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Metfilm School

The Power of Set Design with BA Graduate Suzi McDowell

By Elise Czyzowska

04 June 2024

When it comes to a career in the screen industries, there are hundreds of pathways available. And for many creatives, you don’t know which one to go down – until you’ve had the chance to try. This is exactly what happened with Suzi McDowell while studying BA Content, Media & Film Production.

Developing her expertise and her leadership skills in production roles, it was only in her third year that Suzi found her love for Set Design, leading to her working as Production Designer & Costumer for her Graduation Project, The Doll’s House

First of all, can you share a little about the idea behind The Doll’s House?

Our protagonist, Dee, becomes consumed by an obsession with her mother’s carer, leading her into a series of bizarre scenarios and dreamlike fantasies.

The story explores themes of lust, obsession, and desire, drawing the audience into a metaphorical dollhouse. We wanted to create a film that is surreal, original, and vibrant, encouraging viewers to question the nature of reality.

And what did your roles as Production Designer and Costumer entail?

As Set Designer, I meticulously brought Dee’s bizarre world to life. Securing a budget gave me the creative freedom to develop a comprehensive plan, from crafting a detailed prop list and visual layout, to designing, sourcing, and creating props.

For the costumes, I aimed to reflect each character’s personality through their attire, sourcing items from charity shops, second-hand online stores, and within our team.

Pre-production was the most important, as I had to make sure that I had secured and created every single prop needed, and be ready to bring it all into reality.

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BTS of The Doll’s House with Suzi McDowell

Was it challenging, to translate a narrative through costumes and visuals?

Definitely! However, I feel as though when you’re placing a prop or designing a room, you do so with purpose. Why is this frame that picture? Why should the bed sheets have a hint of red?

I think it’s important to let the audience subconsciously see hints of the themes in your story, to enhance their engagement.

If you’re struggling to do so, find films that you have taken inspiration from, or that share similar genres. Shot Deck, for example, is an incredible site that allows you to explore beautiful stills!

And from the stills, you’ve created a beautiful, meticulous set. Any tips for achieving such results on a budget?

Thank you! Absolutely, my advice would be to always source within your group, friends, or family first. Get as much ticked off your prop list as possible before you dip into your budget.

Next step: source second hand or freebies online. Sites like Free Cycle, GumTree, Vinted or Ebay.

And lastly, if you still cannot find the remaining props, use sites like Amazon (although it’s important to shop sustainably wherever you can).

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The Doll’s House Still

Throughout your degree, what other roles have you taken on?

I naturally work best in a leadership role, so I’ve explored Producing and being a 1st AD – I thoroughly enjoy running the day as the latter (I can be quite loud!), and when the day runs as planned, it’s very rewarding.

Producing carries a lot of stress, and looking back, I feel as though I could of tackled it with a better mindset, to not let it feel so overwhelming. The main thing is to remaining calm and consistent.

And more generally, how do you think your degree has brought out the best of your creativity?

I’m genuinely so grateful that in the last two years, I discovered my talent in set design, and I’ve had an astonishing amount of wonderful feedback.

The course is so proactive and practical, which allows you to trial different roles, and see what suits you best.

Being set briefs by such diverse industry partners allows you to gain skills in multiple media productions – you may find some more challenging than others, but you’ll learn something new every time.

When I did my first project as a set designer, I discovered exactly what path I wanted to go into – but that wasn’t until my third year!

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The Doll’s House is Suzi McDowell’s Graduation Project…

With The Doll’s House as your Graduation Project, what are you hoping to do next?

I feel fortunate that the outcome was just how I desired, so having that in my portfolio to show industry professionals is what I aim to do.

I’m starting my outreach, and am meeting as many production designers as I can, to hopefully get my foot in the door in the props or set department!

I’m continuing to design work, and am working as a Production Designer for a low budget music video this month – I want to gain as much experience, and work for my portfolio, as possible!

And finally, looking back to the start of your time at MetFilm School, what’s one piece of advice you’d give your younger self?

This question made me feel emotional! I would say to myself to not stress as much – it gets you nowhere.

Listen to your crew, plan as early as possible, and make sure you have fun.

You may think you have no idea which path you want to go down at the beginning, but trust the process, work hard, and you’ll discover and learn more than you’ll ever realise.