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Talking Head: Creating an entire world for short film by Production Designer Jessica Barrell

Jessica Barrell is a Production Designer and Art Director who has worked on many short films, music videos and live events. She was Production Designer on The Prey [2015], which was screened at the Exit 6 Film Festival launch and her most recent project is short Annie Waits [2016], the directorial debut of Marnie Paxton.


I’ve been working on short films for the last three years and it’s safe to say there’s never a dull moment in this job. Being a Production Designer for short films, in my experience, doesn’t involve a whole lot of actually sitting and designing. It has you up on your feet, running around, becoming not just the designer but the entire art department at once. From prop sourcing and making to graphics and set dressing, plus much, much more, you need to be prepared to be covering all different areas. Being able to think on your feet is a necessity!

Being thrifty and knowledgeable of where to find items on the cheap is also very handy. As we are aware, many short films are made with small budgets and it can sometimes be a stretch to get your hands on everything you want or need. One of my most recent films, ‘Annie Waits’, is a great example of working to a small budget. Myself and my team (Geoff Tapping and Charlotte Belsham) had a long list of locations to dress : three different bars and restaurants, a laundrette, two parties (one inside, one outside) and a flat in which we would be seeing the bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and living room.

The budget for all of these locations was almost half the amount I had previously had on another film in which there were only two locations to dress, so this was going to be a squeeze. In particular, the location that we found for the flat needed a bit of a makeover – it had a very masculine feel to it and it was meant to belong to the main character, Annie, who is a young, colourful, twenty-something photographer. This meant bringing in a lot of soft furnishings, ornaments, photographs, artwork and anything else that would reflect Annie’s character and the story we were telling. I managed to save on budget by making props, re-dressing items to be used in different locations and borrowing a few items from the cast, crew and my house!

Sometimes locations don’t require an awful lot of dressing to look effective - take for example ‘The Prey’, the short horror I worked on last year. A large portion of the film takes place down a dark, dingy looking alleyway in Hounslow. When James Webber, the director, initially found the location, it was quite rough around the edges, with graffiti and rubbish scattered about. However, when I later met up with James for a location recce, the alleyway had been cleaned up by the local council, leaving no dodgy tags and bin bags behind.

While this was annoying at first, it meant we had a blank canvas to work with to make the alley our own and the simplest of additions had a big effect on the tone of the film - note the now notorious giant red penis sprayed on the wall, which we were scrubbing clean at 5am in an attempt to hide us ever being there (chalk spray paint - not as removable as you would imagine!).

One of my favourite scenes from the film is when Mel (Rebecca Van Cleave) emerges out of the darkness of the alley on to the main road in slow motion, with Halloween revelers throwing flutter confetti in the air behind her. It’s such a simple effect but it looks great on camera and works so well with that part of the story, showing that design doesn’t always have to be overly complex to have a lasting effect on the mood of the film.

Designing for film requires dedication, passion and giving up a lot of time to get things done to the best possible standard. It can be stressful, intense and involve long working hours, but it's also a lot of fun! The feeling you get when the finishing touches have been added and you can look at the monitor and watch the action unfold in the world you have created is what it’s all about. It’s extremely satisfying to see how your work becomes a part of a story, how props become personal and how the actors interact with what you have made. Sitting in a screening room watching your film appear on the big screen for the first time makes you realise the hard work is worth it!


To find out more about Jessica's work visit her website

You can follow her on Twitter @BarrellJess.

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