How to Use Production Design to Make Your Film Stand Out

Create production value with production design.


“Your visuals will have cinematic depth and meaning that resonate with the audience.”

Are you a sci-fi fan? I’m not, but recently I was convinced to watch director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, and I’m glad I did. It’s probably one of the best films I’ve seen in a few years.

I’ve always been drawn into a film by excellent writing and acting, both of which Ex Machina has in spades, but this film also struck me on a different level – a design level.

The good folks over at Short of the Week put it well: “Production design is the overall look of a film that illustrates the setting and visual style of the story. It includes the design of sets, location choices, costumes, and the choice and supervision of props.” While it’s hardly ever the center of attention in a film, effective production design can elevate your story visually, playing off that classic rule of filmmaking, “Show, don’t tell”.

In other words, as we say here at Lights, film is about externalizing the internal.

From Ex Machina | Universal Studios, 2015

Ex Machina is a brilliant example of meticulous set design and minimalist decoration that help tell the story in this way.

For example, production designer Mark Digby’s use of sharp, long lines creates a sense of order and isolation that manifests the characters’ experience of both. Digby’s work is especially effective in fleshing out Oscar Isaac’s character, Nathan, who is reclusive and enigmatic; in fact, the only piece of art he has in his home is an abstract painting by Jackson Pollock. The minimalism extends to the film’s treatment of technology, which is streamlined and understated. The viewer is never distracted by undue flourishes or overly flashy science equipment.

As independent filmmakers juggling a million responsibilities, it’s all too easy to put production design on the back-burner, choosing instead to invest our cash elsewhere. Thankfully, there are ways to elevate your production design game – and by extension, the production value of your film – to the next level, for little or no extra cost.

First, take some time to identify the mood of your film. This involves defining your characters – think about who they are, what they stand for, what their goals are, and then pick colors or styles that represent this. The same goes for the theme and overall tone of your film. Collect swatches, shot examples, pieces of art, anything relevant that inspires you, and gather them into one central location; perhaps a poster board or Pinterest. This will focus your efforts of design, which will save you money.

Inspiration board in hand, scout for locations with key members of your team. Look for locations that are convenient, but not boring. Don’t be afraid to contact your local film office – many have extensive lists of all types of locations that may work better for your film, and some will let you shoot for free, especially if you’re a student. If the only place you have access to is your mom’s house, use set dressing to change it from your mom’s house to your character’s house.

Making your space look “lived in” is often the most challenging yet most rewarding aspect of successful production design. This is where you have an opportunity to really define your character as a person; to manifest their personality.

Start by looking in the location itself. For example, if you’ve established your character likes to read, look for books in the location you can place on your character’s bookshelf.

Not finding what you had in mind, or your location is vacant? Check with family or friends, or put out a general “In Search Of” post on your social media networks to see what you can get for free. Then visit local yard sales, flea markets or thrift stores for additional items. Keep an eye out not only for large pieces, like furniture, but also for small pieces like jewelry boxes or tchotchkes. These small pieces make a huge impact on creating a three-dimensional character.

When cultivating your film’s aesthetic, spend more time developing your story visually, and less time worrying about your equipment. The best camera and lenses in the world aren’t going to make much of a difference if you’re shooting in a boring, characterless space. Strengthen your film with locations, set dressings, and costumes unique to the world of your film, so that even if you end up shooting on, say, an iPhone, your visuals will have cinematic depth and meaning that resonate with the audience.

Check out this pairing of shorts via SOTW, for some great examples of short indie films with robust production design:

Strong use of color to define mood and space

Dynamic drama that unfolds in one location.

How will you use production design to externalize the internal in your film?

Rachel Troche, with

Want to learn more about production design and other fields that will add production value to your films?

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