Interview with a Hollywood Production Designer - How Signs and Visual Graphics Help Tell the Story

by Jayme Nelson

Production designers are tasked with everything from decorating a cozy set for a sitcom living room to creating entire futuristic worlds in film and TV. The production designer collaborates with the director and producers to establish the visual landscape and the special aesthetic needs each project. Using signage and visual graphics, set designers and decorators can create entirely different worlds in past, present or future eras providing understated visual cues or impressive graphic scenery. Visual storytelling is a key component to creating lifelike false realities. Movie set designs subtly illustrate the entire atmosphere of the movie. Whether the setting is outer space, the colonial era or present day New York City, sets provide all the cues necessary for audiences to infer a time and place in the story.

“Interview with a Hollywood Production Designer - How Signs and Visual Graphics Help Tell the Story”

We interviewed set decorator and production designer Penelope Stames to discuss the importance of integrating visual graphics into set design. Stames has worked on the sets of notable projects like The Doors motion picture, the TV series South of Nowhere and the TV movie William and Kate.  

“How did you get into production design?”

“Well in truth it was by accident. I have a degree in costume design and intended to go into theater and I actually did for a while. I designed costumes for over 150 shows set during varying periods. Then I found out about doing commercials and that sort of began the segue into set design. One day I received a call from someone who wanted special props for an ongoing project in Colorado. They offered me a full-time job and I worked on my first movie. Then I was hired to work on The Doors movie in Los Angeles, which was amazing. I worked my way up to decorator and production designer.”

“What are the first steps in your process to design and decorate a set?”

“The production designer, the director and oftentimes the producers have a meeting to talk about the basic concept of the film and how to manifest that visually. The script only has so much that it can say in around 90 minutes. So the silent character, and to my mind one of the most important characters, is the set and the visuals that accompany the set.

Once everyone agrees on ideas, the production designer will do a lot of research then sketches and renderings, which are transferred in one way or another to the set decorator. Then the decorator’s job is to actually go out and make those visuals happen. So we help find everything keeping in mind parameters that have already been established. And the script has a lot to say about that too because there should always be enough subtext for visual cues.”

“We are a signage company specializing in visual communications and graphics, how do you think signage helps to tell a story in film and TV?

Visual graphics and signage design are another way of imparting information. Billboards, street signs or windows with text or graphics are really a way of conveying place and time. Sometimes they can establish an era. Using typeface ,  for instance, one font might suggest a different time period than another. So it’s another tool that the production designer uses to disclose information without blatantly coming out and saying, ‘Here we are in St. Louis in 1913.’

We have to do these things in a subtle fashion because you don’t want it to jump out. It’s not like product placement, with somebody holding a Coca-Cola can in their hand. The signage and the visual communication have to be done in a way that sort of sneaks in under the radar. Part is done to tell the location. You’re showing the street and maybe it’s a low-end street, or maybe it’s 5th Avenue in New York. Or maybe it’s 5th Ave in New York a hundred years ago, in which case the building may be the same but the other visual cues on the building like signage will be much different. Last summer I did a small feature that was set 30 years ago so we changed signage on the building. It’s one way to change the landscape very rapidly. For instance if you’re doing a major metropolitan city maybe you use neon signage. If you’re working in a time period when there wasn’t neon yet, your signage will take a more timely direction, like hand-drawn signage .”

“What are some of the most common visual props and signage you use when designing or decorating a set?”

“Most of the time you aren’t going to change the buildings. Only very few times will you consider changing the façade of the building. For most movies these days, it’s not really feasible. So what you’re going to do is start looking at what you’ve already got. This may be notable street signs and building signs that you can tailor to be right for the era, whether it’s 100 years ago or 100 years into the future. I did some research last summer on post boxes, something we never really look at, but have changed so much visually over the years. Something as minor as modifying a post box is enough to give your audience a sense of time and place. Depending on what you’re trying to express you’ll make decisions based on that ultimate goal.”

“How have green screens and other set technologies changed the landscape of production design?”

“Well green screens and technologies like that definitely open up your limitations. A couple of years ago I did a project about Prince William and Kate Middleton and at the end they went on an African safari where he proposed. There was no way we were going to Africa, so we were on stage with a green screen and suddenly we were in Africa. You can do the same thing with adding city or futuristic elements. You can easily get that information and bring it to your production. So they are really useful tools to cut the costs and expand the possibilities.”

“How do you create convincing worlds that are so different from your own reality?”  

“The cool thing about the future is that nobody knows that it looks like. So that expands your options. A number of years ago I worked on a TV show called Space Above and Beyond. Every week we would be on a different alien world. And I can remember going to places in LA with a lot of electronic garbage and cobbling together bits of this and bits of that to create a set of the future. The future in this case was somehow made up of garbage of the past.

Like the recent movie Her. It was set in the future but it was only subtly different than the present city of Los Angeles. The buildings were mostly the same, but as a former costume designer I noticed all of the men’s pants were a different style than men wear today and in the movie they all wore them. Basically you have the freedom to create what you want. Instead of billboards or neon signs, maybe you have innovative sign technology like holographic signs or digital signs. It just has to be different; it has to have something about it that isn’t typical of the life we know this moment.”

Whether the aim is to recreate the past or fashion the future, a production designer is the key to making the set come alive using subtle modifications to form a sense of time and place for the audience. The set can sometimes be the most telltale character of the story, forging the path to take us on exciting journeys to places unknown.