The IBA’s Television and Radio 1977 looks in-depth at how Thames designs for television

Design is a most important element in television production. Of the total permanent staff of about 1,600 in Thames Television about 100 are involved in the practice of one form or another of design.

Design model of a set

The Design Department at Thames is one of the responsibilities of the Controller of Programme Services, whose deputy is in charge of administration for all areas of design. The Head of Design is responsible for creative control and his department is divided into four main sections each with its own supervisor.

The Department has fifteen administrators, managers and secretaries, making a total permanent staff of 112. Backing this design group are a large number of wardrobe personnel, property and scene men, carpenters, painters, drapesmen and drivers.

The Designer’s studio

Creative Function

‘The television production designer’s function is creative and interpretive’ writes Patrick Downing, Head of Design at Thames Television. ‘His job is to clarify the director’s and his own impressions of a writer’s intentions into an amalgam of physical shapes and colours. He designs pictures – not sets, shapes and movement in a framework, not a series of still lifes.’

Downing believes that a designer’s work is realised by the individual and that it cannot be handed out as a brief. ‘A programme concept does not determine the designer’s approach to a problem or his method of solving that problem. It does not tell him what to do, or how to do it, just as it does not tell an actor how to interpret his role. The actor, director and designer will assimilate from a script or a programme outline their own conception of what they do and how they do it. With luck the designer will interpret the author’s and the director’s intent about fifty per cent of the time.

‘The Designer works as a contributor to the whole concept, with producers, directors, lighting cameramen, camera operators, costume designers and sound mixers. This does not mean that the designer’s work is done in conference and is therefore the combined work of all the participants. It is the total programme that is their combined work. ’

The scenic artist’s workshop

The designer will produce plans of action, shapes of scenery, and storyboards of ideas which will be considered and accepted by the director or producer with few if any modifications. There is no one solution to the realisation of a production designer’s work, in the translation from the written or spoken word to the creation of visual symbols. Given the same project, the same director, the same facilities, time, and budget, three designers would produce three entirely different solutions to a single programme concept.

The designer has to satisfy his own sense of fulfilment and the requirements of the author and director. He attempts to produce work that will create the largest possible audience, and at the same time fulfil his own sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Working on a storyboard

Film/Videotape

There is little difference between television and film design except in the most minor mechanics. Film design is usually less confined in terms of locations, studio space and budgets.

A costume design

Television ‘sets’ are designed to accommodate five or more electronic cameras and an infinity of variable positions and heights. Film ‘sets’ are designed to accommodate one film camera with the same number of variable positions. Television is more and more combining both videotape and film as a means of expression, and videotape is being shot and edited more and more in a filmic manner.

Certain disadvantages exist for the designer working with film: on videotape each shot can be seen on monitor screens as it happens and necessary corrections made; on film nothing can be seen until the ‘rushes’ are viewed after the film has been processed – too late for any adjustments.

A distinct advantage of working on location with film is that one starts with a real environment, and whatever may be added in the way of colour and properties, cobwebs or paint, one is building on a foundation of reality. In studio work the designer starts off with a basis of cardboard and recreates an extension of reality.

Most television designers’ work is still in a studio environment, and for non-contemporary drama this has become almost essential, since this field requires an ambience and setting that often exists only in museums, or is in reality now covered by a welter of traffic meters and television aerials.

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These ‘extensions of reality’ in a television studio, a kind of synthesis of a style or a particular period are, hopefully, accepted by the viewer as ‘real’ – accepted, that is, if the designer’s and lighting director’s contribution can stand up to scrutiny. Graham Greene, reviewing a film in 1937, wrote: ‘All the actors work hard to give the illusion that the whole of life is symbolised in an Arizona filling station, but life, embarrassed by hearing itself so explicitly discussed, crept away, leaving us only with the pasteboard desert and the stunted cardboard studio trees’.

The Work Pattern

All designers work in entirely different ways and use different methods; and all television programmes make different demands upon the designer. However, the following notes describe a possible five or six week work pattern a production designer might adopt for the production of a drama made almost entirely in the studio.

The designer starts with the first draft script. The effect of this script, the knowledge of who is to direct, and the possible size of the budget, colours and determines his approach to the play. From the first script to the final recording the designer is continually changing and modifying his basic original ideas.

After he has digested the script the designer and the director meet, and argue. They achieve, hopefully, a creative rapport; and, with luck, the designer assimilates the emotional and visual needs of the director and the production. The director accepts the designer’s as yet basic visual ideas and imagery and together they translate into describable visual terms the intentions of the author.

The designer then creates rough plans, sketches, suggested camera movements, and occasionally storyboards for some particular sequence.

