Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographs by Aradhana Seth
What is the difference between production design and set design?
The term ‘production designer’ was created by William Cameron Menzies during the making of Gone with the Wind (1939). Production designers are responsible for the entire visual appearance of a film. To achieve the total look, they will coordinate with the art, costume and make-up departments, among others.
The set decorator is responsible for decorating the set, which includes furniture, drapes, fixtures, paintings and the overall decor. They are also responsible for dressing props —everything from cars and animals to dishes and household items.
The art director interfaces with all other departments and supports the art department arm of the shooting crew. He, or she, oversees scenery fabrication and controls all aspects of the art department’s expenses and the scenery budget.
In India, the roles and designations flow into each other and as the production designer you end up doing a lot of the art direction and set decoration. I wish it wasn’t quite as fluid!
How have you learned to cope with the demands of the field since Fire (1996), your first film as production designer?
The challenge is that some films require you to be unobtrusive and help tell the story at the same time, while with others, you have to be really bold and fantastical. Realising which approach is needed comes instinctively over the years. It is important to understand each character in the script and the time and space that they live in — the places they inhabit, the streets they may walk in. You have to do a lot of research about the milieu, the era and their occupations.
One of the biggest obstacles is that we never have enough time on a given location or a studio floor. The only way to give yourself as much creative time last minute is to measure everything very precisely and prepare everything off-site. So, you need a really good workshop. When we get to the location, we’re essentially assembling and adding the final touches. Everything is planned to the last detail, yet you can be instinctive and hugely creative when finally putting up the set. I have realised the importance of this with each film.
We’re often asked, ‘What did you do?’ That’s the best compliment — when the set looks like it isn’t a set and feels authentic. If the screenplay calls for it and the set feels fantastical, it’s fantastic!
At what stage of film-making does your work begin?
I first read a script to see how it feels and whether it’s appealing. More often than not, I read it without discussing it with anyone. A script gives little information required for my work since there’s not much about the visual space unless it’s relevant to the action. For instance, it may say ‘messy teenager’s room’, but it won’t describe how it’s messy. It is left mostly to the imagination. If I like the script, then I usually read it again without a break and make notes using four different-coloured highlighters for locations, action props, character props, set dressing or clues about it (‘sits down’ will indicate the need for a sofa or a chair). Then I’ll take the script apart and break it down completely: the spaces, rooms, furniture, light, foliage, and artwork — the entire look and feel.
Is it easier to create a set within an existing structure or to erect one absolutely from scratch?
It’s easier to create it from scratch because the imagination can then be allowed to wander. This decision is both a visual and budgetary one, and factors like the number of days we are going to shoot on the set, the sound and privacy factors are all considered. And if it is going to take a longer time to finish the film, there is a greater need to create a set from scratch.
How do colours play into your vision for the tone and mood of a film?
My journey has been wonderful. It has been filled with creating colour palettes and the look and feel of stories. Is it a cold story that becomes warm? Is it mostly warm with pockets of cold? A warm world would be shown using maroons, oranges and tungsten lighting. Blues and certain lights would make it colder. Materials such as chrome, metal and stainless steel can look smart, but they read as cold on film and need to be used with care. White looks fantastic to the eye in real life, but on film, white things, especially white walls, are difficult to capture as there’s no depth.
Some tones look awful against the skin on camera. In Don (2006), we incorporated greens and greys — colours that had not been used very much in Hindi cinema — and we tested different shades on the lead cast on camera to see what looked really good on them.
What techniques do you use for ageing construction, the dressing and the props?
We may build a new house and then age it. We paint a place then wash the paint down. We imagine where the taps would drip, how the pipes would leak and how door handles would get shiny with use. We often use soot mixed with other materials to age a kitchen. For the outside, we muddy it with brown earth or red soil, whatever is local to the actual area where the house is meant to be. For windows, we make sprays using hundreds of powdered spices and pigments to add a subtle textured layer to the glass, which also manipulates the quality and quantity of light entering through them. We often age fabrics by dipping them in different strengths of tea. We burn candles down and overlay the old wax with newer candles on top. Sometimes we need flowers in various stages of drying to add to shrines, so we collect some every day of the month and seal them in a Ziploc bag.
Does being a woman in this profession make your job harder?
Working on Fire, I had an all-male team. Some of them would look at me a bit condescendingly. You have to work doubly hard to get things done and justify a new idea that someone thinks may not work because it has never been done. It has been a man’s world for a long time, especially the construction part of it. Props and set dressing are more inclusive. But it has become easier for women now. There are many more women in the field and the mindset of the crew has changed.
Leaving a set behind — especially those that you have so carefully created — must not be easy. Which one is closest to your heart?
The deconstruction of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and Marie’s (Franka Potente) cottage in The Bourne Supremacy (2004) was a huge wrench as it was built from the ground up. It had a little garden, tool shed and well. We gave the cottage three neighbouring houses. It felt like it had been in Sinquerim forever and would remain. I didn’t go the day that it was taken apart and the bulldozer came. I understand impermanence better now….