.” Other directors will come in and be very specific and say, “I have to have a set where there’s a door opposite a window, and it has to do such and such and whatever.” They can be very didactic about, “This is exactly what I need.”
Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s maybe not so good, but you try to work with that. I always rely on and go back to the script because that’s the map of what needs to be in the visual image of the show.
Does a production designer have to change their style to go with the current trend or something different from what they’re accustomed to working on?
— I think a good designer has to be flexible enough not to be stuck in a rut and to branch out a little bit. I have a film that’s coming out next summer. That’s a comedy that I think you will find is much more vibrant and colorful than a serial murder story that Fincher has been directing. A lot of it has to do with the material.
Still, I will admit that Fincher has greatly influenced the color palette that I’m comfortable with. A professor many years ago, when I was taking theater courses, “chited” me because he thought my colors were too tasteful. I tend to go that way. I tend not to be loud and crazy and too vibrant unless required.
When it comes to being offered a project or searching for a new one, what does there have to be that makes you think, “I wanna work on this project”?
— First of all, the script has to work. It has to be a good script because no matter how much money they throw at it and how lavish and extravagant the sets are if the story doesn’t work, it doesn’t turn out to be a decent film. Then it seems like I’m not really that interested in it. I love doing period work. I love doing all the research that’s required for doing something that is a period film.
You often do a lot more fabrication and building of specific elements. It’s because they’re no longer around, or it’s too hard to get because it’s in a museum somewhere or something like that. SoI enjoy that a lot. I like a variety of different projects. I tend to lean more towards dramatic things as opposed to comedic things. I love comedy, but I tend to design for more serious stuff.
You mentioned earlier that David Fincher inspired your color palette as a production designer to change. So what other inspirations do you have?
— With the internet these days, you can find images are just about anything out there. And there is an amazing array of images, a variety of images out there. I keep a file of interesting architectural things and visual elements from some specific films. Just the feel of certain imagery can be very powerful. I would say as opposed to years ago when we had to get all these visual things out of books or go to the picture library at the New York public library.
Now, a lot of stuff is online. People post something on Instagram and all kinds of other sites that are out there that cater to specific visual styles. I say it’s hard to quantify one particular thing, but we usually find it because it’s out there.
What is the most challenging task of being a production designer, and how could you overcome it? Can you give us an example?
— Film work is quite a bit different than, let’s say, serial television, which I learned very quickly when I started doing House of Cards. I had not done television before specifically. For example, House of Cards had 13 scripts for an entire season, and we would shoot two storylines or scripts connected because they call it “Cross-boarding.” Say you have a scene in the oval office in one episode, and then the next episode, you have a bunch of other scenes in the oval office. You would simultaneously do all that oval office shooting for both episodes.
What about working on two episodes simultaneously?
So you’re doing two episodes at a time. But then the next two, you have to start prepping for the next two because television is a very fast-paced medium. Typically those kinds of shows, for each episode, you only have ten days to shoot all that. So you’re cramming a lot of work into a short period of time.
Meanwhile, you’re trying to scout for the next episodes and reading the scripts for the next episodes. So I would carry around six scripts at a time, trying to keep them all straight. That was a bit of a learning curve for me going into series television. In film, you are working with one script and one director. What I forgot to mention about the television series is many times, each one of those pairs of episodes would have a different director.
So you’d have a new director that would come in just before you finish shooting the other two, and this new director would have a new idea about whatever. So you do a lot more juggling in the series situation, typically. Sometimes, Mike Flanigan directed all the episodes when we did Midnight Mass. So that was a little bit smoother situation. Typically, many directors sort of rotate in and out, which can be a tricky situation.
What is it like working as a production designer with David Fincher and Mike Flanagan?
— There’s nobody out there. And I have worked with everybody from Oliver Stone to Ang Lee to Sam Raimi to M. Night Shyamalan and Robert Zemeckis — all these people. There’s nobody like David Fincher. David Fincher — I thought I was a perfectionist, but David Fincher is unbelievably a perfectionist. And this is probably why we get along so well because I understand all of that.
It doesn’t cause me to get upset or anything like that — if he’s really picky about certain things. I could write a whole book about picky things that he had us do, but there’s a reason for it. It’s comfortable in my thinking when I’m working with him because it all makes sense. Working with Mike Flanagan is completely different because Fincher would have everything in his head.
What’s the difference in their style of directing?
He would come and on a location scout and tell you in probably less than five minutes, exactly every single shot that would be. It would be, “This is a 40 lens, and it’s looking this way, and this is gonna be a 50 over here, and then we’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna do this.” He would have it all in his head. Mike Flanagan has it all written down on paper and months ahead of time. Every single set is plotted with not specific camera angles but very specific, “This is where this character is in the space. And they’re going to go from here over to here, and that’s the scene and all of that.”
So it influenced what the final design was different than working with any of these other people. It was almost like he had designed the space spatially before we even started thinking about building anything or finding a location for it. So, completely different ways of working, but they’re both great. It seems like my sensibility is very aligned with David Fincher.