All the decisions the designer now takes will have a far-reaching effect on the whole production and will wholly dictate the visual ambience of the play. With his rough sketches, notes and ideas in a vague lump, the designer at this point receives from the producer a budget for the design of the production. ‘It’s never enough,’ says Patrick Downing, ‘and by tradition the designer spends an hour or two arguing about its inadequacy.’ At this point the designer has been working on the production for about ten days.

Now he starts on reference books, films, reference libraries and historical research. Of course much more time, energy, and research is needed if the play is historical than if it is one of those ‘three people in a camp apartment overlooking a London skyline’ play.

Then the director and designer climb into a car and search for film locations (most videotaped dramas have three or four minutes of filmed inserts, often lots more). This usually takes a couple of days. The designer now has a lot of vague ideas, sketches and polaroid photos of the film locations (or the exteriors that may appear on film which have to be matched in the studio interiors.)

The designer and the costume designer discuss basic colour tones, and work out a visual relationship between the sets and the costumes. A further afternoon and evening with the director polishes up the rough visuals.

Constructing the set

Now the designer starts on a first search for major properties (props) that will play an integral part in his sets and in the production, and finds appropriate textures and architectural detailing.

For three or four days the designer is chained to a drawing board and with an assistant designer produces final plans, elevations and details which are then estimated for cost, found to be expensive, fiddled with, altered and put back again. Finally they are sent to the construction shop and the painters and carpenters start work.

The designer (or his assistant) makes a rough model – ‘or a nice finished one if he has the time and feels narcissistic,’ remarks Downing – and then he and the director, costume designer and lighting director sit round it, argue about it, and spill coffee over it. By this time the graphic designer has storyboards for titles and other graphics to be filmed on the rostrum camera. The designer and graphic designer meet and work out a cohesion between the designer’s by now more or less concrete forms and the graphic designer’s ideas. They sort out all the graphic minutiae of the programme. Shop signs, imitation passports, packaging, photographs, etc.

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Thames design personnel

Production Design

Head of Design
21Designers
8Assistant Designers
7Production Buyers
2Cost Estimators

Graphic Design

Head of Graphics
11Graphic Designers
5Assistant Graphic Designers
4Graphic Technicians
2Photographers
6Photographic Technicians
2Rostrum Camera Unit

Scenic Art

Supervising Scenic Artist
8Scenic Artists

Costume Design

15Costume Designers
4Assistant Costume Designers


Another meeting takes place, this time with the lighting director to agree on a lighting style to fit the mood and texture of the production. The designer wants it dark, moody and atmospheric like a silent German movie; the lighting director wants the viewer to see the production – they compromise.

The designer and the scenic artist allocated to him get together to sort out the requirements of scenic cloths, painted perspectives, stained glass windows. The drapes department start making curtains and similar furnishings.

Then – the technical production meeting. The director, designer, lighting director, costume designer, technical supervisor, chief cameraman, sound and other technicians surround the designer’s model of the sets and discuss the relationship between cameras, actors, sound and design.

Somehow all this gets sorted out and the designer concentrates on the filming requirements: props and scenery, transport, permissions for filming. What kind of car is smashed in the action, and can it be afforded? Has permission been received to paint someone’s front door a dirty orange? How can that nasty lamp-post be disguised?

The ‘reality’ of the completed set

The designer stands by the director’s elbow throughout the filming period and then about ten days before the final recording date of the programme the director goes into rehearsal with the cast. The stage-manager lays out the designer’s studio plan on the rehearsal room floor with different coloured sticky tapes. And there is a first total read-through of the script with all the cast and everybody else concerned sitting round a large table. At the end of the read-through, final costume measurements are taken and the cast briefed on their basic movements and positions from the designer’s plans, sketches and models. Meanwhile the scenery is nearing completion.

For the next few days or so, the designer and the production buyer tour round and select all the properties, furniture, drapes, carpets and all the other bits and pieces that contribute to the ambience and atmosphere of the sets. Most of these are hired from specialist suppliers, although occasionally it is necessary to buy or make something specific or rare.

The point is now reached where the designer fills the role of a supervisor, covering the setting up of the sets on the studio floor and the arrangement and positioning of all the furniture and properties. The next two days or so are filled with rehearsals on the sets with cameras and actors, or rehearsing and recording in short sequences, much like traditional filming – a synthesis for the designer of all his work for the past six weeks. Actors, cameras and sound are working under the director. Between each section of videotape recording there is a period of minor adjustments, small changes of camera angle, lighting and mood, the repositioning of an actor or a vase of flowers.

Then the final videotaping of the programme. The designer sits in the control room watching five or six screens, all of which show a collage of images on which he has impressed colour, texture and form.

Television production design at its most basic is an out-of-focus scrap of wallpaper seen occasionally between the heads of two actors. At its best it is the creation of a mood, and a sequence of pictures to illuminate a story, that can make a good programme better.

Categories: Programmes

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