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Film Studies - Set Design - Low Budget


from Digital Video Magazine


Low-Budget Production Design Limited finances and independent filmmaking go hand in hand. Items deemed necessary on big-budget productions get cut out on small ones. The art department often receives the short end of the proverbial stick.

Slashing this aspect of moviemaking can be an unfortunate creative decision and a pivotal blow to the overall look and feel of a production, regardless of the shooting format and budget. With more independent features being shot and less money to go around, how can the art department-specifically production design-keep from getting lost in the shuffle?

The upcoming independent feature Manic, directed by Jordan Melamed, was shot with two Sony PAL PD150s and stars Don Cheadle and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the teen from 3rd Rock From the Sun), and was coauthored by Michael Bacall. It's an ensemble drama piece about teenage emotional and mental instabilities as well as self-exploration.

Production Designer Carol Strober had roughly $20,000 to design and build the sets for Manic. A former architectural designer, Strober left that career in the early 90s to attend the American Film Institute, where she earned an M.F.A. in film with an emphasis on production design.

Since then, she's designed a number of feature films, many of which have garnered critical acclaim on the independent circuit as well as distribution from major Hollywood studios. She's a Sundance Film Festival veteran, with films such as I Love You, Don't Touch Me!, Spark, and Star Maps all screening at the yearly fest.

Manic is her latest effort and also the first feature-length project she's d esigned that was shot entirely on DV. Manic screened at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and the 2001 Toronto Film Festival. It will be distributed by IFC Films and should be in theaters June 2002.

In the finished main set for Manic, Strober tried to play off the colors in van Gogh's Wheatfield with Crows, a painting with significance in the film.


Digital challenges
Shooting on DV instead of 35mm film presented an array of new production design challenges for Strober. Many factors determined how she would eventually handle the design, including the script, budget, location, props, and crew size. Of course, let's not forget the shooting format itself and the director's intentions for it. Thus Strober needed to take a slightly different approach to the design task, all the while keeping in mind her main goal was to support the story and the characters portrayed.

DV recently spoke with Strober to ask her about these challenges and her experience working on Manic.

DV: What exactly is production design?

Carol Strober: The production design of any project entails creating an environment for the action. This environment sets the look of the film. Sometimes it directly supports what's happening in the film, while sometimes it works in counterpoint. It can always help tell the story and add layers of information for the viewer. Sometimes this information is subliminal; sometimes very obvious. Certainly the viewer realizes when something is off. Often the design helps to draw the viewer in, adding information to the mix. The end result is the collaboration of the production designer and the director. Often, but not always, the director of photography is involved. Certainly the light quality of the film is an integral part of the whole.

DV: How is an art department typically structured?

CS: The way the art department breaks down, at least in my experience, is the production designer, art director, set designer, decorator, lead man, and set dressers. There's sometimes more than those. There could be a standby painter or carpenter. The role of the art director and production designer usually depends on the crew and budget. On larger films with sufficient budgets, the production designer is usually the idea person and the art director sort of makes it happen.

DV: Describe how your Manic crew was structured.

CS: On Manic, since it was a lower budget, we had an on-set dresser and a prop master who sort of helped each other out. I also had an art director who stayed on-set. He was a hands-on guy who also did any kind of construction work. Normally an art director doesn't do that kind of work but I had to find someone who was capable of multiple jobs because I didn't have the luxury of a big crew.

DV: How long did you have to design the Manic set?

CS: We had four weeks of preproduction. For this movie, because I was delivering the whole place (location) at once, we had to do everything up-front, which was very different than the norm. I worked the four weeks of preproduction and I came back once or twice during shooting to make sure everything was okay. Again, very unusual. I'm usually working right through the show. For instance, let's say you have a five-week shoot. You'd set up things for the first week and after that's done, you go to the second-week's set. You're usually always staging things as they go.

Carol Strober chose an open, airy location for the main set of Manic. The complexity of shapes and variety of light gave her the basic architecture to meet her design goals and stay within budget.


Digital triumphs
DV: What was the thought process for choosing the main location for Manic?

