Advice from an Indie Producer: Production Design & Wardrobe

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The Art and Wardrobe departments help build the characters through decoration and dress. What people wear and where they live and work can give you insight into the characters and their motivations. That’s why it’s important to hire crewmembers that are clear about your vision and have the ability to execute it for the budget you have.

Production Design
Your Production Designer is in charge of creating a “look” for the project with “set dress,” items that are placed on the set to create the mood, tone and theme of the scene. For example, if you have a scene in an office the Production Designer will “design” the office by collaborating with the Director on certain details. Questions that the designer may ask include: 

  • What type of artwork/decoration would hang on the wall (e.g., paintings, kids’ drawings, posters)?
  • Would there be lots of gadgets (e.g., computers, printers)?
  • What scenes will be shot here? Will there be stunts?
  • What is the season and/or year? (This can affect the type of computers, furniture, holiday decorations, etc.)

From this conversation, your designer can purchase, rent and borrow items based on the “box” they are given by production, which includes the amount of time, money and staff she or he has. Depending on the budget, the designer utilizes simple pictures of ideas to elaborate drawings of sets to confirm with the Director that they understand the Director’s vision.

Choose a designer based on taste and an understanding of your project. Watch their previous projects—do the sets feel overdone? Did you like their use of colors? Do the sets reveal things about the characters that are left unsaid? The next step is to check their IMDB and references to make sure that they have the ability to come in at or under budget. You can ask your department head to do a “breakdown,” which is a budget for their staff and all the things they have to buy. If they are going over the budgeted number, you’ll need to figure out where you can support them (e.g., free stuff for set dress, locations that are mostly dressed, minimal builds).

Props also fall under the Art Department for your project. The Property Master (that is, the finder, keeper and manager of the props) works with the Production Designer to make sure that they have everything needed to help fill in all the details for each set. Weapons, books, cellphones and picture cars are some examples of props. On low-budget union sets, the Property Master is also responsible for setting up chairs for the producer, director and actor for video village.

For information on the I.A.T.S.E. breakdown of the Art Department and its positions, you can check with individual Locals. 

Wardrobe
Costume design encompasses everything your characters wear. Many actors like to collaborate with wardrobe to help build their character. What somebody wears can tell a lot about who they are, where they are from, their social status and economic status without saying a word. These details set a tone for your project and help craft the characters.

Costume Designers typically develop relationships with fashion vendors (e.g., designers, stores, rental houses) that enable them to get “product placement,” which is when a designer and/or company allows you to use clothes for free in exchange for a special thanks in the credits, social media shout-out, pictures with talent, etc.

Another budget-conscious idea is to have the Costume Designer go through the actors’ closets (literally or virtually, via phone calls or Skype). Using the actors’ clothes on a nonunion project is free; but if you are working with SAG actors, you’ll have to compensate them for each item of clothing they bring (which will be defined by each SAG contract). Keep in mind that you’ll need permission or “clearance” to display logos and uniforms. Working with new designers is a great way to get clothes cleared for free. 

Next Steps
Now you’re almost ready to shoot your film! But before you call action, it’s time to meet with your actors and crew to set your intention for what you would like to happen when the cameras start to roll. In my next post, we’ll discuss table reads (with the actors) and page turns (with the crew)—the final steps in the preproduction process. 

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