The art and craft of production design – interview with Adriana Serrano

August 24th, 2015

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Adriana Serrano. Her work spans the worlds of feature film, television, theater, commercials, music videos and short film, and in the last few years she worked as the production designer on “Arcadia”, “August”, “California Winter” and “Afternoon Delight”. In this interview Adriana talks about splitting her time between her various projects, the smaller scale of independent feature film productions, approaching the script and translating it into environments that live and breath around the cast, the changes we’re seeing in how storytellers bring their worlds to large and small screens around us and how the world of indie films is evolving in the last few years, and a deeper dive into the particulars of “Afternoon Delight”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into the industry.

Adriana: My name is Adriana Serrano and I’m from Colombia. Originally I’ve studied fine arts in Bogota and in 2000 I’ve moved to New York. I was very interested in installation art and drawing and at that moment I was looking to learn something else, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t think it was film, it just didn’t occur to me, i was looking at the time to learn a technical skill. And then I saw a sign in La Mama Theater that a theater designer named Watoko Ueno was looking for interns, I met him and started working with him. I thought that set design was very similar in a lot of aspects to what I was doing in my installation work – working with the space and the colors and the space. I was fascinated with the stage

I decided to study set design, did a lot of theater in NY and then I transitioned to film design. My first short movie was in New York in 2003, a film thesis for Columbia University, and then I went back to Colombia, got offered a job teaching and started working on episodic TV. I learned a lot from my experience on television, and since then I’ve just been working on movies. I did move again in 2009 to Los Angeles where i continued working as a production designer.

Kirill: And it’s not only movies, as your work spans music videos, theater and commercials.

Adriana: I do enjoy designing anything that works with a 3d space. I like the challenge, and It’s very different working on a feature than working on a music video than working on a commercial, they have different needs. I would like to do other things as well outside of the film world. I think that production design is working with the space, working with the concept and working with a team of people. There’s plenty of things that I would like to do like concert design, events, and anything that involves creating an experience for an audience.

Phychiatrist’s office set, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

Kirill: When do you usually start the production cycle of a feature film?

Adriana: Production designers are one of the key elements and are hired early on. Everything happens very fast. I get a call for an interview, I have to read the script and I have usually two or three days to prep for the interview. I meet the director and the producer, and pitch them my vision of the story. When I go into a job interview and i have to sell a world that is not visual yet and invisible, a world that only exists yet on paper.

In most cases the director has been working on that idea for a long time even years if he or she is the writer. That first encounter is always interesting to me. The perception of the script changes so much after meeting the director, feeling the direction that the story can take.

Kirill: Are you expected to bring some sketches?

Adriana: I don’t think necessarily I am expected to bring any, but I usually bring visual research and references that inspire me. It might be a color palette, photos, art work, references for the characters. Its easier for me to establish a conversation based of some references, I believe an image can explain so much than words can.

Kirill: How do you know that clicks?

Adriana: [laughs] It’s really strange. My background is very conceptual and for me production design it’s much more than aesthetics, it’s a key element part of the storytelling. Sometimes the connection is unbelievable. I would start showing photos and they’d say that this was exactly what they had in their head. And sometimes they’d say that they didn’t think about that and it may be interesting. And sometimes you think that the connection is great and then nothing happens. Or simply the language its different and there is not much in common. Very much like chemistry in a relationship.

It’s always different and it also depends on many different factors. Getting a production designer hired is like casting an actor, i think. Sometimes they think it’s a good fit based on the personality, or the story, or the other movies they have done. And sometimes we talk about other things like life in general or other movies.

Kids’ bedroom, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

Kirill: And then when it goes well, you go deeper into breaking the script into specific sets and locations?

Adriana: The whole process is really fast. From the moment I get hired and until we start shooting it’s at the most four weeks. It’s one week to do all the research and to put my ideas together. Then I hire my team and start looking at the locations. It’s really fast and intense because so much needs to be done in this short time. Sometimes it may even be only two weeks.

Kirill: No weekends?

