The Bastard Production Designer


Touching down briefly just to blomit the latest on the past 45 days or so of my life. Last we spoke I was going into pre-production for my first-ever feature film production design gig. We ended on the 30th after a successful shoot, and I slept for 12 hours straight.

The experience was nothing less than the perfect first-feature for me. From the very beginning it promised to be simple. It was all one location, in an indoor, air-conditioned space, and the script was broken up into 3 distinct acts which made it easy to wrap my head around all the props and dressing we needed. And not to mention I was stepping in for another PD, so half of the mental prep had already been done. It was just up to me to execute.

Topless pic of me.

Topless pic of me.

I learned a lot on this shoot. Like, a lot. And there are two big ways to learn things:

1. By trying it and seeing if it works

I had to do a few new things I hadn't done before, such as: building and manipulating puppets, carrying about 50 bricks back and forth several times, making fake vomit, creating an ear tag for a human, and staggering when and where exactly to rent things. Things rented out from prop houses are rented out on a weekly basis, which is a no-brainer when you're on a short shoot. When shoots take a month-- that's when you've got to hunker down and figure it out: "Oh, all the scenes with the fuzzy pink handcuffs take place during week 3, so we won't rent them out until we go back at the end of week 2 to return the whip and the Buddha statue. Looks like that ice pick shows up weeks 1, 3, and 4, so let's rent it out one week, and then at the top of week 3 rent it out for two more."

My pick-up and return schedule.

My pick-up and return schedule.

(This is a total #lowbudgmovieproblem, btw. When you've got money you can just rent all that shit at once and keep it for the whole time.)

The best part of this learning experience is when it works!

Made for $0 using paper, glue, the plastic from a strawberry container, and a nub of a thumb tack. I strung a small loop of fishing line through the tag and hung it around the actor's ear... Nah just kidding, we pierced the shit out of his ears Parent Trap style!

Made for $0 using paper, glue, the plastic from a strawberry container, and a nub of a thumb tack. I strung a small loop of fishing line through the tag and hung it around the actor's ear... Nah just kidding, we pierced the shit out of his ears Parent Trap style!

But sometimes, it doesn't work, and then you learn the hard way:

2. By doing it wrong

What with my year and a half of self-taught art department experience, it may surprise you that I don't know everything there is to know about this craft. With every project I've ever worked on, I've learned several lessons, more than a couple of them being hard ones. I think one of the hardest lessons I learned on this set was to step up to the plate in terms of taking over the design. The good news is, this is actually good news. I learned how much it really is on me to make up my own mind about how the film should look, and stand by that decision. Directors and DPs have plenty a hand in it, but deep down I think they-- directors especially-- want to see you carry out a vision of your own. If they totally 100% had their vision for the film's design, they wouldn't need a PD. All they'd need is a set buyer to go out and purchase the items on their grocery list.



I also learned a lesson I don't think many have to learn... which is to use the damn budget! Pretty much every single project that I've worked on has come in extremely under budget. It's obvious why it's bad to go over budget, but nobody explained to me why under is just as bad.

Sit down on Pappy's lap and I'll explain it to ya.

At the end of the day, the best thing a production designer can bring to a film set is production value-- meaning, a film dass all legit-lookin' n' shieeeet. If you're out there penny pinching, not only are you going to piss off a lot of pennies, you're also risking making the film look cheap. Directors want to be as wowed by their sets as they want their audiences to be. The trade-off, of course, is that you might not come in crazy-under-budget. But which is more important? Well, depends who you ask. The director will say, "There simply must be a chocolate milk fountain in my movie. It won't work without it." If you ask the producer, they'll say, "Have you seen chocolate milk fountain rates lately?! I think we can make due without it." My tendency has been to please the producer, only to have a disappointed director and a mini fondue fountain with a loud motor.

I make this point not to say that a budget is something to disregard; of course it's important to be mindful of spending and shoot for the inexpensive. But I've been overly mindful, borderline miserly, as evidenced by the fact that I usually discover I had a lot more wiggle room than I originally gave myself. That wiggle room money could have been spent on better quality (or higher quantities of) things, and ain't nobody woulda been mad 'cause I still could've come in at-or-under budget.

Lesson learned: Spend wisely, equal emphasis on both words.

So what am I up to now? After a few days of recovery, and one episode of a webseriesWHERE I DESIGNED THESE SICK AS HELL GAME CARDS

I jumped pretty straight into a prop master gig on my first-ever Lifetime movie. Yes, the great rite of passage! Most film people I've met have worked on a Lifetime movie at least once in their... I won't say it.

And speaking of career milestones, it has been almost surreal the number of times I've had to say just this past week alone, "Sorry I can't work on your thing, I'm already going to be on set." People have been approaching me about projects left and right; many of them referrals. The system works! Don't be a douche and try your hardest, and people will want to work with you. It makes me feel so warm and fuzzy inside.