Movie sets are so much more than something to fill the screen space. They have the power to elicit emotion from the viewer, provide them with subtext, and immerse them in the world of the film.
“A serious movie set captures just as much attention as any actor does,” says Nashville production designer Duncan Ragsdale. “And when they’re executed well, sets can influence the actors, the director, and everyone else on the crew.”
As a professional production designer, Duncan has brought creative energy and subtle touches to Middle Tennessee’s film, television, and live events for decades. In this line of work, every day presents itself as a new experience and an exciting challenge.
“When you do something for a long time, you wind up wearing a lot of hats. In my job, I’ve served as an art director—a specialist who works under the production designer, typically used for bigger projects—production designer, event planner, visual artist, and even art event curator. Every call for work is like a little invitation to a new adventure,” she says.
“Know What I Mean, Vern?”
Duncan was first introduced to the world of production design in 1991. While earning her bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), she was working towards fulfilling an internship requirement necessary to graduate. After asking a teacher how she could meet this requirement, she was given a novel suggestion.
Duncan recalls, “I was discussing this with my teacher at the time, who said ‘Hey! They’re making the ‘Ernest Scared Stupid’ movie in Nashville with Jim Varney.’ He happened to know the person handling special effects and introduced me.”
Prior to this, Duncan had never considered being part of a film crew. However, she fell in love with the notion and accepted the job. And from her first day, she quickly stepped up to take on whatever was needed on set.
“I helped blow things up, and make rain, and fog, and snow, and all that stuff,” she says.
Duncan treasured the experience of making motion picture magic. After the film wrapped, Duncan went home and began designing business cards for her new career.
“I passed them out to everyone, and got work from a bunch of local production companies,” she says. “I just kept going and never looked back!”
Doing More With Less
Since starting her career, Duncan has seen a steady uptick in the number of Nashville-based production companies, a blossoming production culture that has given Duncan more opportunities to work, and more chances at creative collaboration.
“When I was first starting, there were like 30 production companies. I would reach out to a bunch of them regularly for work. Now, it’s evolved into groups and smaller cliques of specialized freelancers who do different things with their own equipment.
Duncan goes on to say that since video production technology has become more accessible, large production companies are no longer the only ones making exciting video content. This ease of access has lowered production costs, therefore increasing the amount of production work available in the Middle Tennessee market.
She says, “There are still big-budget projects coming into town every day. But now, more people can get production work because camera and gear costs are becoming more affordable for consumers. There are projects of various budget sizes in the local market, providing something for everyone to work on.”
“So, What I’m Thinking for This Scene…”
Every set created by a production designer exists under a unique set of circumstances. Some sets are the products of bigger budgets, for instance, or fit into a grander plan. Other sets may be subject to tight schedules, a client that’s not totally in love with the vision, or a general lack of manpower and resources to do a set justice.
Regardless of what project she’s working on, Duncan knows that she’s hired to help make a set feel as authentic as possible. To reach this goal, she regularly puts a painstaking amount of detail into her work.
“Sometimes, I just have to stop myself because I know that we have to get the project done. I strive for perfection, but I also know that ‘done is better than perfect,’” she says.
As someone who loves the process of collaboration, Duncan encourages directors to share their specific set visions with her.
“I appreciate it when I’m working with someone, and they have a ‘concept treatment.’ That’s actually super helpful, so long as there’s wiggle room to make minor changes in case I can’t, say, find a specific prop,” she says.
Typically, Duncan will work with others through some sort of “virtual project board”—such as Pinterest—that can be shared between multiple parties. “The people I love working with actually come to the table with lots of ideas at the beginning, and I do the same thing on my end. Then through a shared conversation, we begin cutting things down until we have a vision for the project we agree on.”
Talking it Out
To get the most out of a production designer, Duncan offers that all parties should provide ample communication at every stage of the set creation process.
“I’m not afraid of telling others what I need. I know that others like to avoid conflict. For me, the only way to do that is by telling people immediately when there’s a problem,” Duncan says. “If someone wants something done to certain specifications, you have to set boundaries. For instance, if something is going to take all day for me and my team to make, I’ll let people know well in advance not to come in and try to set up lighting until everything is done.”
When dealing with any sort of problem on set, Duncan’s philosophy is “Address quickly, forgive quickly.” This is done out of pragmatism, as the clock is always counting against her. The time reclaimed from a smoothed over conflict may be just enough to smooth over a potential mistake.
Duncan shares, “I’ll never forget this one shoot… We were using boxes of bandaids for this scene. We needed every bandaid we could get, and I had several styles of bandaid choices in real boxes and boxes I made for our hero props. The assistant director—she was newer—took the boxes to the director to see which choices he wanted to feature in the scene since we were shooting it in a few minutes. Well, the assistant director brought the boxes back to me when they were done, and I noticed that she had marked X’s on a bunch of the boxes we were going to use! She thought we were only using a few of them and was marking off which ones the director didn’t want as hero props. I explained the situation to her, and she immediately apologized. By admitting her mistake and not fighting me over it, we had just enough time to fix this mistake and get everything ready for the shoot.”
In addition to maintaining a steady dialog with the crew, Duncan also provides them with tons of reference material. She keeps a small library of binders with concepts, past set pictures, and miscellaneous materials which she can present at any time, along with a 4’x8’ reference board in her home office.
“I sketch every set too. We’re in a visual field, and it’s always smart to let people know what you’re looking at, ” Duncan says. “They always say to me, ‘This set looks just like your drawing!’”
One Woman Wrecking Crew
Frequent visitors to the Belcourt Theatre may recognize Duncan’s work from the popular “Rifftrax Live!” events, which she has been doing for the last fifteen years. But more recently, Duncan has worked on many projects, including corporate events, music events, a few episodic series, and even a nonprofit gig. She’s also currently working on a few set design projects for seasonal music festivals.
To execute any of these highly detailed set designs, Duncan works with several other people. One of her preferred vendors is Nashville fabrication artist Brian Somerville.
Duncan says, “Brian is the one I go to when the assignment is unusual. He does some really great stuff, and always brings something new to the table when working with me.”
Outside of Somerville, Duncan has a carpentry crew, as well as set painters and other preferred vendors with whom she works. The size of the crews varies based on the scope and scale of the project. Usually, it’s between five and 12 people.
“It’s a team sport. In this business, you have to know a lot of people,” she says. “We can build or make anything anyone comes up with. I also have a lot of relationships with local businesses, in case we need to rent something.”
For further information about the work of Duncan Ragsdale, be sure to visit her website and social media.