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How Design Impacts and Elevates Storytelling with Production Designer Angran Li

Production Designer Angran Li gives Script a peek behind the curtain of being a visual storyteller, how her work impacts story and character, and what kind of stories she's drawn to as a production designer.

Angran Li was born and raised in Beijing, China. She holds a BFA interior design degree from Parsons the New School for Design in New York in 2016, and she graduated from the American Film Institute with an MFA degree in Film Production Design in 2018. She served as a design assistant on Broadway Musical-George Takei’s Allegiance and Michael Mayer and Peter Lerman‘s Brooklynite in 2015, assisted SUKHISHVILI GEORGIAN NATIONAL BALLET performance at Lincoln Center, worked in NYFW 2016, assisted on interior residential projects at Nicole Fuller Interiors, and helped production team of Costume Institute’s Spring 2016 Exhibition at Metropolitan Museum. She also spent her time as Director Assistant, Camera Operator for an Independent film CLEISTES BIFARIA and EDGING. Every single film project she has been a production designer on has been nominated and won awards over the world, at more than 30 major festivals including BAFTA, Cannes, Iris Prize LGBT+Film Festival, Woodstock Film Festival, Shanghai International Film Festival and more.

As a screenwriter, it's highly important to focus on your craft as a world builder, and be selective on what descriptive elements to include to convey a particular location, the way a room looks that a character lives and/or moves through, and how the environment impacts your characters and plot. And it's also important to think about how your world will be visually translated to screen - but let's pump the brakes, that's not necessarily the screenwriter's job - the visual translation is left to the director and their key team players, like a cinematographer, an editor, and every film productions secret weapon - a production designer. Angran Li gives Script a peek behind the curtain of being a visual storyteller, how her work impacts story and character, and what kind of stories she's drawn to as a production designer.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: What initially inspired you to become a production designer?

Angran Li: I think it's probably because of how films will tell stories in general. When I was in high school, which is in Beijing, my school had a lot of extra academic activities between classes or after school; I joined one called IBTV. So by that time there were only directing, cinematography, and editing categories. I happened to have a Digital Video camera back then, so I became the one who was holding the camera with a group, and then shooting stuff on our campus, which led me to the position of DP. Whenever our school had events, I would also be one of the cameras shooting- and then we also wrote some interesting short stories based on our campus location and we did expand our location radius outside of our campus eventually, doing stuff just for fun. But the thing is- the more time I was holding the DV, I actually thought maybe I wanted to become a DP or an editor, because I just thought, ‘Oh that's something that I've been doing.’ But then I realized when a story has to be framed with a certain look of the location, sometimes it doesn't really work. So, the more time I held the DV, the more I really wished I could pre-make stuff of what I want to put into my frames. So I realized, to be able to make sure my character is believable, I really needed someone to change the location we got. [laughs] So, the more time I thought about it, I felt I wanted to learn how to do it, and have others hold the DV because then I can work on things that are going to be shown inside my frame. I actually worked for some directors as First AD or Script Supervisor on sets before, sometimes I’d assist in makeup. And I just felt like no matter what I really do with film in a crew, my eyes still go to those places of the space and environments because I think if I can get the environment right, it’s going to elevate the frame and the whole story of the film. So, I just made that decision to study design.

[Creating a Feeling and Time with 'The Souvenir Part II' Writer-Director Joanna Hogg]

Sadie: That's amazing. I love that you've done kind of a little bit of everything on a film set, which definitely helps a lot. Now, you have one of the most important jobs on a film set, you’re visually translating what's on the script page to what we see on the camera. Do you focus on thematic elements or characters or location or all of the above to create these worlds?