Adriana: Not really. It’s very intense, and the moment that I start working on a project kicks off the 24-hours mode that goes on in my head. For me it’s like putting a puzzle together, looking and searching for the information that might be in a book or in an exhibition, exploring everything around. And once the language is developed and the main locations are found, then for me the job is almost 80% done. It’s the beginning that is the most intense and the most interesting for me.

Kirill: Would you try to get more time if it were up to you?

Adriana: Oh yes. The projects that I have enjoyed more were the ones where I had some time to develop ideas and language with the director and the director of photography. When we have more time, we can talk about who the people are, how they feel, what is the most important thing for them in the story. I feel that when that time is there, the results can be more interesting.

Kirill: But on the other hand there is no pressure to finish everything and you get, perhaps, more relaxed to postpone certain things.

Adriana: Usually it’s not enough. I take whatever they give me, but definitely having a little more time makes it easier to work with the others. We know the language between us and we develop more trust. Usually we’ve never worked before, and the director is nervous about whether it’s going to work for them and let go of some things, focus on directing and hope that everything else is going to be OK.

Kirill: It seems that there are so many points in time where it can go wrong, from pre-production to shooting to post-production, with so many people involved at different phases. Sometimes I think how amazing it is to have this thing that hundreds if not thousands of people have worked on.

Adriana: I still don’t know. I’ve done Production Design now many times over the years. I can recognize a good script, but there are so many factos down the line to say that it’s going to be a good final product. The final product is different from the work that we do. A good movie doesn’t mean that it was a good process, and the other way around.

It’s kind of like magic. It’s this machine that its put together, a social experiment of a kind, a pressure cooker where you put people that don’t know each other. There’s a lot of pressure and it’s unbelievable, and it changes from week to week. The first week is different from the second week, and there’s an explosion on the third week, and then it’s over on the fourth week and you have to say goodbye. What happens on a movie is really interesting emotionally and socially for me.

Kirill: And jumping a bit forward in the process, you usually are done when the shooting ends, as the post-production does editing, colorization, sound and music. They take something that you’ve designed and you don’t really have control over what they’re doing with it.

Adriana: That’s exactly what it is. It takes a while to be OK with that. It’s really strange. Production design is so important, at the beginning lots of work needs to be done by our department, making sure that the new physical world works, that we have all the props, that all the locations look real. And then when it is done it’s like it was never there [laughs].

Sometimes I don’t get to see anything even for a year until the movie’s done. And sometimes the movie never gets to be finished even. It can go to a festival, and there were projects that I haven’t even seen the final thing. But it’s also a relief. There’s so much work and then you’re done. You have a fresh new start.

McKenna’s bedroom set, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

Kirill: It’s hard for me to imagine interacting with all the new people on every single job that lasts for a few months.

Adriana: It’s really strange. People who work in these intense non-permanent environments develop a sort of addiction to rush, to being connected. You get to know people, and everybody gets really close. We work for many many hours. It’s like going to a spiritual retreat with a bunch of strangers and you feel that they are your best friends but you know that you’re probably never going to see them again. I work with a lot of the same people on my team, and we know each other and it’s really nice because it’s less stressful. Sometimes it’s different circumstances, and the strong relationships that you create simply disappear. It’s just memory that is a part of the movie that was created. Everybody moves one to different projects after the movie its done.

Kirill: So what stays with you months or years after a production is done?

Adriana: Over the years I’ve started to appreciate the process more than the final product. There are some movies that I remember differently because of the great experiences I’ve had with people. Sometimes I watch a movie I did a few years ago and I think about how I’ve evolved, or maybe that there was so much stress involved and it’s not even that good. Sometimes the most stressful job doesn’t result in anything really.

One of the things that I’m learning to deal with is that it’s just another movie, without losing the passion. At the beginning I was stressed out about everything. I remember thinking about not missing anything, or how to solve potential problems. If anything didn’t seem to work, getting the feeling that is the end of the world, as life or death. But it’s usually not [laughs]. It’s the nature of this job.

Kirill: Switching a bit to talk about “Afternoon Delight” if you don’t mind, how and when did it start for you?

