Filmmaking is the art of illusion, and there are fewer areas more directly responsible for creating this illusion than the art direction of the film. The art department, wardrobe department, and hair and makeup department work together to truly immerse every aspect of the production into the universe of the project. It is in the craftsmanship that goes into these details where the production design of the movie really makes the characters, sets, and actions truly come alive. But how can we make use of the art direction resources at our disposal to bring our film to the next level? Let’s take a look.
Establish the theme of your film
The theme of your film is not only something that you should work on in your screenplay, but also a very important facet of it that will get translated by the different art departments into set dressings, costumes, props, and more. If you have a film in which the main character is someone melancholic and tragedy is a recurring element, then relying on those cues to establish a visual theme that goes along with the narrative is a smart way to make use of production design. Think of bleak sets, gray clothes, pale lighting, and neutral-colored set dressings, for example.
Set the mood of each scene accordingly
One important aspect that doesn’t get talked about enough is the importance of production design for very specific situations. While your work should have a theme that ties everything together, the flow of the film will probably introduce some scenes where the tone and mood changes. In these occasions, the art department should work in harmony with the other departments to convey the right mood for the scene or sequence. That is, if you have a defined aesthetic for the film, you need to carefully craft the different looks and feels of these distinct parts of your story.
Support your characters’ personas
The characters in your movie are universes of their own. Each person is unique and, while not everyone needs a quirky outfit or odd prop to always carry around, they can be clearly distinguished from the rest thanks to the magic of wardrobe, hair, and makeup. Just like the art department is in charge of dressing sets and choosing the right combination of elements and decorations to bring the scene alive or make it blend with the film’s aesthetic, these other departments can do the same with the main characters. Their personalities will often determine the nature of their character, and based on that, color schemes for their costumes can be picked, hairstyles can be tried, and overall styles can be defined.
It goes without saying that all the decisions of the production design team need to be coordinated with other departments and the directing crew themselves. The art elements selected and work done to the set and characters to highlight different features needs to go beyond what looks good to the naked eye, and it needs to be conceived and executed to look good on camera.