As any scholar who writes about production design will tell you, film studies has not traditionally been very enthusiastic in its engagement with the topic of who actually creates the practical images we see on screen – or how they do it. Production design is a fundamental component of filmmaking – and has been from the very beginning – and yet how it’s done, who does it, and its impact on filmmaking, film meaning, and film reception are scarcely covered in scholarly or critical literature.
Quick: name your top three production designers.
For most readers, for most scholars even, it’s probably much easier to name three cinematographers or editors than it is to name three production designers, even though production design is a fundamental component of all films – in fact cinematography and production design are probably the two components of filmmaking that exist in every frame of every fiction film you’ve ever seen.
Design’s absence from film discourse is due to many factors, but two are worth mentioning quickly. First, as those scholars who research design regularly point out, most design – at least in the context of Hollywood filmmaking – is meant to go unnoticed. Like continuity editing, production design is deemed to work best when it is unobtrusive. There are certainly exceptions to this dating back to filmmaking’s origins – from the work of Méliès, to German Expressionism, surrealism, or 50s sci-fi. On occasion, design is meant to awe the viewer while remaining mostly unobtrusive, such as in the biblical epics of the classical era. However, for the most part production design seems to desire to remain unseen even while sitting in front of our faces. Its effectiveness on this front makes it easy to ignore.
Secondly, though, is auteurism, which tends to wrap up all that’s visually striking or important about a film and present it as a singular package of the director’s unitary vision. In fact, in its earliest explication by the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, auteurism was explicitly wedded to production design as Truffaut and company argued for a film criticism grounded in the analysis of mise-en-scène. Such an analysis, they explained, would help us find the spirit of the director across his body of work.
Thus, scholars and critics might wax eloquently about the mise-en-scène of David Lynch or Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson, without knowing who actually designed the films (or, in many cases, who shot them – auteurism also swallows cinematography).
Yet, if mise-en-scène is as important as auteurists and other scholars argue, shouldn’t film scholarship do a better job of articulating and analysing where a film’s mise-en-scène actually, practically comes from. Who built that set? Who chose that colour? Who found that location? Certainly, on any given film, the director will have input to these decisions, but it is the production designers and their crew who make the decisions and then realise them. On most films, in fact, after the salaries of stars, it is production design that takes up most of the budget, and production designers who oversee that budget (stories abound of production designers who can look at a script at quickly calculate how much its going to cost).
In my experience, when film scholars want to discuss production design – in their own research, with other scholars, or in class with students – it often feels like there simply aren’t enough resources. And it’s certainly true that when compared to stars and directors, production designers and their field (much like editing and cinematography) are shamefully under-researched.
But that doesn’t mean not researched at all. In fact, once one starts digging it turns out there are quite a number of highly informative texts on production design – historical, analytical, and theoretical. Some such texts, particularly those framed as mise-en-scène analysis, continue to centre a director-driven single-author approach. However, there also many useful books and articles that centre the production designer and offer intriguing analysis of the designers role in making and sometimes even in authoring the films they worked on.
I am currently writing one such text, on production designer Polly Platt (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, The Bad News Bears, Terms of Endearment, and The Witches of Eastwick among others), which will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2021.
In my research I’ve been reading any work on production design I can get my hands (some of the older ones are hard to find or rare enough to be fabulously expensive). Over the coming summer, I will offer a series of capsule reviews on these texts. These won’t be extensive, analytical reviews, the type you’d likely find in a scholarly journal. Rather, I’ll write up brief descriptions covering the book’s angle of approach, the general nature of its content, and how useful I personally have found it in my research. Some of the texts are specifically about production design and designers, others are about mise-en-scène analysis, and still others are about specific aspects of design (for example, the design of domestic spaces, or the design of certain types of buildings).
The basic idea is to begin to create a repository of titles so that other scholars researching production design might have a starting point. The list will by no means be exhaustive (and mostly about Hollywood), and I’m open to suggestions if it seems I’ve missed anything.
I’ll start with a couple of texts about production design and how it works: Jane Barnwell’s Production Design: Architects of the Screen (Wallflower, 2004) and the collection Art Direction and Production Design, edited by Lucy Fischer (I. B. Tauris, 2015). I’ll then move on to a couple texts on mise-en-scène, Mise-en-Scène: Film Style and Interpretation by John Gibbs (Wallflower, 2002) and Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art by Adrian Martin (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), with more titles to follow.
As traditional, director-centred auteurism continues to give way to a more holistic, encompassing approach to film studies, a better understanding of the role that production design plays in filmmaking and film meaning will be a necessary component of the process. I hope that these reviews might be of some help to scholars and film fans who want to deepen their knowledge of this vital aspect of film history.