Angran: I really appreciate that you said the ‘role of visually translating’. It’s like translating the words into worlds. It's kind of poetic. And with my focus- I would say, I focus on the story. I'm not sure if this makes sense to everybody- but to me the existence of characters and all the elements within the script, are all individual elements that show up because they need to serve the story, and they are there just to push where we want the story to go. I remember I received a script one time that I already knew was going to be a very crazy story design-wise, but I needed to deliver, and it already had a lot of rooms construction-wise that I needed to build from scratch with not a lot of budget and the schedule was very tight. I asked my writer and director in a meeting, ‘Why do we not have a bathroom but only a dresser in the bedroom?’ I was like, ‘These two characters need to talk and share some secrets, and then you want them to walk in from the bed to the dresser. How much of the walk is creating privacy within that term? And then, it's funny, they said, ‘Angran, we’re just worried you won't have time to build that.’ I started laughing, but then my second question was, ‘Why do we need a kitchen? Because to me it gets more complicated in that time period and story and that’s harder to construct than a bathroom.’ And then they said, ‘Oh, because the character has a moment and we need the audience to see the character walk away into a different room, so that the others who stay in the room could have a private conversation,’ I was like, ‘Great. How about I cheat a wall, and then the leading actor can go to a different space. And then, we don't show the kitchen because you don't need to show that on camera, and I will be able to construct you a bathroom,’ and then with that we all agreed, ‘Yeah, that space works,’ and we all ended up happy with our story. I think when it comes to a creative process, it might be just the way production design works. I'm just going to do things differently compared to other departments to tell a story, but it's all serving our story.

Angran Li

Angran Li

Sadie: You're thinking outside of the box to make the story work and make it work so that it’s shootable as well, which I think some writers and directors kind of get lost in the minutiae of the logic behind it, or it's, you're making a movie - it's movie magic - have fun with it.

Angran: Yeah, exactly. I really enjoy those times, because I do have to think about the story first, but then I will have to think about my logistics. It’s really about appreciating the people who are thinking about me, so I can deliver, but also I will have to rethink to meet their expectations of my work.

Sadie: What kind of stories are you drawn to tell as a visual storyteller?

Angran: It's really interesting that you asked this because I've just been thinking about this question recently, because I just finished watching the Netflix show Squid Game, and I think my answer is still; I’m drawn to all kinds of interesting stories. The reason I say that's still my answer is because the first thing that came to my mind after I finished watching the first episode of Squid Game, I was like, ‘Where did this story come from?’, ‘Who is the writer?’ ‘Who is the director?’ And I found out it was written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk. I think by then my neighbor heard me scream [laughs] because a film that was always one of my favorite films is called Silenced, which was made in 2011. I don't know if people still remember the design of that film, but to me that was one with a really powerful story that I would have loved to work on. It was a great example of the fact that design doesn't really need to shine in that type of story, it did its job by serving the overall storyline, and it made the film so strong. The design made the world believable within that story. And if I remember correctly, I think the Korean National Assembly passed a law named after that film, because that film is so powerful, by using the visual format of filmmaking it impacted real life. I remembered the actor Gong Yoo talked about when he was reading that book, which it is based from, and showed it to the director and when I saw Gong Yoo in the first episode of Squid Game, I was like, ‘Wow, what a choice to be cast in this story.’ And I got really excited. I still didn't know who the director at that moment was, maybe I just watched that TV show because of the actor. I'm always inspired by his choice of scripts that he will decide to be acting in, but now it just made more sense to me. So yeah, I really like interesting stories, new perspectives, things that haven’t been told in certain ways yet. I think to be able to make the world of Squid Game believable, production design has to shine, but if it's an interesting story design could just serve the story under an invisibility cloak. Also, if people remember something or anything from a cinema-based story, that means the visual storyteller did amazing work, because cinema is visual.

[Curating a Mood and Tone Utilizing Music and Character with 'Yellowjackets' Creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson]

Sadie: I can think of so many films that have such a big impact just like you said, breaking that fourth wall or how it bleeds over into reality because it's just so profound and people really gravitated towards it. Any advice for screenwriters on what kind of descriptive elements that they may not necessarily need to include in their screenplays, or maybe that you would hope that they would include more just to make the job of a production designer more clear cut, or does any of that matter?

Angran: Well, most of the stories that I’ve worked on so far are written and directed by the same person, but I also had other works by different people. I don't want to get involved in their creative process, but when they feel like it's time to show me as the production designer the story, I will read it and I will ask questions of what I need to know or why it has to be like that. So, I will put my own impact into those stories. I don't really have anything specific. It's impacting what's going to be in the script, but if there’s too much detail written, I'm also okay with that. But I will question if this means so much to you and why- and it’s more about really asking not what it means to you as a writer, but does it mean something to your character.

Sadie: I love that, it's such an important detail to think about as a writer, thank you for that.

Angran: Even as a designer, I can't just design something that I like, I would have to think about if it fits the character. If I'm just picking what I like, then the world is not going to work. [laughs]

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