Interview with production designer, Melanie Allen.

What is the role of a production designer? 

A production designer’s role  is to interpret  the script and to work in collaboration with the director  to create the visual environment.

You have to visually create something that is convincing to the viewer.  And so your job is pick up on the details that people connect with… believe… understand. 

How do you create a home for a TV series?

Every home  – as in everything you see on the screen  – is designed to be an integral element of the overall look of the show. 

When we are creating a home for a character it always starts with the script. 

The first thing I do when I read the script is to create a simple list of all the locations and characters.  I gather references  and research to start formulating my vision for the show.  This is where I first start thinking about each home.

I then present this to the director and producer.

Following our initial discussions I will create more detailed mood boards and sketch visuals for the key locations such as the lead character’s homes.  

These give us an insight into their characters.   

Simultaneously the location team will be out looking at options for exteriors and interiors of homes  for us to film in.

Once the foundations of the design are set my team begin to join me to progress and finesse the actual design.

The goal for me in creating a ‘home’  is that when someone turns on the television they should immediately have some idea who lives there – even if the character is not present. 

Drawing of flat with door chairs and TV
Save Me ( SKY TV): High rise home

How much are the homes you design based on reality?

First and foremost the homes I design are always part of the storytelling process.  

So the writing, the director’s vision, the producer’s brief will influence this.  

On a sensitive real-life drama such as Three Girls we did not want to replicate any of the actual homes. 

What we actually created were well researched and executed. They needed to be authentic, but at the same time they had to visually underpin  the girls’ personal journeys from innocence to abuse.  

In the design of the entire production it’s really important to be consistent.

There is a trend in American TV shows and films to create more elevated, aspirational versions of a character’s home.  

I am very sensitive to this because if the homes are exaggerated  then the rest of the show must be considered accordingly. It works if we are making a particular point in our story telling. If not,  it will feel/look out of place and the audience will disengage. 

In every home we design we are involved in telling the characters’ stories – therefore we have to make educated judgements about their taste.  

I will always try to interweave clues about the characters throughout their  homes.

In Wanderlust Joy and Alan’s family home was anchored in realism but we tried to pursue the most interesting choices for them wherever we could.   And so, with the director, we agreed that their house had once belonged to Joy’s parents.

This gave us the opportunity for them to live in a much larger home than they could have afforded. That way the architecture gave immediate access to their history.

Sketch of set-design for TV series Wanderlust
Wanderlust (BBC1) – Joy’s Therapy Room

Getting to truly know the characters, and as much of their history as possible, is important to me so that I can root them in their homes. 

For example Maxine Carlier our set decorator, developed a family timeline including significant dates such as when they were at university and were married.

She used this  to source appropriate books for their bookshelves plus ‘wedding present gifts’ they might still be using in their kitchen.

We constructed their kitchen mainly from old chemistry benches – rather than just standard kitchen units.  This was to show their inventiveness and individuality as a couple. 

Again, this was a back story from Alan’s work when the school was  refurbishing the Chemistry Department.   

The aim is to create a history and a present in every home. 

We decided they would have an interest in contemporary design –  mixing recently purchased pieces of modern furniture with family heirlooms.  

We carefully chose furniture pieces such a well designed 1970’s dining table that we felt could have been inherited or  picked up second hand. 

It was visually more interesting than a plain, functional dining table from John Lewis or Ikea.  

Every element of their home was discussed and considered.  

The final layer was the everyday  family-life stuff, the ephemera within their home.  That is: school bags, family calendars, coffee cups… half squeezed tubes of toothpaste. 

All the elements we barely notice when we live with them.

For contemporary dramas and projects  I refer a lot to the work of documentary photographers.

For period dramas I refer to paintings, museums and books. This gives me confidence in what I am  saying about a character.  For most art departments research is the backbone of every show. 

You have to get it right so that the audience feel an authenticity in the design.

Images from Victorian period Pre -Raphaelite studio
Desperate Romantics ( BBC2)

Who has the final say in the design? 

On most projects the head creative is the director. 

On larger, long-running series the show runner and producers control the design because they want consistency in the work.

