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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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
DV: What was the thought process for choosing the main location
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
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
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.
Total Production Design Budget:
$20,000 (rough estimate)
Art Department Crew:
Four-Person Painting Crew
Time to Design the Sets:
Four weeks of preproduction
Scheduled Theatrical Release:
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.