CS: For the film to be realistic, I felt that these middle- and upper-middle-class kids would have concerned parents who would only be comfortable putting their kids "away" in a pleasant and somewhat upscale environment, rather than the spooky old hospital that's the cliche of psychiatric hospitals. It should be an environment built by adults yet look like it was designed with the well being of the kids in mind. Thus we strived for a bright, happy-colored space. It also had to take the audience someplace they don't normally see while also keeping them comfortable within its limits.

DV: Because this was a DV feature, did you need to consider or do anything out of the ordinary in terms of colors or dressing the location?

CS: Overall Vincent van Gogh's painting Wheatfield with Crows is such an integral image for the film, so I tried to play off those colors. In other words, I took the color schemes and palettes from that painting for the set design colors. As a result, the boys' room accents are green, and the girls' room accents are orange, and the adult interaction areas are a neutral gray and blue.

Because the film was being shot on DV, it was important to create or find a location with layers that space and color would reinforce. Since video seems to flatten space or rather not differentiate between spaces, the location we shot in was an ideal starting place. The original location considered was a more standard hospital setting but the walls there would have appeared as flat backdrops, instead of as a series of shapes and colors-which is always interesting for the occupants and surprising to the audience. Ultimately the script, which was originally set in a more conventional hospital environment, was made to accommodate the unit we chose.

I also felt that combining light with the outside world was an ultimate goal, so we painted interior columns close to the windows a lighter shade of orange or green. The closer the columns were to the interior space, the darker the color got. It's very subtle but it helped bring in light artificially. All of this was done to reinforce three-dimensionality because with any kind of video, even with DV unfortunately, you still don't have the depth-of-field look that you have with film. So the idea was to help create that depth. It needs to be artificially done. Through the use of color and through the choice of location and furnishings, we reinforced those qualities.

Even if we were shooting this on film I don't know that I wouldn't have preferred this location anyway. I thought it was more photogenic. But I was aware that because of DV, I had to push the colors to the limit. We painted many of the location walls darker colors (orange, green, and blue), whereas on film, I might not have used such dramatic colors. However, I always try to paint no matter what the shooting format because once you put lights on a set, the colors diminish somewhat.

So for film, if you're going to add color to a background, a textured sponge paint job will read so you know the background isn't a flat surface. That wouldn't work on DV. If you start using pastels, they're not going to show up.

The Manic team dropped the original location, shown here, because they felt it couldn't be transformed to fit the film's needs.

DV: Did the director's decision to shoot with mobile DV cameras affect the set design?

CS: The DV cameras used were small. The big advantage for a director is that the cameras can be anywhere. What I proposed from day one with the chosen location was that I would give the director the whole unit and three bedrooms and he could use it all at anytime. So the entire set was dressed the whole time. This allowed Melamed to shoot anywhere in the whole psychiatric unit. So if they're working on a scene or something and decide that they're going to run over to someplace else, we didn't need to dress that area because it was already done. With DV, somebody may be off-screen with a line and the DP may choose to just go to that person. Thus you have to have everything set for any type of camera movement. I also knew that's what this director likes to do. He had two cameras, and when you have two cameras, you have no place to hide. It's all exposed. As a result, this was not a traditional location set.

DV: Do you have a favorite scene that worked well design-wise?

CS: I love the scene where Tracy (played by Zooey Deschanel) watches Lyle (played by Gordon-Levitt) leave the psychiatric ward. I'm drawn to the transparency of the exterior and interior of the unit and the final iron bars to the outside world. Overall I'm very proud of the end result.

The thing about production design is that you're actually creating a world that doesn't exist anywhere. When you're on a set, you're not really aware of this because there's tons of technical stuff happening. But the camera will isolate that world and show it as a unique place.

Manic Facts

Total Production Design Budget:

$20,000 (rough estimate)

Art Department Crew:

Production Designer

Art Director

Decorator

Lead Man

On-set Dresser

Propmaster

Four-Person Painting Crew

Time to Design the Sets:

Four weeks of preproduction

Scheduled Theatrical Release:

June 2002

Distributor:

IFC Films

To create depth and blend in the outside light, Strober painted columns near the windows a lighter shade than those farther away from the window.