Art Direction | Power in the Subliminal

Catlin Baksa

November 8, 2017

How art direction plays a role in film and influences the viewer’s understanding of story.


Art direction is how to make your story believable.

Art direction is the nuance – it’s the backdrop. It’s the unknowing and the subliminal. It’s the staged kitchen with drawers filled with silverware and a junk drawer with rubber bands and stamps that the audience never sees. Why? So that actors can get more into their role. So they believe they actually live there. Why? So that your audience believes they live there.

At Masters in Motion 2016, I had the honor of hearing from Kristi Zea, the Production Designer for Silence of the Lambs (and so much more). To prepare for the movie, she studied serial killers and (I kid you not) studied how to skin people. …All to get into the mind of the character. It was through this practice that she decided what kinds of things the character would have in their kitchen drawers…and filled the actual drawers on set accordingly.


Set design, prop styling, wardrobe, food styling…

It’s the amount of Cheerios on a counter in a hectic breakfast scene.

MAKE films - Art Direction - NHDDStill from our piece, Last on the List, for Reading Health System.

It’s the ball cap latched on the belt loop of a tomboy.

MAKE films - Art Direction - Fleet BattleStill from a shoot we did for Fleet Battle.

It’s a grouping of monochromatic desk accessories arranged in such a way that they look eerily perfect to camera.

MAKE films - Art Direction - Armstrong FlooringStill from our piece with TAG, titled The Office Nemesis, for Armstrong Flooring.

We think about these details so that your audience doesn’t have to.


Art direction adds another layer of depth to the story. It fills in any gaps. It tells the part of the story that is untold, clueing the viewer into the backstory without having to script it.

It subliminally directs the viewer’s attention or creates a mood through colors, textures, patterns, and arrangements. For example; a strict color palette in an office space with desk accessories perfectly placed to the camera’s POV helps a viewer remain attentive on the action, and also signifies the possibility of a dreamlike world.

MAKE films - Art Direction - Armstrong Flooring2Still from our piece with TAG, titled The Office Nemesis, for Armstrong Flooring.

Art direction needs to be on point with the overall concept, strategy, and flavor of the piece. It needs to be just right – just goofy enough… just edgy enough… just questionable enough. That balance is how it goes quietly undetected; creating the perfect backdrop for the real action of the film.


This perfect balance comes from close collaboration with the production team. Art direction is involved at the ground floor during the early planning stages to get a full understanding of the client’s goals for the film. After the script and storyboards are finalized, we use the creative tone for the film to strategically create a look/feel document and color palette. This is shared with the client to make sure our understanding matches their vision. From there, the art director and coordinating producer are able to use the look/feel doc as a guide for wardrobe decisions and prop shopping.

art direction - make films - pre productionWorking on set design for our piece with TAG, titled The Office Nemesis, for Armstrong Flooring.

On set, the art director reports to the director of photography to understand point of view and framing to make sure the set and talent look just right from any angle they intend to capture. An art director also works closely with the director. The tone for the scene is set visually and tangibly. This helps the director focus on their own nuances, as the scene and talent are set for the vision of the film.

MAKE films - Art Direction - StauffersDerek and I (happily) observing a shot at a Stauffer’s shoot.


Little details add up to make a believable, understandable big picture. The viewer might not consciously notice the way the plates match the product labels, or the forgotten old vacuum and space heater in the dark corner of the basement – but that’s exactly the point. They unconsciously take in the essence of the scene, and focus their attention on the story.

art direction - make films - gazebo room behind the scenesAdjusting the plates on set for Gazebo Room’s “Endless Options” commercial.

MAKE films - art direction - gazebo roomStill from our Gazebo Room’s “Endless Options” commercial.

Contact us today to find out how we can help art direct your next film.