Art Direction, Production Design, Set Design... What's the Difference?
Updated: Oct 27, 2022
Sure, we design the worlds you see in film, tv + print. But what *exactly* does that entail? Read below for a breakdown of the art department roles in film production! 🎬✨
A production designer is head of the art department. On board from the beginning, they work with the director and producers to help bring the writer's script, director's vision, and producer's plans together as a visual whole.
The production designer researches or "scouts" locations, eventually securing and preparing it for shooting. They budget the cost of materials, track expenses, and typically oversee the art director, set designers, illustrators and scene painters to develop a specific visual style for a production.
A production may have both a production designer and an art director, but people often confuse the two roles. While the PD is in charge of the overall vision and works closely with the director, the art director typically has specialized skills and works more closely with crew to ensure the PD's vision is accurately carried out.
During pre-production, the AD supervises the creation of concept art, pre-visualizations and models. They help manage administrative duties of the art department, including budgets, scheduling and crew assignments. They also act as a liaison between the art department and other departments. Overall, the AD works closely with the crew hired to build sets, props, graphics and other visual elements like set dressing.
A set designer, also referred to as the scenic designer, is mostly responsible for designing the environment in which the production takes place. This role is more focused on creating an engaging backdrop for the story, whether for stage performances or film production.
Set designers breakdown the script in order to determine plot, year, era, and geographical location. They follow up with research on historical and architectural facts in order to create ideas for the production. These steps are important in order to create an accurate depiction of time period. If the script takes place in a fictional place, the designer has the liberty to be more creative.
Responsibilities include hand or computer aided drafting, creating lists of materials, props, and tools needed to create the sets, and proposing detailed plans and timelines for the builds.
The set decorator is responsible for the decoration, coordination, and realization of the set decor, including the procurement or fabrication, storage, transportation and preparation of all dressing items. They work closely with the production designer, art director, producer, and production manager.
The set decorator maintains efficient operation of the department, including monitoring and dispersing the budget and delegating duties to the set decoration team as necessary. They prepare sets so they are camera ready before the shooting crew arrives or as required by the production schedule.
Set Decor Buyer
Under the supervision or direction of the set decorator and possibly the production designer, a buyer purchases, rents, or acquires items for the set.
This position requires vast knowledge of furniture and dressings throughout history and geography. This helps to ensure items are of-the-time and appropriately placed within the scenes.
Under the supervision of the set decorator, a dresser is responsible for the placement of props and set decoration. Every object within a shot is meticulously placed to ensure the item doesn't look out of place in the context of the scene. Additionally, they must track continuity amongst the shots, ensuring the placement of the decor items are reset during shoot re-takes.
The set dresser also assists with safe and efficient pick up and return of all set decor items. This requires securing decor on a truck to avoid movement or damages in transmit, storing items on set, maintaining decor cleanliness and an ongoing inventory of all items.
The lead person works within the art department to ensure that the set dressers have appropriately placed all decor on set in preparation for principal photography. They ensure a timely clearing of the set once the scene has wrapped.
The lead person works under the supervision of the set decorator and is responsible for ensuring the execution of the set dressing that aligns with the set decorator's designs and the art directors aesthetic.
As head of the props department, the prop master is responsible for all props in the production, which includes sourcing them, keeping them organized, and ensuring they're used safely.
The prop paster often leads a team of prop makers and prop runners. They report directly to the production designer and are part of the art department.
On smaller productions, the prop master is usually one individual within the art department, assisted by others when needed
Remember: Although these are the proper job descriptions for each role, positions and duties may vary or overlap from project-to-project depending on the production's budget and overall size!
Tips/Important Skills to Have!
Read the script! Multiple times
The script is your friend, and you're gonna need to get every detail and clue in order to create an accurate depiction of the story.
Research, Research, Research!
In pre-production, you are going to need to learn everything you can about the lifestyle, geographical location, and time period of the setting. So get ready to dive into books, photographs, paintings, and movies to learn and gain inspiration!
Be prepared for change
These positions require quick, on-the-spot thinking and a lot of problem solving, so make sure to keep yourself on your toes!
Bring your kit!
Be prepared with a kit of items ranging from light construction tools to cleaners, various types of tape and adhesives, and other items specific to the needs of the production (i.e. a steamer for drapes or linens). A sample kit may include a boxcutter, screw driver, tape measure, nails, screws, hammer, glass cleaner, microfiber cloths, painter's tape, double-sided tape, and superglue.
Never stop learning
These art department professionals are educated and have experience in architecture, interior design, hand or computer-aided drafting, typography, color theory and art history. So if you a passion for any of those things, or any other skill that could be applicable to these roles, keep pursuing them! You never know what knowledge or ability will be useful on the set of a film production!