In Hollywood, where titles and credits count for a lot, the line differentiating the role of the production designer and that of the art director has always been a bit fuzzy. But to the multitude of art department professionals who work behind the scenes to create the visual world that the actors inhabit, it’s an important distinction that involves both turf and tradition.
In simplest terms, the production designer, working in tandem with the director, designs not just a coherent physical look, but is also key in creating the emotional atmosphere of a film. Beyond artistry, the production designer has to hew to a film’s strict shooting schedule while also dealing with the allotted budget.
The art director, in turn, is second in command, responsible for executing the plan down to the smallest details so it is camera-ready. As right hand to the production designer, the art director marshals the resources of the art department, from scenic designers to set painters.
Production designer is not just an empty title. The first time someone gets hired as a production designer, a committee of the Art Directors Guild — a union that is a part of IATSE — reviews paperwork to determine if the person qualifies.
“Clearly we’ve also (contributed) to the general confusion,” says ADG president Thomas Walsh. His organization, after all, is called the Art Directors Guild, not the Production Designers Guild. And the Oscar for best art direction goes to a film’s production designer along with the set decorator, a key collaborator.
To provide some clarity, the ADG has prepared a short film that will kick off the group’s annual awards dinner next month. “A core message will be to define (what) the production designer does,” Walsh says. “We’re not trying to be exclusionary, but we do take great pride in what the production designer title represents.”
In the heyday of the studio system, when movies were churned out on an assembly-line basis, there were no production designers, only art directors. The title of production designer was first conferred on art directing legend William Cameron Menzies by David O. Selznick to more accurately describe his sweeping contributions to the look of “Gone With the Wind” and his dramatic use of Technicolor.
Hidebound Hollywood wasn’t ready to accept the new moniker, and the 1939 Oscar for best art direction went to Lyle Wheeler, the supervising art director on the Civil War epic. As if to rectify the omission, Menzies received an honorary Academy Award in 1940 for his experiments with color. He had already won Oscars for best art direction in 1928 and 1929, the first two years they were handed out.
The production designer credit, however, didn’t come into its own until the end of the ’40s when the studio monoliths began to crumble. No longer full-time employees, they in effect became freelancers who signed onto individual projects, assembled art department teams and assumed responsibility for the results. The title, however, didn’t become official until the late ’70s.
The upshot of Menzies’ innovations, which included storyboarding every scene, was to advance the idea that the production designer’s job is to provide a coherent, unified vision. “It works best when there are fewer cooks in the kitchen,” Walsh says. “Otherwise you would have a film constantly being reinvented from early conception to final realization in post.”
With the advent of digital imagery and computer graphics as essential ingredients in more and more movies, the role of the production designer is again being redefined. The freshest and most notable example is in “Avatar,” helmer James Cameron’s billion-dollar blockbuster. Here the real and digital worlds have been seamlessly integrated, requiring the close collaboration between veteran production designer Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg, who oversaw the look of the virtual world of Pandora. As a result, both have received a very rare double credit as production designers on the film.
“The double credit was something I felt strongly about,” says Carter, who over the last two decades has himself been at the cutting edge of evolving digital technologies, working as the production designer of choice for directors Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis on such films as “Jurassic Park” and “The Polar Express.” “I felt Rob and I had made equal contributions. It took a lot of work, but I walked the Art Directors Guild as well as the Motion Picture Academy through the process and got them to accept that both of us should get production design credit.” The only precedent was on “Polar Express,” where Carter also made a successful pitch to get digital designer Eric Chang a production designer credit. Both Chiang and Stromberg have since gone on to be sole production designers on films.
“There will be more of this in the future,” Carter says. “I think digital technologies have given production design a whole new lease on life.”