Production Designers in Germany Creating Atmospheres and Settings

The forest town Ragnarök in “Die Wilden Kerle 4”
The forest town Ragnarök in “Die Wilden Kerle 4” | © Maximilian Lange

Production designers are creative designers. But there is more to it than that. They need to be good all-rounders: artists, historians, communication experts, finance directors and heads of departments, all at the same time. Is this something that can be learnt?

The musty 1950s office in Lars Kraume’s film The People vs. Fritz Bauer, or the adventurous forest town in the children’s film Die Wilden Kerle – production design is what creates a film’s own individual settings, placing it within its specific historical and social context and generating its unique atmosphere. Maximilian Lange still has fond memories of the production Die Wilden Kerle: “It was fantastic working on it. We built every prop and invented every vehicle ourselves. It was like a playground for big boys.” He admits that production designers are not always given such creative free rein, however.

Maximilian Lange Maximilian Lange | © Maximilian Lange Born in 1971, Maximilian Lange has worked as a production designer in Munich since 2000. He has worked on German and international cinema productions, as well as on made-for-television crime dramas like Tatort. The German Association of Production and Costume Designers (VSK), of which Lange is also a member, defines the profession as follows: “A production designer works creatively on and is responsible for a film’s design by creating the setting for the actors and for the movement of the camera.” Lange himself describes his work by saying: “I try to create a coherent overall look for a film”.

The film first takes shape in the production designer’s head

His work begins weeks and sometimes even months before shooting actually starts. Ideally, a production designer is already involved at the treatment stage, though usually their job begins with the screenplay: “While reading, I already find a film unrolling in my own head as I automatically conjure up the appropriate settings and atmospheres”, explains Lange.

On the basis of the screenplay, he devises the film’s spatial dramaturgy: what time is the film set in, what is the general atmosphere, where can real-life locations be used and where do entire sets need to be constructed from scratch? “I worked on a Tatort which was largely set in a courtroom. Because we were unable to find a genuine courtroom in which we were allowed to film, we decided to build one ourselves in a former bank building”, remembers Lange.

He makes sketches of motifs and scenes and discusses his ideas with the director, cameraman, producer and costume designer. Even at this early stage he estimates the likely production design costs. “It is always a question of looking at the realities: What dramaturgical concepts do we have? How much money is available for the production? It is a constant matter of reconciling what we want to do with what we are able to do.”

The importance of communication and assertiveness

The production designer is always the head of the art department, with responsibility for managing the budget and putting a team together. Depending on the scale of the production, the art department may include not only an assistant, a property master and a location scout, but also an additional art director, set dresser or set decorator. Together, they select suitable furniture and furnishings. As Lange explains, organizational talent and communication skills are important prerequisites for the job: “One has to motivate the team and give them the feeling that the film is really theirs”.

Career change or formal training?

Maximilian Lange first studied interior design and then worked as an assistant production designer before becoming a fully-fledged production designer himself. For many years the only way into production design was to switch from another career. It is only since 1991 that there has been formal academic training and continuing education routes into this profession. As compared to a career change, one of the advantages of studying production design is that a combination of theoretical seminars and practical film projects provides students with basic cinematic knowledge, thus enabling them to give valuable input within the production team. In addition, students are able to network and establish useful contacts, says Regine Witzig, who is responsible for the two-and-a-half-year project-based degree course in production design at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg: “By the time they graduate they know quite a few camera operators, directors and producers.” That said, it is also important for film academy graduates to work as assistant production designers. There is probably no one-size-fits-all recipe for a career in production design. “A healthy self-confidence” is necessary, believes Regine Witzig: “Production designers have to deal with all kinds of different people and need to be able to push their ideas through.”

Each film offers different creative scope

According to the VSK, there are around 400 to 600 production designers in Germany, with roughly equal numbers of women and men. Nearly all of them work freelance. Flexibility is essential: Lange lives in Munich, one of Germany’s most popular locations for TV productions, but also finds himself working all over the country. He is often engaged by a cameraman or director he has worked with in the past. A production designer needs to be able to cope with stress, as the speed of production has accelerated and less time is available for preparation and shooting. They must also be familiar with the possibilities offered by digital set enhancement: “3D animation and virtual design are important nowadays”, says Lange.

German production designers have an excellent international reputation, and it was not for nothing that three Oscars® were awarded to the Potsdam Studio Babelsberg Art Department in February 2015. As Lange explains, however, they still have to fight for acknowledgment at home. The profession is more highly valued in England, France and the USA, no doubt partly because more expensive films with a need for more lavish production design tend to be produced there. All the same, he has no desire to change career because his work is so varied: “Each film comes with its own challenges: there may be very little time, there may be lots of different film locations, or the film may be particularly complex in historical terms. At the end of the day, however, it is always a joy to see one’s idea grow and then take on concrete form.”