Production designer Jeannine Oppewall remembers the trouble her elderly aunt had understanding what in the world she did on the film “Tender Mercies” (1983).

“She thought all you did was find the place and put the actors and the camera into it,” laughs Oppewall, whose credits include “L.A. Confidential” and “Seabiscuit.”

Nearly three decades later, as the Art Directors Guild (ADG) prepares to celebrate its 75th anniversary at its 16th annual Excellence in Production Design Award on Saturday at the Intl. Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton, the public’s understanding of its craft is still on par with Oppewall’s aunt.

Few are aware of the existence of production designers and, if they are, they often have trouble distinguishing them from art directors and set decorators, the latter of whom share the art direction Oscar with the production designer.

“Production designer is the title of the leader (of the art department), but art direction is what we do,” says second-generation ADG member Norm Newberry.

Hired early in the preproduction process, production designers are in charge of assembling the art department, creating the sets, defining the color palette, finding and dressing the locations and generally articulating the overall look of the film for the director. They are aided by their first lieutenants, the art director (same work, less authority) and the set decorator, who is specifically charged with acquiring all the objects to dress the sets, from lights and furniture to rubble and debris.

“What I’ve always said to directors is, ‘If you don’t have any ideas, specific or foggy, on how you feel this thing wants to look, that’s OK. Because that’s my job,’?” says Oppewall. “Sometimes all you really have to do is put the menu forward, because it’s much easier for someone to choose between chicken, steak or fish than it is for them to answer the question, ‘What do you want to eat?’?”

The term production designer was coined by producer David O. Selznick for William Cameron Menzies on 1939’s “Gone With the Wind.”

“Menzies outlasted three different directors on that movie,” says ADG president Tom Walsh. “He was sort of the anchor who kept the visual continuity. Up until that time, we were always known as art directors, and the head of the department at any of the studios was the supervising art director.”

Although the title production designer was applied with increasing frequency over the ensuing decades, its use didn’t become de rigueur until the 1980s.

“Through the ’60s and ’70s, the studios were determined to keep designers working for scale,” says retired production designer Michael Baugh, who edits the ADG’s bi-monthly magazine Perspective. “And one of the ways that we found that we could get more money was by using the title of production designer. You can’t pay the production designer the same about you pay the art director.”

The ADG can trace its roots back to 1924, when 63 of the craft’s top practitioners formed the Cinemagundi Club (named after the New York artists collective the Salmagundi Club), a casual group that met at a Hollywood restaurant. In 1937, it became the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors, and, following World War II, it became a proper labor union when it signed on with the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE). (In contrast, the American Society of Cinematographers and the American Cinema Editors remain trade organizations with no bargaining power.)

In January 2003, the 900 members of ADG merged with the 700-member Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists to form Art Directors Guild & Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists (IATSE Local 800). Five years later, it absorbed IATSE Locals 790 and 847, representing set designers, model makers, illustrators and matte artists, expanding the membership to more than 2,000.

Today, one of the ADG’s primary tasks, in addition to negotiating a collective bargaining agrreement, is keeping its members abreast of the rapid changes digital technology through training programs and creative workshops.

While the digital tools may be confusing to some, at the end of the day they’re simply “newer ways to do the same traditional bits of storytelling,” says Newberry, whose credits range from the 1976 TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man” to the 2011 mocap feature “Mars Needs Moms.” “You still have to be a good leader and show them how they can realize the director’s dream.”

Pros seek clear calling
Designers on design
Production designers and art directors comment on the ADG-nominated work of their peers
John Muto on Dante Ferretti | Greg Grande on Jefferson Sage | Norm Newberry on Stuart Craig | John Sabato on Patti Podesta | Ken Averill on Christopher Glass | John Shaffner on Steve Bass | Dave Blass on Mark Worthington | John Iacovelli on James Yarnell