What the director wants is a designer they can trust. Someone who can take the ideas discussed, develop them, and see it all through. That’s what they are expecting when they get to the set.  

The director and producers are my clients. So if they are not happy, it’s not going to work.

It always has to meet with their approval.

How do you choose a location?

The location manager will be briefed by the director and myself and then the location manager and I will then go out scouting for locations.

Once we narrow it down we will take the director along to see the short-listed options.

Everyone needs to be confident they can make the location work.

Location managers work with local authority film officers who deal with the available locations for filming. They use Location Libraries where people list their homes. They also contact estate agents for properties that are empty,  un-let or sold.

Or, they might simply letter-drop homes on the streets that fit the brief for what we are looking for.

It is part of the contract  that we will always return everything to the way it was. 

In Save Me we were shooting in empty council properties waiting renovation – this gave us a lot of flexibility in decorating. But, we were still required to reinstate everywhere to a neutral decor when we left. 

dark parlour with central window, table and chair
The English Game (Netflix): Period home

What is it like to film in a period/stately home? 

When you are filming in a stately home with the National Trust they tend to get very involved.

They have their own people there all the time overseeing and helping us. They will usually they move all valuable items such as furniture and artwork out before the art department and the crew arrive for filming.  

We find they are generally very welcoming because it is a good income source and they are very familiar with the whole process.

Once you choose a location what happens next?

In my team the  art director measures up the site.  

The set decorator will then look for the wallpapers, furniture and the dressing, paintings, all the items that fit within a home.  

This is the point when the visuals and references start to become a reality. 

We may go into the location home for two days, two weeks or more before we film.

If the location is furnished the prop master and his team will take out the  furniture and the space will be cleaned.

If we are decorating the construction  manager and his team come in next. then the props team return and  we bring in all our furniture and props.

After that, the lighting team ( who work for the cinematographer ) come in and set up lights ready for filming.

And then the film crew come.  

Creative sketch of warehouse living for TV series Cucumber
Cucumber ( Channel 4): Warehouse living

What difference does a big budget make to the design? 

A bigger budget gives us a lot more flexibility and options. 

It  also gives you more scope to build larger sets with bigger backdrops outside the windows and more floor levels.  It means everybody has more control over the layout: the lighting conditions, the ease of the actors using the space and the facilities for the cast  and crew. 

On all shows there comes a tipping point when it is always better to build the setIf we can afford it.

How do you make a set-build look ‘lived-in’? 

That’s really about the excellence of the craftsmen involved. 

Whenever you first decorate your home it feels very bright and fresh… and then it starts to feel a bit ‘lived in’.

To recreate that quality the scenic artists will spray the set very subtly with a spray gun. They use rags and sponges to age it, and bring it down. 

Scenic painters are not just decorators. They are really experienced in using different techniques that  can re-create all those little things that we all take in without really noticing.  Such as: marks around a light switch… or where a chair might scrape against a wall. 

To make it look ‘real’ it all comes down to the cinematographer’s lighting  and the backdrop outside the window –  so you, as a viewer, cannot tell the difference. 

We are not creating living museums; we are creating ‘characters’ who are part of a script. 

Some people live in very tidy homes and that is part of their character. However, most people tend to live with a little mess and tidy up before  the visitors arrive. 

What we are trying to create is the home before the house is tidied up so it truly reflects how they live. 

For the dressing of the set we look at our research  photos to see how people  place things and the different ways so that a house starts to feel lived-in. There might be a cardigan over a chair… or a bag on the side.  

We are trying to tell a story and so every decision we make is a conscious decision. 

For creative reasons we may  decide that the character will have furniture or a colour palette that is very ‘untypical’.  

That may be because we are trying to say something about the character quickly, or at a point in their life. Or, it may be because we are trying to differentiate them from somebody else.

Sketch of high-rise flat in orange and earth tones
Save Me (Sky TV): High-rise home

How long have you been working in TV/Film?

I have been working in TV and film for over thirty years.

The diversity and complexity of projects enable me to immerse myself in very different worlds – which I love.

