Film making decoded: Production design and art direction 

Boishali at work on the sets of Hollywood film Alex’s Strip 

Art direction falls under production design but they aren’t the same thing. While production design has to look at the entire look, feel of the film, art direction is the artistic detail of the sets

Usually, when we watch a film, we tend to overlook the background work that goes into it. Even when we talk about it, we rarely go beyond the writer, director, camera person and the editor. But what about the department that’s responsible for a film’s look and feel? The common term that’s used to describe the creative unit is production design or art direction. While the layman may see the two as interchangeable, there is a marked difference between the two. Boishali Sinha, who has worked as production designer on films like Nanu Ki Jaanu and Gabbar is Back, explains, “While production design has to look at the entire look and feel of the film such as colour palette, costumes, lighting, and all the minute details, art direction is all about building the sets and related stuff. So, art direction is actually a part of production design. But in India, the two disciplines are often considered as one and the same.”

If we look at Bollywood films from yesteryears, we realise that production design is a much newer concept. Director Tanuja Chandra, who has helmed critically acclaimed films like Dushman, Sangharsh and Qarib Qarib Singlle, recollects, “When I started directing films, there was only art direction, which involved set design, propping up locations and giving furniture and upholstery a look that corresponded with script requirements.” But a lot has changed in recent years. National Award-winning filmmaker Onir explains, “Earlier you had art directors and assistants. Now there is a production designer heading the team who has the important role of designing the look of the film by working in close coordination with not only the director but also the DOP and the costumes department.”

A lot of young production designers currently working in Bollywood, including Sinha, have degrees in fine arts from Europe. They are therefore well equipped with the changing global trends. But one wonders if this European influence can prove to be counterproductive in the context of Hindi films. Chandra explains, “Yes, international design has become an influence in the look of a Hindi film, but also production designers are discovering amazingly beautiful aspects of Indian culture and history, and according to me, when there is a unique confluence of these different streams of thought, something very compelling is born. While the possibilities are immense, it is important for our movies to retain their innocence and rawness despite the western influence”.

While directors like Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Ashutosh Gowarikar are able to reserve a major chunk of their big budgets for production design and art direction, other filmmakers don’t enjoy the same luxury. Onir reveals, “I have always worked in close connection with art director/production designer as I have never had the budget for both. Somehow, I have not managed to work with the same art director twice. Maybe my budgets are low and expectations are high but I can’t let budget affect the look.” As a result, production designers are often hard pressed to deliver the desired look and feel while working on shoestring budgets. But such constraints push them to look for innovative ways. Recalling her experiences of working on Nila Madhab Panda’s upcoming film Halkaa that revolves around an eight-year-old boy living in the slums of Delhi, Sinha says, “Since the subject is realistic, we had to set up the things around the garbage dumps in Delhi’s Seelampur area. The biggest challenge was to keep the realism intact while also ensuring that the frame looked appealing to the eyes. So, we had to build the boy’s house from scratch and the funniest part is that a lot of props that you will see in his house are actually from my childhood.”

“We go through a jungle of references, of stills, films, sketches if possible. We try to stretch limits and try to imbue tradition with something new”

However, the role of a production designer varies from film to film. It depends on a director’s working style. While some filmmakers like to work closely with the production designers and art directors, many prefer to supervise from a distance. However, it is the quality of interaction that matters the most. “We go through a jungle of references, of stills, films, sketches if possible. We try to stretch limits and try to imbue tradition with something new. I personally like to ask a production designer to bring what I call, a ‘bold stroke’ to their work… something that stands out in the film’s look… something that adds quirk, uniqueness, while not feeling out of place,” says Chandra.

As films continue to evolve, the processes associated with production design and art direction will get more streamlined. Hopefully, it will also bring greater visibility for the artistes and technicians working behind the scene. “Things are changing in terms of content and the way people see it. More and more people are becoming aware about the technical work that goes into making films and so, I believe technicians will be given more recognition and respect. After all, without us there will be no film,” asserts Sinha.

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