Adriana: We had around three weeks for pre-production. I’ve worked with the line producer Victor Moyers before on two other movies. I went on an interview and I’ve met Jill Soloway [writer and director]. I remember reading the script and feeling that it was good. I remember feeling i was right for it and i did get it i will be able to contribute so much to it.

We met and we discovered a lot of things that we’ve had in common. It was great interview, talking about the movie and life, talking about personal experiences. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Jill is very open and smart and I was very glad that I got a call few days later saying a got the job.

Photos of the main house before set dressing, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

We’ve started the whole process. The main challenge was to find the house. The script was very specific about being in Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles. It’s a very small neighborhood, and the house was a character in the film, and I knew it was going to be the biggest challenge. The house was going to tell the story of the main character and what she was going through.

We did look at many many many houses, and it was a week before we were to start shooting and we didn’t have a house. Nothing seemed to be right. Since the time was so short we started to discussed which house was the better option from the ones that we had. We just had to make the movie and we needed to find our location. But none of them felt right. Knocking on doors, and leaving notes on houses [laughs] we got to lock this beautiful house, and when we got it, I knew that it had the right bones and the right architecture. Was definitely the best option, it needed a lot of set dressing but it had what the movie needed it.

Photos of the main house before set dressing, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

Kirill: So people lived in that house, right? They move out and you take over for however much time you need for the shooting.

Adriana: I think we had the house only for 5 days to prep. They’ve moved to an hotel and they stayed there for that time while we’ve worked on the house and made it the way we needed.

Kirill: What did you replace?

Adriana: The budget was pretty low, so it’s not like I had all this money to spend. Had to put everything that didn’t work with the house for our story on a storage unit and I kept the furniture and the big pieces that worked like the sofas and the dinning table. Brought new paintings, chairs, art work, lamps, created the kids bedroom, McKenna’s room and completely redid the master bedroom. We had to work in the house while shooting at other locations. Working in the house was actually the most intense part on the movie, while making sure the other locations were reading to shot as well.

Kirill: What about the other sets, like the psychiatrist’s office or the place where the ladies had their party?

Adriana: The men’s party was at the same location, downstairs in the basement, and we’ve found another location for the ladies’ party. We couldn’t find anything for the psychiatrist’s office, so we used the producer’s office. We brought new furniture to dress it, it need it to happened in half a day. The coffee truck was also an idea that worked for us, we couldn’t afford to rent a coffee shop so we decided to created a gourmet coffee truck that worked very well i think.

For me the start and the end of the film are super important. I always make sure that they look amazing because I think that’s what people remember. We couldn’t find the location for the office, and we only had half a day for it. Everything was very tight in terms of time, but it worked and it had a beautiful view, and it looked right.

The strip club booth’s was build, to have a system of circular drapes for the scene where McKenna’s dances for Rachel. We had lots of other locations that needed less work.

In terms of the palette, McKenna was bringing saturated pink to her world and to this house. Rachel was more blue, controlled and cold.

McKenna’s bedroom, final still from the movie.

Kirill: So that’s why even when you’re taking over an existing house you have to make everything work with the characters and the script. You can’t just use the furniture and the carpets and the walls that are there.

Adriana: The big challenge is to create the perfect world that belongs to that character, no matter what it takes. Sometimes it takes more work because the location that we find or that was available for the price is a house full of furniture, and it doesn’t work. I have to empty the whole house, bring the new furniture and then empty it again and bring the old furniture exactly the way it was [laughs], or sometimes the locations is almost prefect and needs minimal work.

Kirill: Is that the producer’s job to coordinate that?

Adriana: Its a team work. But the art department needs to takes pictures to bring the house back to the original design.

Kirill: And on movies with smaller budgets you assume more responsibility and don’t hire as many people.

Adriana: That is definitely true for movies with lower budgets. When people see a good movie on a low budget, there was a very talented crew behind it. Every time I work on a low budget, it means that not only I have to do my job, but I also have to do the job of three or four more people – art direction, set decoration – there is not enough people and not enough money, which means that we all have to work harder and do more.

I’m sure movies with super big budgets have a different structure and they deal with the stress in a different way, deal with the pressure from a different side. But low budget movies require people in the art department to do more than one job, even if they credit you with only one at the end. You have four or five people in the entire art department to create and orchestrate everything.

