ISSN: 20443714
First published in 2013
2 issues per volume
Volume 4 Issue 2
Cover Date: December 2016
Setting variables: Axes of time, space and meaning in production design for the screen
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Authors:  Piers D. Britton 
DOI: 10.1386/scene.4.2.117_1

production design,mise-en-scène,encoding/decoding,genre,film narrative,long-form television narrative

My focus in this article is twofold. Firstly, I address the commonalities between production design for film and television, in terms of what and how design signifies. Secondly, I explore differences in the semiotic potential of design for the two media. I argue here that what design most securely signifies is genre, and I also offer a qualified endorsement of the frequent claim that design indexes narrative mood and tone. Design imagery establishes both mood and generic affiliation by calling upon viewers’ tendency to interpret new stimuli in relation to established standards. In other words, design satisfies primarily in terms of its perceived ‘rightness’, in relation either to genre precedent or more nebulous benchmarks such as realism. Conversely, while a set or costume always contributes in some way to the formation of tone, it may simply set the ‘wrong’ tone for certain stakeholders, based on their expectations or tastes. Consequently, I argue that design imagery is at best imprecise as a signifying element in screen fiction. As to distinctions between media, I argue here that there is a polarity between the ‘slow fuse’ operation of design imagery in the television series and the ‘fast acting fuse’ of design for the feature film. The relative brevity of a feature film necessitates that all formal elements make a powerful, rapid impression. In the television series, by contrast, sets that recur from episode to episode are likely to be less assertive and are deployed in less immediately imposing ways. In long-form screen fiction sets and their decor tend to present imagery that can subtly grow in its interest and suggestiveness, as audiences repeatedly engage with it from episode to episode.
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