drawing of living room

Imagine creating a space that people believe is real. 

That, is the power of storytelling – and of design

At the heart of every story, there are people – and spaces.

First: there is the creative imagination of the story and/or script. That is, the world as the author sees it. Then, there is what the reader imagines it to be. Further down the line, there is a interpretation for TV, stage or film realised by the production leads – the director, producer and production designer. 

The production, stage and event designer’s job is to create a  space and world that is believable, a place that ‘seems’ real.

When we watch a quality TV or Film production we completely lose ourselves in the story. 

We suspend our sense of reality of the here and now and the fact that we are simply watching.

In a drama we witness people going through issues, trials, experiences. We know how they feel (their angst, jubilation and simmering tensions).  And, we understand how that situation came about.

A powerful drama speaks to us and will stay with us. We may watch it again, and again. We recommend it to others because we want them to share that experience  with us  – and not to miss out.  You’ve gotta see it!

A TV drama can become a pivotal moment in our cultural imagination. It can change how  we see authority and deal with sensitive issues (Three GirlsHelpI May Destroy You).  Or, how we reflect on a context, event, time and place (ChernoyblBloody SundayThe Crown). 

The success of turning a story into a visual drama ultimately comes down to the quality of the script, the team, and team work, but also their creative scope, freedom, vision – and budget. 

For a story to come alive every aspect has to work as a whole; every detail must be considered so that nothing is left to chance.

More than just a backdrop to the dialogue, the set adds a context that situates the actors and the story. The designer knows the viewer will be constantly observing, absorbing and making connections between the story, the characters and the space. As Production Designer Melanie Allen explains:

“The audience needs to feel the authenticity of the design”

We have to believe these characters actually live here;  this is their home. 

The production designer must ‘root’ the characters in this space so that it reflects their life lived there, as a ‘history and a present’. Everything placed on the set must feel right for the character(s) and story. The production team has to make creative and educated decisions about each character’s back story (income, education, personality) and also their taste (books, art, furniture, style, colours). Subliminally, through the setting, the characters become more rounded and more real.

The space has to ‘speak’ for itself.

As Melanie Allen explains: 

“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.”

As viewers, informed by our own lived experiences, we ‘read’ space in an instant.  It should fit with how we imagine that character would live. The young Queen in the 1950’s…the 1970’s chess player in US … the home of the forensic pathologist….  So, even if we don’t know anybody like that – we  still have very definite preconceptions and expectation of what their home should/would/could’ look like. Too grand… not grand enough

The production designer’s job is to not to faithfully recreate space per se. According to  Melanie Allen:

 “We are not creating living museums. We are creating characters who are part of a script….. We are trying to tell a story and so every decision is a conscious decision.

A living museum sets the scene for visitors to wander through a ‘real’ space. You can physically touch items, engage with the actors and respond to the authentic smells (damp, turf, hay, mothballs). You are physically in the space experiencing the quality of light, scale, and the social context through ‘real’ materials and artefacts.

Set design for TV and film  is a simulated space communicated through a visual medium. It is temporary setting, designed for the camera that must project depth and context and a sense of permanency. A set is not someone’s home. Disappointedly, the homes we love, are in reality flimsy, exaggerated, 2-Dimensional mocked-up spaces in a studio

So, how do you design a ‘lived-in’ home for people who do not exist? Where do you start?

It always starts with the script.

The script will dictate, or make suggestions about the life and lifestyle of the actors, their movements  and the required physical/spatial relationships of room layout and plan. From this, Melanie Allen feels her way into a project using a moodboard created from wide-ranging sources – including the work of documentary photographers. 

Moodboard: Don’t Forget the Driver

A moodboard is a visual aid. It is a loose and abstract concept design sufficiently focused to clarify and raise issues of style, content, mood, lighting, materiality and space. Designers use moodboards to step beyond the written and spoken word to establish what  everyone involved in the project  ‘thinks’.  That is: to translate how they ‘imagine’ this space –  Is this the red you were thinking oftoo red… not red enough

It presents a preliminary visual concept of the project so the team has a common reference from which to proceed – or not. At this stage it might include a detail, or element, to help focus the period or context and add personality to the project. The moodboard can then be used to source suitable  locations for the project. 