Kirill: And if you do your job right, most of the viewers are not going to notice it. If you create the perfect world that works just right for the characters, people will follow the story and the characters. Who is going to come out of the theater and say that the color of the wall in this one scene was just perfect for it?

Adriana: When the job is well done it feels so natural. The crew don’t even remember the original location. We work on creating the world for the characters to live in, to feel comfortable in, it usually feels so lived in that if feels like it was always like that, even if it was created on a few days.

It takes a lot of experience and sensibility to be a good production designer. I am not a decorator that makes everything look cool. It needs to look right, and for that a PD needs to have the appreciation of the story, to create something that feels right for the character, that adds and extra layer that supports the director’s vision of that imaginary world.

Main bedroom set, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

Kirill: Given budget limitations, do you still strive to create a complete environment for the actors to move in, even if some of it is never going to be seen by the camera?

Adriana: I do. I always try to think about that, especially on features. I try to think about 360 degrees because it’s usually what happens. The process is so short that we all just show up and get to work. The director of photography might have some framing in mind, but then we show up on the set and everything changes. Obviously you’ll have two walls that are better composed and you put more work into that, but I try to think about the entire 360 degrees.

I prefer to have two spaces that work really well in that sense than having a humongous house with only a few walls. I think that’s just very limiting, especially nowadays with digital cameras that can record so much footage. It’s just that so much is used.

Kirill: And you also give the actors this full space to be immersed in.

Adriana: I think so. Every time I’m making a set, I try to think about space, about how the story evolves with the film and how the color evolves with it. What is the most important thing? And I am also an administrator and an manager. Once something clicks in my head, then I think about the money and how I’m going to make it work. What is the most important thing? What are we going to see the most? I’m trying to put the money and the research into the places that need them the most.

Main bedroom, final still from the movie.

Kirill: So you’re wearing two hats, the artist hat and the accountant hat.

Adriana: Oh yes, all the time. For me it’s a challenge rather than a pain. It’s part of the deal. I know that I have a certain amount of money, and that I have to be really smart about how I’m going to use that money. If it runs out, I’m just going to miss out on an opportunity to contribute and do the best film that I can do, no matter what the budget is.

I know very well by now what can I do with what money, but I don’t try to think about money, but rather what is necessary for the film. What do I want? If I had all the money in the world, what do I want? And then I let it be, see what can be done and not let the money be the limitation.

Kirill: And then all that money that went into the sets is gone when you tear them down, when you pack up and leave. Is that part of the job? Does it make you sad to see those environments that you’ve created gone?

Adriana: I definitely like to recycle instead of throwing things out. But it’s also a relieving experience, kind of a cleansing. It’s the same experience as in theater, walking on an empty stage, building a set and then back to the emptiness. It’s something that I really enjoy, the feeling of a job done, a story told, and waiting for the new story. It’s a mixed feeling because there was so much work and now it’s done and it goes back to boxes. But if I was really happy and I think that we did a really good job as a team, it’s a good feeling.

Kirill: And then it goes into the post-production with other hands working on it, and half a year later you get to see how the final product looks like, which might be very different from what you had.

Adriana: Sometimes the edit throws so much footage away and so many sets don’t make it to the final cut. I’m always interested to see the final cut, to see what happened to what we’ve created. Sometimes it’s better than I thought and sometimes it’s different.

It’s always amazing for me to go to a new set and then see the director of photography and the gaffer lighting it. It’s the extra layer of light that changes the feel of it.

Kirill: I was watching Afternoon Delight again, and one of my favorite parts was the setup of the two parties that were going on at the same time where the editing cuts from one to another and then back. So there’s the men’s party that has the sexual desire and lust, but it’s so impersonal and cold, and the colors are these cold green and blue grey. And then you have the ladies’ party where they just open up, and it’s washed in these rich yellow and gold browns.

Adriana: We worked very hard on that, and it was a huge concept behind the parties. The women are getting drunk and the wine is peeling away the outer layers, showing the realistic side of their characters, and the camera was moving and spinning around. The whole thing comes from the pre-production where we’re developing the language so that things work.

