Production Design Artists Debate Hand Versus Computer Drafting

Much is written about the enormous impact of technology in such film disciplines as cinematography and visual effects, but production design has also been hugely affected. One of the big issues these days within art departments is balancing traditional hand drafting with computer drafting.

Hand draftspeople are traditional artists who work with pencils to draw sets, bringing a production designer’s vision to life through sketches, construction blueprints and physical models. Computer draftspeople use technology to do the same thing and work with digital models that can be edited rapidly in ways that physical miniatures cannot.

Longtime set designer Scott Herbertson (“Avatar”) was a pioneer. He transitioned from hand to computer drafting in the early ’90s and considers the computer an asset that allows multiple set designers to work together more effectively, sharing files while drafting sets. “It gives the art department more control of the final look of a movie,” Herbertson says.

Computer-drafted plans also are easily shared among departments. While there’s no standard program, department heads can convert the set designer’s files for their own purposes, allowing each to work more efficiently. Though plans have always been distributed production-wide, the scanned PDF of hand drafting doesn’t allow for the same flexibility.

But while the computer may hasten the process for other departments, within the art department that isn’t always the case. If hand and computer set designers begin a job at the same time, two days in, those drafting by hand will be ahead, according to Greg Papalia, who hand-drafted sets for “War for the Planet of the Apes.”

That’s because hand draftspeople begin with construction blueprints of the proposed set, which refine the production designer’s vision and are used to obtain approval of the concept from the director and producers. Computer draftspeople, on the other hand, begin the process from a different point, transforming the production designer’s idea into a digital 3D model. Once approved, they then start the construction drawings in which the hand draftspeople are already immersed.

These 3D models may not always be practical, but production designers have come to appreciate the additional visuals. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” supervising art director Brad Ricker has found the recent designers he’s worked with to be very digitally oriented.

War for the planet of the apes Production Design
CREDIT: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Post-production-driven films would seem at first to benefit most from a fully digital art department, but that might not always be true. Anything can be hand-drafted, and Ricker, Papalia and Herbertson all agree that hand is better than digital for organic environments such as trees, caves and logs. Despite “Apes’” huge reliance on digital motion capture, Papalia estimates it was 75% hand-drawn.

Says Ricker: “It’s antithetical to digital design yet very natural for hand drafting to make things that are twisted, broken, crushed and misshapen.” Hand drawing also adds an element of creativity, he notes. “With computer drafting, you don’t draw a column two or three times, you draw it once and then copy it. When drawing by hand, there’s no reason to make all of the columns the same; you can add character as you go.”

Regardless of approach, Papalia says set designers must understand related crafts. “Very often you have carpenters working with wood, fabricators working in steel, sculptors working in many materials, and then you’ve also got visual effects concerns,” he says. “All of that boils down to the designer defining points in space — how far one element is from another.”

No one is more invested in those points than the construction coordinator, who’s responsible for deciphering plans to actually build the sets. Mike Villarino (“The Greatest Showman”) has overseen the construction of some of the industry’s most elaborate sets. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed,” he says, “is when people draw by hand it seems like they encounter the same issues I do when I try to build. A lot of times when I get computer prints, they’re missing information.”

Part of the problem, Herbertson believes, may be that there are no longer tests and portfolio reviews to standardize skills. “You had lead set designers who actually functioned like lead set designers and supervised juniors,” he says. “Now, it’s just a title.”

While the best art departments may have both hand and computer set designers, giving the crew a breadth of skill at its fingertips, things continue to evolve: Most new designers don’t even study hand drafting in school. For now, though, there are still many hand drafters on the union roster.

“In the end,” says Herbertson, “good design is good design.”

War for the planet of the apes Production Design
CREDIT: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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