As Melanie Allen notes, in every project there is always scope for the designer to express  their creativity –   either  overtly or subliminally – and to play with the space; the colours, how it looks and feels. 

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.

As a viewer we are looking to see more than just furniture in a room. We expect to see ephemera from the period, time of day, season, lifestage associated with those individual characters and/or as a family. Adults, children, teenagers… old, young, rich, poor, middle class… arty, well-travelled… lonely, out-going…tidy, minimalist.. messy, chaotic. 

Designers are trained to notice the little quirks of personality, and detectable habits in the way people actually behave in and use space. Observational research  is a vital part of the discipline.

A space that is ‘lived in’ is not a showhouse. It will be slightly scuffed, and tattered, worn, grubby and patched- rather than pristine and new. It is these little subtle details that matter. And it falls to the specialist work of the scenic painter to add a patina to age the space; so it looks ‘right’. 

Colour resonates strongly with the viewer, it creates mood, tension and character. It can soften or harden the image of the set and add to the story.  Colour may be used to create a unique look – The Grand Budapest HotelPoint Blank, The Handmaids Tale. A colour palette  may be what you remember most about a film.

 For inspiration, designers look to the work of other creatives: artists, documentary photographers, cinematographers, designers. Blade Runner  has become major source of inspiration, its  design  influence reaches  far and wide.

It is a constant circular flow of creative ideas. 

One idea prompts another. It makes someone else think more inventively – with more sensitivity, style, risk – to push an idea further. And then others follow and respond to that.

Creative people absorb and collect visual information (data) that sparks and stirs something in them which they might develop into an idea. They go back to favourite artists/paintings/spaces  because they never fail to inspire .. or directors/films.. or musicians/songs…

Outside of the ‘coffee table book’ established documentary photographers ( Bill BrandtMartin ParrDave Jordano ) show us places ( inside and out, past and present) that we could never ever imagine, or get to see. They capture a moment, a context, a look or a memory that makes us think; affects us emotionally and moves us creatively. And may spark an idea.

A documentary photograph is an aesthetic experience ( James Hughes) as much as it is  evidential research ( Jonathan Donovan). It may be truly authentic raw and gritty – or produced with creative licence. The strength of an image is that it delivers a powerful message; it records an event or place for posterity to resonates with and inspire others. 

As a production designer Melanie Allen recognises the influence and impact of what she creates and how it impacts  on the viewer.

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

So we are sitting at home watching  a TV drama and think:  That’s nice… We go online and start searching for something like it ... a yellow cushion…. a floor-standing lamp….a new kitchen – as seen on TV.

Product placement – the flash car, the designer handbag, a limited edition of mobile – and the ads in between ” Brought to you by…. “. Companies leverage our mood; subliminally entering our consciousness and psyche prompting us to think…and to buy.

Similarly, if we are out shopping for a sofa we might think:  That’s very.. Inspector Morse… like something from Downton Abbey… It’s straight out of Outnumbered

Familiar settings, familiar homes.  We may be inspired by the look of a drama – stylish, chic, contemporary. But, we can also irrationally be put off. The same wall paper as Phil Mitchell? Does this mean we share his taste and we shop in the same shops?

From creating the detail to the look, the space and the character through to the feel and sense of the drama, the production designer’s work is demanding on all fronts.  it involves long hours, dealing with sudden changes and protocols. Driving it all is their capacity to imagine and to create. And from that, comes an untold social and cultural influence.

To imagine different worlds – and to work in a leading, creative  team  – it must be the best job in the world.

Interview with Production Designer Melanie Allen 

(Images courtesy of Melanie Allen)

Nuala Rooney

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

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