Production Design: Architects of the Screen – capsule review

Jane Barnwell’s Production Design: Architects of the Screen was published by Wallflower in 2004, and it’s a fantastically handy guide for anybody who knows a bit about production design but is ready for a more thorough discussion of the process. Barnwell is an academic (senior lecturer in contemporary media practice at University of Westminster) with practical experience as a production designer and art director in film and television. As such, she ably combines research into the history of production design, film analysis, and practical knowledge of how production design works on contemporary film sets.

It’s in the latter area that this book excels and why I would recommend it. The book includes a section on the process of design (Chapter Three: From Concept to Construct) that clearly articulates how involved the production designer is in the filmmaking process throughout all phases of production, including, these days, post-production as the designer is likely to work collaboratively with the special effects department to make sure post-production effects correspond with the design strategy of the film. The monograph elaborates on this in Chapter Five: The Role of Technology.

In other chapters, Barnwell discuss the role of certain aspects of design, particularly in relation to design’s ability to convey a sense of time and place in film, and throughout the book are woven considerations of colour, props, and sets. She also engages in an extensive discussion of the many differences between shooting on location or on a studio lot, and how that relates to such issues as construction, backdrops, technology and special effects, and the combination of constructed and previously existing sets.

Barnwell’s thesis – one I’m highly sympathetic to – is that production design is a component of film authorship. She argues throughout the work that design is not simply (or, perhaps, “only” – she never argues that design is simple) about how a film looks. In the very nature of its look lies information about character and narrative the deepen a film’s potential for meaning and expands upon (and sometimes even clarifies) its themes.

Having said that, this is not a work of theory. It’s a very practical discussion of the process of designing film. Furthermore, while it includes film analysis, these are not extended sections, but rather passages that serve to exemplify the points she’s making. While she discusses a variety of films, she regularly makes use of the work of designer Kave Quinn, particularly on the early films directed by Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave 1994, Trainspotting 1996, and A Life Less Ordinary 1997). Quinn is one of the most interesting production designers working in film today, recently receiving attention for her outstanding work on Emma., so a side benefit of the book is seeing how the design on these films is discussed in the context of her early career.

Production Design: Architects of the Screen is in many ways a primer. Scholars of production and art design might not find a lot of new information here, although Barnwell’s combination of scholarship and practical experience might offer a different approach through which to conceive of design, even for seasoned scholars of the area. However, I would highly recommend this book for anybody wanting to get a better handle on how design works, for any lecturers who are beginning to centre production design more thoroughly in their modules, or for any scholars starting to explore this vastly underserved area of film studies.

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