Main bedroom, final still from the movie.

Kirill: We’ve seen the resurgence of the 3D format, this argument for putting the viewer “into” the world and extending the world towards the viewer, making that world more realistic. But it doesn’t seem all that important. Even if it’s just this rectangular canvas surrounded by a dark space, and it’s all flat projection, if the story flows and the world supports that story, it’s just the magic of cinema. I feel a part of that world and there’s no need for that third dimension.

Adriana: I agree. I’m not really a fan of 3D. But I think that it’s becoming more challenging to create that flow as a production designer. The quality of the cameras has improved so much, and I think it’s becoming harder to create well-done sets that look good on HD cameras with a small budget than it was on film. You see everything. If it’s a bad paint job, you see it. If it’s bad furniture, you see it. It’s made the job of the art department much more difficult.

Kirill: But on the other hand there’s still a lot of resistance from directors and cinematographers that do want a softer, more “film like” look to their productions. So even productions that use digital HD cameras apply a bunch of filters to make a film instead of a TV reality show.

Adriana: Of course. The quality of image can be very beautiful and cinematic in hd. But I still know that its going to show a lot, every single little thing. I try to paid special attention to textures and quality of the products i am using, wrinkles on fabric, scenic painting ….

Kirill: And that applies to other departments such as costume, hair and make-up.

Adriana: Completely. Making an old person for an HD camera – if you do a bad job, it will be seen. And it’s the same for bad fabrics. It’s all the challenges of the new medium that we’re dealing with. There are so many movies that are being done at such a great level of quality with so little – it’s amazing.

School set, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

Kirill: Perhaps it’s less about technology and much more about the art itself. It’s about taking a story and translating it to the screen with the array or artistic tools, instead of thinking about transitioning from a 720p to a 4K camera.

Adriana: I agree. There’s so much talent, and Los Angeles is full of amazingly qualified people. We all love the industry and we want to keep doing it.

Kirill: There’s a lot of interesting things happening in the world of episodic television in the last few years, where you have more time to develop the story and build the world. And on the other hand, it feels like the world of feature film is split between gigantic blockbusters and much smaller independent productions, with the middle that has moved, temporarily perhaps, to TV. What are your thoughts on this?

Adriana: I think that what is happening is fascinating. Television is improving in quality, and instead of having 90 minutes to tell a story, you have ten hours to develop it. It’s a different use of time, and a different approach in writing, and a different format. It’s really interesting and it makes me feel excited about the future of TV and how it’s evolving.

And I hope the same thing is going to happen with film. We need more medium sized films that are distributed so the audience can see them in places that are not only the movie theaters. They need to get more opportunities to be created. Like you’re saying, we have low budget films and huge budget films, and the middle is disappearing, and sometimes it’s pushing the limits for the filmmakers.

Making a low budget film is difficult and fascinating, but it’s also really hard to live under this pressure. It deserves to have more cushion to developer better films under medium sized budgets.

Kirill: It also feels that many more low budget films are being made these days, perhaps because it’s that much easier to get access to high-quality cameras. Not only there’s so much great episodic television being made, but there are so many low budget movies that it’s hard for me as a viewer to keep up.

Adriana: I agree. I’m sure people are working on that. Nobody has time to spend, and you want to have a channel of really high quality films. Nobody says let’s watch five bad films.

There are many of us who dedicate our lives to work on our craft. It takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice and study. It doesn’t just happen from one day to another. It takes a lot of years to develop it. I definitely want, every time I work in a film, to do it better, to work on a great story.

Striptease bar set, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

Kirill: I also don’t see that many more great stories being told in film. It’s almost like the number of really compelling stories remains constant year after year, perhaps because it never had a technical barrier in front of it, but rather just the story itself and the typewriter.

Adriana: It’s really sad when I get to read an amazing script, and then you see how much money you have. You see that it’s not realistic to actually create what is on that paper, that it’s sadly just not enough to exist. You think about the process and how it can be. I may agree that instead of having so many movies being made, perhaps we should have fewer with more support from studios to make commercial success out of indie movies.

