Characterisation: The Literal And Figurative Keys To The Production Design Kingdom.

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“Know the other, know yourself, and the victory will not be at risk; know the ground, know the natural conditions, and the victory will be total.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art Of War.

The reason most filmmakers turn out mediocre films can be traced to lack of knowledge.

I’m not talking of any specialized cinematic knowledge.

No, I’m talking of everyday knowledge that comes handy when making a film.

Like what is the story REALLY about? Who are the CHARACTERS? What do they WANT?

You get, right?

Ever wonder why the director Alfred Hitchcock was so successful?

Hitchcock was reputed to know and most times pick the costume of his actors.

Even down to a bra!

You heard me right.

But, this post isn’t about directors. That’s a topic for another day.

Today, I’m talking about characterisation and how it holds the magical keys to the Production Design kingdom. Both literally and figuratively.

When folks hear me yap on and on about characterisation and the magic it brings to design, the first question they ask me is:

“What the eff does the Production Designer or the Arts department have to do with Characterisation? I thought it was the business of the scriptwriter to characterize?”

That is what I thought too until now.

But, before I answer that question, let’s find out what characterisation is.

Shall we?

What is characterisation?

Characterisation is the giving of human attributes to characters in any work of art.

It might be a short story, a novel, a play etc. Or even a screenplay.

Where is it used?

Characterisation is used by novelists, playwrights and scriptwriters in novels, plays and screenplays to give human attributes to characters and make them living, breathing humans. At least on paper.

Now, this brings us back to the question: what business does the Production Designer or the Arts department have to do with Characterisation?

The answer is simple.

Don’t mind me. It’s actually complex but, I will try my possible best to simplify it.

Now, we all know that the Production Designer is in charge of the visual interpretation of the story, right?

So, how does he interpret this story VISUALLY when he knows little or nothing about the characters in the story?

This would have been easy if the Production Designer is also the scriptwriter, but the probability of that happening is so slim.

Most Production Designers I know are hardly writers.

So, this is where characterisation comes in.

For the Production Designer to VISUALLY interprete a story, he or she will need to answer the following questions namely:

1. Who is the character?

2. What is their biographical information?

3. What is their full name?

4. What is their age?

5. What is their Marital status?

6. What is their alias?

7. What is their current occupation?

8. What is their past occupation?

9. What is their physical description?

10. What is their gender?

11. What is their relationship dynamics?

12. Who are their significant others?

13. Who are their relatives?

14. Who are their friends?

15. Who are their co-workers?

16. Who are their enemies?

17. What is their goals (what do they care about)?

18. Why do they care about what they care about?

19. What is their Point of view?

20. What is their dominant impression?

21. What is their attitude (values)?

22. What are their interests?

23: What are their tags of appearance, speech and mannerisms?

24. What is their vice?

25. What language do they speak?

26. What is their social class?

27. In summary who are they?

You understand?

Now, these questions are not exhaustive but, it gives you the idea of what I mean and the base from which to begin your search for answers.

Recently, a client needed me to design a film for them and while designing, I was trying very hard to choose the colour(s) that I will use to tell the story visually, but then, I asked myself, how will I know the colour(s) that will fit the story and the characters when I don’t even know them.

So, I asked myself the above 27 questions for each of the characters.

Both the major and minor ones.

Mind you they are seven in number and I did this for everyone of them!

But, then, I still couldn’t get all my answers.

So, I applied the knowledge I gained from Adaeze Chianumba Okezie’s Brand Visibility And Profit Academy, during the lockdown.

In the Academy, She taught us brand archetypes which basically states that all human beings can be categorized into 12 archetypes namely the hero, the lover, the ruler, the creator, the everyman, the innocent, the nurturer etc.

And each of these people have their basic goals, motivations that drive them, even their colours as well!

So I had to ask myself:

28. What is the human archetype of these characters?

29. What is their colours?

30. What is their style?

And as soon as I did that, I had all the answers I needed.

But, my battle was not over yet because in Production Design, everything the audience sees is a character and must be treated as such.

So, having covered the grounds as regards props, costume, makeup and I was still left with the locations.

So, I asked myself:

31. Where is the story located?

32. How is it going to be represented on screen?

33. What is the importance and/or significance of that location to the story? What are the visual metaphors that will drive these significance home?

34. What are the colours of these location?

This is what I did for the 8 locations and I got all my answers as well.

Note, that I wouldn’t have gotten all these answers if I didn’t ask all these questions?

Hell, what I would have done before will be to just copy what the script say and paste it on the screen. Straight up!

But, the script is merely just a code and the key to deciphering that code is characterisation.

Lately, I’ve been seeing lots of films and I have often asked myself:

“What makes for a shoddy design in film?”

And to answer it,

“It can be many things.”


However, when you trace it, you will most certainly find out that it is the absence of or little characterisation by the Production Designer.

Characterisation is the literal and figurative keys to the kingdom in Production Design.

I have come to find out that the script is just a poem which the Production Designer must surely translate to a prose with the help of characterisation if he is going to interpret anything visually on the screen.

To put it in the language every adult must understand, the Production Designer must make the script their lover and seduce it with a beautiful, fearless, bold and sexy characterisation.

Any Production Designer, whom you hire, who doesn’t do this for your film project is neither interpreting nor adding anything to your film.

They are merely copying and pasting from the script instead of interpreting and adding to it.

You can quote me from here to Mars!

Thank you for listening to my TED Talk.

#FilmProductionDesigner #Jos #PlateauState #Nigeria

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