Production designers work in the entertainment industry and use their creative flair to make film, television and theatre productions look the way they do. Their main responsibility is to develop a complete visual framework for the production they’re working on. They read the script and consult with the director and producer to make sure the visual texture of the production matches their creative vision.
Once the design concept has been finalised, the production designer creates thematic designs for sets, props, camera and lighting angles, costumes, locations, special effects, graphics and other technical requirements.
The next step is to hire a dedicated team of production specialists (i.e. designers, equipment handlers and a construction crew) to help the creative ideas materialise into a tangible production environment. These guys are also responsible for coordinating costume designers, make-up artists, special effects teams and camera, studio, lighting and sound directors.
Furthermore, production designers are responsible for monitoring daily production work and managing production teams. They track costs and manage the design budget, create scale drawings and models for reference purposes and manage the overall production activity during filming, or indeed throughout the performance.
Production designers who work on theatrical or ‘live’ productions are also known as stage designers and may concentrate on this area alone, while those working in film and television may switch across both media or specialise in one or the other.
The majority of production designers work independently, but also aim to develop long-term relationships with particular directors or production houses.
Salary & benefits
Production design is a profession open to experienced individuals and the typical entry-level jobs open to candidates are design assistant and runner positions.
Assistants working on feature-length films and primetime television shows currently earn around £280 to £300 a week, while contract rates for people working on theatre productions, short films and independent TV shows tend to be lower.
Art directors, who tend to be one rung below production designers in the hierarchy, presently earn around £640 to £800 for a week’s work.
Contract rates for experienced designers vary vastly depending on the specific project, the production budget and the designer’s personal relationship with the directors and producers.
The current practice is for senior designers to negotiate their compensation package on a project-specific basis. This could involve being paid a percentage of the profits that the TV show, play or film actually makes.
There are no fixed or regular working hours for production designers – they depend on the production schedule and budgets, with delays and budget overruns being a common occurrence. Consequently, you may be required to work in the evenings or during weekends.
Travel is also often required, especially for feature films shot on location. Since most production designers are freelancers, there are many instances where designers are hired to work on productions commissioned by overseas production companies, especially from the USA and European countries such as Italy and France.
Theatrical production designers undertake a lot of domestic travel and there’s always the chance that a successful play or musical will mean moving across the pond to do it all again. For instance, many productions eventually move from the West End to Broadway, or vice versa.
As previously mentioned, production design is not an entry-level job, and people usually spend the first ten or so years of their careers working their way up through the ranks to reach this level.
However, before you set out on the first few rungs of the career ladder, it’s advisable to get a degree (or equivalent) which is related to graphic design, media production, film production, fine art, performing arts, theatre design, interior design, landscape design or architecture.
Gaining early experience through summer jobs, internships or volunteering schemes will give you an added advantage when it comes to securing a full-time position amid fierce competition.
As an alternative to academic study and work experience, you could build a portfolio of your best design ideas, start early, make some contacts, enter this line of work at the very bottom and work like a Trojan to climb the ladder.
Training & progression
While there are various programmes offered by design schools, colleges and other academic institutions, there are no structured training programmes for production designers.
Career development is all about gaining work experience ‘on-the-job’, accepting different kinds of assignments, however small or insignificant, and developing contacts among senior and established professionals.
The way to progress in this industry is to gain all the experience you can, before specialising in a certain type of production and working on bigger and bigger projects, which will help you to receive national and international acclaim.
As your reputation grows, you will stand to earn more money and you’ll be offered more exciting projects.