Drawing the Differences Between Art Directors and Production Designers

Designing the world of a film is no easy task. How do these two roles help execute it?
Black Panther
By  · Published on December 28th, 2019

There are two key roles in creating the onscreen universe of a movie or television show: the production designer and the art director. In order to see how the look of a film all comes together, it is pertinent to separate their tasks and understand how their roles collaborate.

In the Crash Course video essay “Designing the World of Film,” actress Lily Gladstone explains what the art department is tasked with. She begins by introducing the concept of “mise-en-scene,” a term that generally means the overall look of the film, encompassing sets, props, hair and make-up, and costumes. The mise-en-scene is instrumental in setting the mood, and both the production designer and the art director play major roles in contributing to what this looks like. While they must be in constant communication, their roles are completely separate. After you watch the video, let’s take a look, more specifically, at what the two of them do to bring the mise-en-scene to life.

Once a film’s script is finalized, the production designer will get their hands on the material and begin mapping out what the film may look like. How stylized will everything look? Some production design may look more realistic, while others may appear to be some sort of fantasy land. The production designer decides where the film they’re working on fits into this spectrum. After mapping out some blueprints for the design, they’ll meet with the director and cinematographer to settle plans.

The art director is in charge of budgeting and executing all of the production designer’s approved plans. They must hire the costume designers and hair and makeup staff, rent or create the set dressing and props, and oversee all of this creation in collaboration with the production designer. If the film requires a prop that does not exist, the art director must find someone who can create a realistic version of it.

While the production designer works on researching how the mise-en-scene will all come together, the art director puts these plans into action. If a production designer discovers a problem with the plans, they must contact the art director to find a way to solve it. For example, in the video essay, Gladstone discusses Winter in the Blood. As the film takes place in the 1970s, the production design team had to make sure every object was period accurate. While examining the filming location, the production designer noticed that a type of metal panel on the street was something that had been invented within the past decade. In order to fix this, he told the art director, who figured out how to design a ’70s-style panel to place on top of the newer panel.

But how do production designers and art directors research and create a setting that doesn’t exist? Take for instance Black Panther, which was last year’s Oscar winner for Best Production Design. The rocky cliffs and advanced technology of Wakanda have never existed in reality. Production designer Hannah Beachler had to map out the imaginary country based on a conglomeration of research.

Things that played a heavy role in creating Wakanda were the original Marvel comic books, the Afrofuturism movement, and various African traditions — Beachler even wrote out a 500-page Wakandan bible, so that she and the rest of the art department had a point of reference as they built this new film world. After her research, the seven art directors working on Black Panther had to figure out how to accomplish the mise-en-scene of this new world.

Of course, there are films that require heavy-handed research on a certain time period that’s already existed. For Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn, contemporary New York City had to be transformed into the New York City of the 1950s. Well-equipped with Harlem jazz clubs and woolen sweaters, production designer Beth Mickle’s view of the film’s style soared under the art direction of Michael Ahern. Going back in time creates new issues: production designers and art directors must work to make sure every minute detail fits with the time.

In the case of both Motherless Brooklyn and Black Panther, the production design is so stylized that it kind of becomes a character in the film. This all comes from the well-developed plans of the production designer and the execution of the art director. It is thanks to a strong collaboration between these two creative eyes that we get to experience an entirely new — or old, for that matter — world of film.

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Student and writer of film. Frequently enticed by mockumentaries.