Given our all-consuming involvement with what we do, it’s easy to overlook the contributions of the other departments we collaborate with each day. We often forget that a huge part of how our images turn out is dependent upon what’s served up before the lens. To that end, production designers and set decorators deserve a grateful nod from our side of the camera.
Let’s be honest: Art direction – as that collection of crafts used to be called – is responsible for at least half of any success we might enjoy. In almost every case, production designers are hired long before the cinematographer, and thus lay the groundwork we’re generally forced to adopt as our own. Their choices are not just limited to constructed sets on soundstages, but include locations and exteriors as well; everything we do photographically from that point rises and falls by their (hopefully) good taste. Ever try to create a look inside a beige-on-beige cheese box of an apartment? Often there’s not much that can be done. But when you walk onto a set that’s splendidly conceived and decorated, you also have to admit: The challenge is not to make it look great, it’s to avoid messing it up.
Get into a discussion of production design with most filmmakers and you’ll find that period pieces or futuristic environments will eventually dominate the chatter. But the discipline’s true artistry is witnessed in the successful rendering of the more ordinary, recognizable spaces we encounter every day. As with cinematography, the best examples follow a unified line of thought that serves the evolving themes of the script. Guided by the right talent, art direction can give greater meaning to the story while at the same time creating opportunities for the expression of our own magic.
Of all the films that make up our personal catalogues of visual references, I guarantee that the appealing light gracing each one is falling on equally inspiring sets, places and objects. This doesn’t necessarily mean the design is beautiful; it means the design fits the story in the most relevant way, without calling attention to itself. That’s the same effect cinematographers strive for, so it’s no surprise that the two pursuits are often so complimentary.
Over the years there have been many successful, long-running cinematographer-designer pairings. The best of them show that each artist raises the other’s game. But a word to the wise among our good friends responsible for what and where we shoot: Not every wall needs a sconce!