How Production Design Influences Background Work
When you are booked as a Background Actor by Central Casting, you will often move around and interact with a set. If you’re cast as a NASA engineer on For All Mankind, your character could be manning a control panel during a space launch. Or you could work at a publishing house on Younger, tasked with handing a principal actor a new manuscript. Just like Background Actors help bring a scene to life, production design brings the setting to life.
What is production design?
Production design is the creation of the physical look of a movie or TV show, like building sets, creating props, and dressing locations. Think of a scene that takes place in a classroom. Production design includes the color of the paint on the walls, what’s written on the whiteboard, the types of desks and how they are laid out, the books on the shelves, and the pencil someone dropped on their way out of class. Basically, the production designer is responsible for everything that appears on screen.
According to Ian Phillip (The Good Place, Splitting Up Together, Parks and Recreation), production design is “everything behind the actors.” Besides determining details like if a prop is the right time period and if a set is architecturally correct, Phillip says the design also has to further the story. “Production design is just a facet of visual storytelling,” he told Indy Mogul.
From script to screen
Production designers are the head of the art department and oversee the visual aspects of a movie or TV show. Their pre-production process usually starts with reading a script then meeting with the director and director of photography to get an understanding of their overall vision and discuss tone, themes, and style of the project. Next they will research the time period, setting, and delve deeper into the script to get a handle on each character and scene location. Then they will sketch and make models of sets, props, and other visual elements and work with all the departments to begin creating the locations, buying materials, and putting everything together.
During production, the production designer’s main job is to monitor and adjust the sets to ensure each scene meets their standards. In film, this process is mostly linear from pre-production to production. As TV shows are often in multiple phases of production at once, the production designer can be prepping future sets while overseeing the episode that’s currently being filmed.
Background Actors, Stand-Ins, and production design
Designing and building a world is not just about sets, but the talent who perform on those sets. Production designers need to create authentic spaces where the actors can use the set and materials within it to enhance their work.
“Actors think so much about their characters,” said production designer Amy Williams, who has worked on Little America, Tigertail, and Master of None. “Part of my job is to supply the actors spaces in which they can feel their characters and they can move around and provide interesting ways to occupy the space.”
It’s not just principal actors who depend on production design to inform their performance. Whether you’re navigating a busy space station on Star Trek: Picard or shopping on Superstore, interacting with the set can be a big part of a Background Actor’s job. For Stand-Ins, especially those who work on multi-camera shows, part of your responsibility is working with the crew on camera blocking and how a character moves around and interacts with a set.
No matter your role, do not touch or move anything on set unless directed to and follow the instructions given to you by the Assistant Director. A lot of thought and hard work goes into every detail on a production, you wouldn’t want to mess with all the planning that went into getting the perfect shot.
In addition to understanding production design, there are a lot of production staff that can influence your work as a Background Actor. To find out more about these crew members, read our articles on costume design, location scouting, and motion capture.