Selfie of Production Designer Helen O'Loan for Angela's crew profile on her for AC Mag

The Production Designer: AC Mag column

This column, “Crew Profile: The Production Designer”, written by Angela Cerasi of Peachy Keen Colour, and featuring production designer Helen O’Loan, was featured in the Australian Cinematographer Society’s “AC Magazine“.  Subscribe to the Australian Cinematographers Magazine here.



“If cinematographers are concerned with the frame, production designers are concerned with the world beyond that frame…” explains Helen O’Loan, the AACTA-nominated production designer behind Black Snow, and set designer behind The Great Gatsby and Pirates of the Caribbean.  Peachy Keen Colour Founder and Colourist Angela Cerasi interviewed her recently to find out more and was blown away by the sheer volume of work involved.


After completing her MA in Production Design at AFTRS, Helen began her career in set design and art direction before working her way up to Head of Department.  The QLD-based production designer just finished a FIFA World Cup commercial for a Brazilian production company x Nike and is currently in pre-production for a Stan Original TV-Series. It’s not hard to believe that the one week international commercial shoot had a budget comparable to some 12 week indie feature film shoots. Perhaps not as adored as the design phase, Helen admits the creative and savvy use of budget is a pivotal part of her role.  How to maximise resources is integral in helping the filmmakers get the most value on screen and achieve their vision. The screen time of each set is a necessary consideration as this will determine how many resources to dedicate to each set. This is nutted out in a week of pre-pre, which is the time Helen gets before pre-production starts. It’s in this time the most important discussions happen, such as script breakdown and analysis with the line producer and art director. In collaboration with the other key creatives, the most compelling aspects of the story are identified, the central theme confirmed and a visual look is decided.  In the style and tone meeting, everybody comes with their ideas, mood board and visual references. Helen likes to create a temporal mood board where she can physically see the arc of the story from beginning to end. On this mood board will be everything from colour, to material and fabric preferences, size of room choices, light and dressings. A production designer’s toolkit include space, object, colour, form, volume, texture and the essential element of light!


Location scouting will also happen around this time. The production designer, cinematographer and other HOD’s (Head of Departments) will visit the sites on a recce. Helen says it’s important to give the DOPs space to think at these recces, as often they have come straight off another job without the opportunity for pre-pro, and need time to feel out the space. Cadrage and Sunseeker are two mobile apps which DOPs use heavily on these visits, to envision a scene’s potential framing and track the light at particular times of the day.  Certain lighting may appeal visually, but production designers need to think about what is motivating that light. They are concerned with world building, a sense of place, and character development. A warm, diffused lamp may light up an old fisherman’s face in a beautiful way, but Helen needs to know if that fisherman would have the means to own a lamp, and if so what type, how old-fashioned, modern or dirty it would be, and where it would be placed in the cabin. The same would go for curtains or windows. In collaboration with the cinematographer and gaffer, Helen’s team may need to construct a certain light fixture to give a desired effect, such as glowing or directional light.  Further collaboration between production designer and cinematographer is imperative if lights are to be baked into the set. These baked lights or ‘Prac Elex’ are similar to a fluro or LED tube and need to be hidden in the set. Embedding lights in the scene means the cinematographer has extra control to light up different parts of a set to different effect. Even for exteriors, production designers need to consider light. For example what colour a house roof needs to be if it’s to be filmed in the bright, glare of midday and will act like a huge, bounce board.


All crew members are faced with creative problem solving, but perhaps none more so than the production designer. They need to manage money and resources that encompass everything from Poodles to nunchucks, army tanks to dusty atmospheres.  They need to employ and manage a diverse range of crew ranging from carpenters, sign writers, props buyers, vehicle co-ordinators, puppeteers to animal wranglers. The production designer needs to ensure the viability of the set as a functional space to work in for the shooting crew. They are responsible for ‘handing over the set’ to this crew as the production designer needs to be thinking ahead and prepping upcoming sets. Helen leaves the on-set art director, on-set dresser, standby props and potentially vehicles co-ordinator, animal wranglers and greenspersons to work on ‘the present’, while she is working away on ‘the future’.


Helen’s favourite part of the job is the ideas stage, listening to different perspectives and working out the through line of the story. She loves working with great people and appreciates that everybody has a unique approach. One of her fondest partnerships was with cinematographer Murray Lui, who was ‘talented and agile… a very generous collaborator’.  As a HOD, Helen finds it rewarding to get the best out of her team.


Production design is not just ideas, it’s the practical realisation of those ideas. You can give ten different filmmaking teams the same script and budget, and there will be ten vastly different films. What is important is how you tell the story and how you bring the story world into existence. After many years working on a variety of genres and periods, from antiquity to thrillers to fantasy, Helen has realised that story is not king. It is actually storytelling, which is king.


Want to learn more about texture in terms of colour grading?  Check out Angela’s article on the topic, also written originally for AC Mag, here.