Production Design in Cinema, an Interview with Chris Crane

Beyond what a quick Google definition can tell us, what exactly does effective production design entail? For all of the movies we’ve seen and famous shots we recognize in Western culture—like Forrest Gump sitting on the bench, Joaquin Phoenix skipping down the stairs as Joker—much remains elusive to our eye in terms of the shot’s full creation & composition. (It’s not just lighting and camera angle, after all…)

In prior interviews I’ve gone behind the scenes with music producers, composers, an audio engineer, a cinematographer, and even a stunt coordinator; below, we now have the privilege of hearing from a prominent production designer of over ten years, Chris Crane.

In our interview, we discuss nuances of his art and the coordination across departments, with examples drawn especially from his latest project, the Ricky Tollman-directed political thriller Run This Town.

Some of Chris’ other projects include: Code 8; Disappearance at Clifton Hill (for which he received a nomination for Director’s Guild of Canada Best Production Design, Feature Film Category); “New Eden”; “Baroness von Sketch Show”; The Rainbow Kid; and more.

Andrew Cheek: First, could you describe a little about what you do as a production designer?

Chris Crane: Of course! As a production designer, I am responsible for the overall look of the project. By working with the director’s vision, what the script dictates, what the cinematographer needs and requests, as well as practical locations and/or set builds I come up with how and what the final project looks like. Sometimes this is very planned out and sometimes we work on the fly and come up with solutions to problems. It is incredibly creative but also all about organization, management and problem-solving.

Andrew: There are several emotionally charged scenes in the recently released political thriller Run This Town, for which you were the production designer. This portrayal of heightened emotions comes through on various levels in the film — pace of editing, music, lighting, the actors and of course in the writing itself…

How do the set design and setting harmonize, or even bring out, the emotional quality of the scene at hand?

Chris: In Run This Town we had the opportunity to recreate some real spaces, such as the Toronto City Hall Mayor’s outer office and Mayor Rob Ford’s office circa 2013. In those cases it was more about having lighting options for the cinematographer, Nick Haight, so he could have things like practical desk lighting on hand to create different moods for different scenes.

For things like our fictional ‘The Record’ newspaper offices, Director Ricky Tollman and I went through different options of logos for the newspaper (created by Art Director Joël Guzman) and that led to going into different options of the colour for the space. Once we had our location, we did walkthroughs to figure out the layout and what scenes would happen where.

That way we could create spaces that portray clutter, or lots of space to move for tracking shots, or which areas we would focus on using windows and which areas we would try not to. It was a mix of planning certain things out as well as giving the various office spaces enough visual interest that there were more shooting options on the day.

Ben Platt as Bram, from ‘Run This Town’

Andrew: Are there certain components of a film, or aspects, that production design aligns with especially? This could be the costume designs, or the cinematography and camera crews, the actors themselves and how they’re moving through that world…

Chris: Every aspect of film should really intertwine with production design. The costume designer needs to know what colours we are using so they can compliment or stay away from them when putting together character outfits. The cinematographer needs to know set and location layouts as well as what types of practical lighting we can provide. Actors have ideas about what might be in their characters space to help with performance.

I even need to know where gear might need to be stored in a location so the set decorator does not dress that area or which walls need to be able to fly out in a set build so camera and lighting can set up for certain camera angles. It is a very collaborative process — you can never have or give out too much information. The more everyone is on the same page the better.

Andrew: Do you have a background in art? Or in visual media of some kind?

Chris: I started out wanting to be an actor and filmmaker in high school. I ended up getting into photography and then window display. I started helping some film friends that I met in my one year for photography at Ryerson University with their short films and small projects with finding props and set dressing and building some basic sets. That kind of is what eventually lead me into working in film.

Andrew: How involved are you with scoping out and selecting shooting locations — for example, the specific bar or restaurant for a scene? What’s that process like?

Chris: The sooner I am involved in location scouting the better! Along with the director and cinematographer, it usually takes the three of us to agree on a location. It might work for shooting but seem plain to me (so we figure out what we would need to do with it to make it work) or I could love the look of the space but the director worries it might be a bit too small.

Nina Dobrev (center) as Ashley, with Mena Massoud (right) as Kamal—from ‘Run This Town’

The process can vary a bit. Sometimes we head out to a bunch of random locations that the Location Manager thinks might work. From there we tell them what we like/don’t like. This helps them figure out if they are going in the right direction or not. Other times we go through images from location scouts first and narrow down which ones we all want to look at.

Sometimes cost can be a factor and the thing everyone loves ends up being something we cannot afford or is not available when we need it. Then we either start all over or look at past options and find a runner up. Sometimes the best locations end up being the ones that you don’t really love right away but find creative design solutions to make them work.

Andrew: I’m curious about the interplay between filming on-site somewhere vs on a constructed set. Are there particularly drastic differences in the two?, or challenges in that balance?

Chris: It really depends. Actual locations offer up things that you could never imagine or dream up. While constructed sets can give you exactly what you want and allow more space for crew (you can remove walls, ceilings, control sound, and light better). What you can lose in built sets is sometimes that extra layer of realism for actors and crew; you kind of ‘live’ in an actual space and that can make things feel more heightened and real.

I like both. Creating a set from scratch is incredibly creative and exciting, but walking into an actual location that is exactly what you pictured in your head when you first read the script is pretty incredible too.

Ben Platt as Bram in ‘Run This Town’ as the story gains momentum

Andrew: What kind of atmospheres really excite you?

Chris: An open and collaborative atmosphere really excites me. The only thing I love more than coming up with ideas is listening to someone else’s. I love bouncing ideas off people and hearing what someone has to say.

Sometimes I even like when someone thinks something I want to do is not going to work out; and then proving them wrong by knocking it out of the park. Other times I might be going about something the hard way and someone offers up a simpler way to get there. Film is all about working with a bunch of people, who are all very different, with the same end goal of getting the project to the finish line.

  • For more from Chris, check out the recently released film Run This Town here, or take a deeper dive into his portfolio.
  • This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity. All images provided courtesy of Impact24 PR unless otherwise noted.

Writer, runner, music enthusiast. Exploring connections between creativity + art, lifestyle, and entrepreneurship through a series of interviews.