It doesn’t have to be in the movie theaters. For me it’s more important to reach people and be seen, to bring that work to people.

Kirill: And there are so many ways to reach people now, from movie theaters to big television screens at home, all the way down to handheld tablets and even phones. Do you find yourself approaching your job differently when you know that some people will view it on smaller screens?

Adriana: Not really. A good movie is a good movie. Of course a movie theater is its own experience, sitting in the darkness surrounded by others – it’s magnificent. It’s fascinating when I get to see one of the movies I’ve worked on on a big screen. But at the end I know that the world is changing. I want to make the best movie I can, no matter if it’s going to be seen on TV or on the web or on an iPad. I want to do my best. I’d rather have my movie be seen by many many people than just by a few in a movie theater.

If I know it’s going to be in theaters, I will pay extra attention to textures, maybe. But overall I treat it the same way. The web might be more forgiving, to not show that much.

The challenge for me is trying to do the best with what I have. If it gets to a huge screen, that’s great [laughs], if it’s gets to a smaller screen, that’s fine. Having art seen in a great gallery by a 200 people or having public art seen by everybody – doesn’t matter to me really.

Kirill: Certainly as a viewer I appreciate people fighting to have their stories told, to express themselves in this medium. It’s fascinating to see the world of feature film not only surviving but also flourishing in the digital world.

Adriana: A lot of interesting things are happening. It’s uplifting. I was sad for a while, thinking that the sets are going to disappear, and I won’t have a job [laughs]. But things are opening up for new creations. As the music has changed before, I think that film and TV are changing. They are transforming and we don’t know where it’s going. It’s definitely improving the quality and we have to keep changing with it.

Part of my job is to keep evolving with what is happening. It makes me feel excited to see so many interesting things happening on TV. It creates a new culture of appreciation about good storytelling and that is going to open new doors for filmmakers.

Kirill: And not only great storytelling, but also the amazing cinematic quality to all those stories being told now on TV.

Adriana: I love that. It’s so well done. It’s changing the way we think about home too, sharing with your family and your loved ones, something to watch for a whole week. We still don’t know how to deal with it [laughs].

Striptease bar set, courtesy of Adriana Serrano.

Kirill: As you’ve mentioned it before, there was this time perhaps ten years ago where it felt that everything is going to be digital, and actors on green screen sets interacting with the void and everything done in post-production. But the physicality of what you do is still here, still going as strong as ever. The big sci-fi productions have moved from animatronics and small-scale models to doing all those things digitally, but the rest of the productions are still doing physical sets.

Adriana: For some time we’ve had a huge question mark about everything being green screen. I’m glad that we still have departments dedicated to creating the worlds for the movies and for stories in general. It’s different interaction. I’m not an actress, but if I had to choose between the green screen and a physical set, I’m sure I’d love to have the physical set instead of a green wall next to me.

I’m taking classes to keep up with what’s happening in CG (computer-generated environments) and it’s fascinating to see what can be created, to know all the possibilities you can have.

It’s about what the story needs. Sometimes it needs everything and sometimes it needs nothing. You try not to be attached, to be clear about telling the story and work as a team.

Kirill: Sometimes you put twelve angry people in a room and that’s your movie.

Adriana: Yes, sometimes that’s what it is. It’s always different. Every time I open a new script, I think about what it is going to be. That’s my favorite part as a designer, to be able to explore different stories and not get stuck doing one type, to keep challenging myself.

Kirill: And it’s always about a good story. It’s hard to save a bad story with fantastic visuals, as much as it might be hard to ruin a great story with mediocre ones.

Adriana: I agree. Everything starts from the story, and the story is the beginning and the end. It’s the strongest thing. It’s actually really hard to find good stories. A good script is a joy. This is why I keep doing it. When it works, it’s amazing. And it’s also unpredictable. Sometimes you have a good formula, with good script, a great director and great performers and it doesn’t work. It’s the mystery of making movies. Sometimes it happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. I just enjoy the process.

And here I’d like to thank Adriana Serrano for graciously finding time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions I had about her art and craft, and for sharing the background materials for the interview.