I also  get to explore the many layers and histories involved in the visual storytelling experience. 

I often add subliminal clues to the story and character. It may be that it is only as the story reveals that it all starts to make sense to the viewer.

Viewers are always looking for something different and something new. That’s what  we are trying to facilitate –  and to make it creatively interesting for us as well. 

I have just finished a show for Netflix called Anatomy of a Scandal based on the novel by Sarah Vaughan.  We got to create and film in many beautiful locations –  in the High Court, Parliament and Oxford University.  

This was in marked contrast to my previous  project ( The English Game) which was a period drama about the very beginnings of football in England. It was set mostly in Darwin, a mill town close to Manchester.

There is always something different to explore.

sketch of  bedsit for TV series
Big Dippers ( Channel 4): Rented bedsit

For me the most exciting part of the job is:

  • Getting the news that you have been successful at the interview 
  • When we come together as a team and have creative break-throughs 
  • When the director and producers love our work. 

The hardest bit of the job  is right at the end.  

As the project is coming to completion  I  have to look after myself and my team to ensure no-one is exhausted. 

How do you use colour in your design?

There are psychological and emotional considerations for colour in the storytelling.

We may want the viewers to be aware of the colour consciously, or unconsciously.  Or, it may be the director or producer just likes a certain colour – a personal / professional preference. 

On some shows we will use a signature colour throughout or to denote different places / time lines.  Of course this can also be done through lighting. 

The colour of the home has to work  well with skin-tone as the actors are often working in small spaces. Cinematographers will ask for a darker colour palette.

However, on smaller budget jobs you will see a lot more homes represented exactly as we find them: cream, white, magnolia interiors. Some directors prefer this vision of reality.

The English Game( Netflix): Period home

We also use colour to signify a period.

Black and  chrome for the ‘90’s… the ‘70’s you think of as brown, beige, orange. So, each point in time has very  specific associated colours both from living memory and photographs.

It’s a quick way to take you a certain time or place.

And sometimes we just like to take risks with colour. The main living room in Bullet Boy was a glorious sunshine yellow.

And with Three Girls, the house had a colour palette of reds, burgundies, tans. The net curtains were patterned and the curtains were textured and coloured.

How important is it to create a  specific style and a look in your design of a home?

I don’t know if I have a specific style or look.

But I really enjoy working with the director to create a new and original look for a show.  Whereas, on drama documentaries and stories rooted in reality I love working with the detail, the layering and creating an authentic feeling.

I have worked on shows that are much more  ‘style-focused’ such as: MetropolisDesperate Romantics and Cucumber

With Wanderlust there was a photo feature in Grazia showing where you could buy all the furniture for Joy’s Therapy room.  

Most drama doesn’t need to be on trend.  

We usually buy items from second hand shops or we hire them from TV Prop Hire companies. Even with a contemporary drama only a percentage of the interiors will have all the set dressing bought new. 

In what way does TV design mirror our own lives ?

There is always  a level where TV reflects us, and TV influences us.

Colour test  sketch for TV set  - living room
Don’t Forget The Driver (BBC2): Peter and Kayla’s living room

We definitely respond to familiarity. There might be something we watch where we think: I quite like that.

I guess if you are watching Coronation Street or Eastenders and you like the sofa or the wallpaper in one of the sets you might look for something like it.

It becomes comfortable and familiar to you. 

There is a lot you can say about space that feels familiar. 

When you turn on the TV or go to the cinema you have the opportunity watch something that is very gritty or incredibly  beautiful. More beautiful than anything that exists.

It’s a fantasy, its escapism.

Amelie for example, is one of my favourite feature films.  

Images from the film stick with me because it is just sheer joy.

It really shows just what a production designer can achieve working with the director to create lovely, lovely  interior, and locations that you don’t get in real life. It embellishes and develops the story.

We all want  and need something new and fresh and original. We want our lives to be reflected back, but we want to be moved forward. There is a need for the familiar, and a need for the new.  

And sometimes… you just want to watch something that is incredibly  beautiful, more beautiful than anything that exists in real life… 

Interview with Melanie Allen

Melanie Allen – IMDB

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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