Saturday, November 20, 2010

Production Design

I have been absent awhile, due to the fact that I've not done any art worthy enough to appear on this blog. However, within the past few months, I'm pleased to say that several pieces have been drawn that are of the quality to be displayed here in this web forum. But that's for later. Today, I have only text; enjoyable text, I believe...

I've been spending several months (actually over a year) working with John Moore in developing HeuMoore's most recent project, Ace Wonder. The website is here at

The film is a remake of our 2007 short film, Heartstrings. However, don't be disheartened; we're going to make it better, I promise. The basic premise is the same, changed only slightly: the Moore family, whilst on vacation, breaks down in the small, rustic town of Willowwood. Gator Moore, an aspiring detective novelist, meets Derek Morton, a confused young man obsessed with a set of clues his recently deceased grandfather left behind. Gator, smelling a story, is immediately endeared to Derek. What follows are laughs, thrills, intrigue, mystery, enigma, puzzles, riddles, more plot development and stuff like that. How's my logline so far? Please, bear with me; I've yet to read any of Robert Mckee.

My role in this project is that of production designer. Basically, this position supervises the entire visual design of the film, ranging from costume design to set design to prop design to character design to... well, you get the picture. Basically, the timeline for my work on the film goes thus:
Pre-production: September 2009-April 2010; drawing.
Production: April 2010-June 2010; running.
Post-production: June 2010-TBD; drawing.

Yes, lots of drawing.

This was the first time we sat down and thought through the costumes, sets, props and color schemes. John had a very specific vision in mind, which comes through in the finished project.

Within film production hierarchy, there is a trinity; not holy, but pretty awesome: director, cinematographer and production designer. The director presents his vision to the two department heads. The production designer supervises what is to be photographed, while the cinematographer deals with how to photograph it. Although creativity must be allowed, it must be based on the director's vision; that's especially important when the director is also the writer, as in my case. I defer to him for the most part, because I respect his authority in this area. However, if I believe I have a better visual idea, I allow my thoughts to come to his attention through the opening of my mouth.

I don't know if my feeble efforts to explain production design will impart the import of this area of filmmaking. It is indispensable, and if one does not take proper care and time to run through the visual design of his film, no matter how great the script, or dynamic the score, or fantastic the actors, his film will fall flat. It will not be real. Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, which is more of a fairy tale/ horror story, with magical occurences that could not possibly happen, has a setting that is so tangible it feels like you're in 1799 New England.

My favorite example of production design is the monumental film trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Recall the Viking/Saxon motifs running throughout the culture of the Rohans? Or the very apparent influence of Greco-Roman and Byzantine architecture within Minas Tirith? The design team made an excellent decision in taking something that's familiar to us and putting a slight fantastical twist on it.This ability to completely engross an audience within an artificial atmosphere was the appeal of the recent blockbuster, Avatar. Cliché plot points and flat characters do not matter when you're distracted by the reality of Pandora, especially compounded with the great 3D effect.

Even within documentary filmmaking, it is important to think through the visual themes that can be utilized to make the film more powerful. One of the best examples I've seen is the chilling, alarming Demographic Winter. This symbolism is apprehensively pertinent, especially in light of the approaching threat of a disastrous social and economic winter.

For more info regarding production design, I highly recommend The Filmmaker's Guide to Production Design by Vince Lobrutto. Although not explicitly detailed, it covers the basics of visual design quite sufficiently for the beginning designer.

Thanks for reading; I hope it was informational and enjoyable.

God Bless,


Matthew2 said...

"We're going to make it better, I promise." You delight in understatements, don't you? Heartstrings was a nice film made by homeschoolers. Ace Wonder effectively knocks the proverbial socks off of Heartstrings. You have made a very professional, visually coherent, engaging and fascinating movie. Moreover, you have captured something of a feeling of wonder, that is referred to in the title. Good job, Mr. Production Designer....

Johnny S. Reighard said...

I believe in underpromising and overdelivering.

Stacey said...

"I believe in underpromising and overdelivering." Hmmmm, somebody has been paying attention to Stephen Kendrick. :-)

Very nice post, Johnny. I can't wait to see Ace Wonder! I didn't watch the rough cut at the festival because that's when I found out that our crew member had died. But honestly, I'm glad that the first time I see it, I'll be seeing it in it's full glory! :-)

Allen P. said...

Excellent post, Johnny. As I am developing a series of short films, planning on directing them, it is good to read what your responsibilities as production designer are so I can better leave those things in that hands of... my production designer. I enjoyed reading this very much, and thank you very much. This sort of writing is sure to help me in the near future!

Johnny S. Reighard said...

Thanks, Allen; perhaps I should do a few more more posts on visual design?
@Stacey: I am rather glad you didn't get to see Ace Wonder. It was REALLY rough, and just barely presentable. I also extend my personal condolences to you and those who were close to Joe; heal thoroughly.

Stacey said...

Thank you, Johnny, for your kind words. It's still hard to believe that Joe is gone, but I'm at peace with it. It's so comforting to know that God is always in full control. :-) Did you see the post on my blog about Joe?

Jeffrey French said...

@Johnny: Yes please do! I found this very interesting and informative.

Btw, I thought Ace Wonder was really good, though I can't wait to see it in its finished form!

Andrew B. said...

Just found your blog from John Moore's, and am enjoying what I see! :-) I am an aspiring filmmaker, if you can call a pocket cam and a 5+ year old computer that... :-) Can't wait to see Ace Wonder!
Keep up the good work,
Andrew B.

Johnny S. Reighard said...

@Stacey: I did indeed. I hope God was able to use your collective witness to win his heart over.

@Jeffrey: You and me both!

@Andrew: Good to see ya! anyplace is a good place to start. I don't even have a camera that works right now...

Allen P. said...

Yes, Johnny, I would appreciate any advice you can give. In your free time, of course.

C.R. Scott said...

I need to get myself a production designer... it's annoying that I can ALMOST draw, but not quite (erm, that may be giving myself a bit more than reality...).

I never thought about the importance of Production Design, (in LOTR, they were probably sticking close to Tolkien, as he was fascinated with ancient cultures, and if you read the book, you do get the feel of those nations, as he probably intended), so I probably ought to... although I'm guessing it helps more with bigger-budget/fantasy films.... again with the computer-and-a-camera setup. :). But hey, John Moore started out that way, and look where he is now.

@Matthew 2, hoh yeah. I wished there was more of the Bowman Brothers' work though. :).

Anonymous said...

I feel like I should join the conversation.
Our family and our family's friends have made several short films...
We are really enjoying ourselves.
It is something I would like to get better at. We have 1 camera, a tripod, and a good editing program. So, we're not very professional... ;-)
But, your blog and John Moore's have been very helpful.
Thanks so much!

Johnny S. Reighard said...

Dear Anonymous,
I am very glad that I was able to be of assistance to you and your family. I would be further pleased to greet you with more than simply "anonymous." So, if ever you wish to divulge your names, I would be most willing to add you to my contact list.