The Signature Production Design of David Gropman

Caroline Connor, Mason Barron, Nick Tran

Intro to Media and Society

Professor Patti

Final Project Essay


The Signature Production Design of David Gropman



            In the media industry, audiences have been able to determine signature tools and themes that directors use throughout their productions.  These signature tools and themes, such as a specific camera shot, or sound effect, have become known as an artist’s auteur.  Production designer David Gropman has been in the production design industry since 1982.  He has two Academy Award nominations over the past thirteen years, and has won two awards for production design at the Saturn Film Festival.  Some of Gropman’s most notable works include Life of Pie, Chocolat, and Cider House Rules.  These three films maintain a signature style that David Gropman manages to portray as a production designerThese popular films tell the stories of fictional tales that take place in different time frames as to when they were produced.  As an auteur, David Gropman has the unique ability of producing unique and realistic sets that audiences can relate to, no matter the time period.  Through the use of location, recreation of sets, and particular colors, Gropman has defined himself as an auteur through his many works.

            Although it is one of the more important aspects of film, production design is frequently disregarded in the grand scheme of film production.  Production designers, also referred to as art directors or film architects, are essentially in charge of choosing and creating the set and/or setting of a film. In Film Architecture and the Transitional Imagination: Set Design in 1930’s European Cinema, the authors claim that sets are explicitly held responsible for providing “a film with its inimitable look, its geographical, historical, social and cultural contexts and associated material details, and the physical framework within which a film’s narrative is to proceed” (Bergfelder et al 11).   These crucial aspects of film would not be made possible without a production designer, and are prominent influences in illustrating genre, tone, and even encompassing aspects of narratives.  Set design is also attributed as being a “central aspect of mise-en-scène, whether using (and then frequently enhancing) real locations or creating entirely artificial, and in recent years increasingly virtual, spaces for the screen” (Bergfelder et all 11).  As technology has progressed, so has the art of set and production design.  In fact, history shows that there is a direct correlation between the increase of technology and the importance of the production designer (Bergfelder et all 12).  This rise of technology has allowed production designers to more accurately create another world for their specific films.  David Gropman in particular, over his nearly three decades of work on set and production design, has experienced and incorporated a large variety of technical and non-technical approaches.

            David Gropman was born on June 16, 1952 in Los Angeles California.  Growing up around the Hollywood area, Gropman quickly took in the surrounding characteristics of film and theatre. His work as a production designer began in 1982 with Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a low budget film that also made it’s way to the Broadway stage.  His work in the theatre gave him the insight he needed to turn almost any setting into a realistic experience for the audience.  Gropman’s first major role as a production designer came in 1992, when he was assigned as the production designer for The Cutting Edge, a romantic comedy that became an instant audience favorite.  David Gropman often found himself taking on the challenge of converting novels into films.  This began in 1993 when he took on the role of converting John Steinbeck’s classic novel, Of Mice and Men.  Gropman was able to realistically create a 1930’s southern plantation setting in three different California locations.  His next big movie to hit the big screen was Cider House Rules, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination for production design in 1993.  His streak of success continued one year later as he won the Saturn Award for production design for the movie Chocolat, the story of a woman and her daughter who open up a chocolate shop in a small French village.  However, David Gropman’s most recent work on the film Life of Pi is perhaps the most raved about by critics.  The Oscar nominated film tells the magical story of a young boy who survives a disaster at sea, only to find himself stranded on a small boat with a Bengal Tiger.  The boy’s journey at sea and on a desolate island gave David Gropman the difficult task of “tell[ing] a tale of magic in a natural world” (Baugh 18).  The success Gropman has had in regards to production design, despite nearly impossible conditions, awarded him with an Academy Award nomination in 2013.   

            David Gropman has a fantastic ability as a production designer to seamlessly incorporate both studio and location sets to realistically depict authentic time periods and relevant contexts.  Gropman has a knack for finding what seems to be a perfect location for whatever film he is working on and simultaneously recreating these settings in a studio or at a different location.  A perfect example of Gropman’s expertise is the brilliant setting of the film Chocolat.  Filmed in the actual town where the specific chocolate of the movie was manufactured, Gropman created a perfect set up in the French village.  One of the challenges Gropman faced with this location was the period setting.  Filming in 2000, Gropman was challenged with a setting that took place in 1959, but felt as though it was set even further back in time.  In collaboration with the costume designer, Gropman effectively recreated the authentic time period feel.  Accodring to Confectionary creations: Designers David Gropman and Renee Ehrlich Kalfus dip into the world of Chocolat, within the village, there needed to be a strong relationship between the church, the town square, and the chocolaterie.  Gropman created a smaller version of a town square outside of the chocolaterie in order to portray a more intimate feel for the village.  Calhoun refers to the interior of the chocolaterie as being “the heart of the film” (Calhoun 1).  The easiest way to transform the interior was to use paint, in which case Gropman selectively decided to use turquoise, a relevant color native to the main character’s South American roots.  The color scheme proved to be difficult, but Gropman credits the director Roger Pratt for successfully working with it (Calhoun 2).  Another aspect of the interior design was the cultural and incomplete decorations within the chocolaterie, which symbolized the character’s limited resources.  The window scenes with both the town square and the chocolaterie were filmed on location, but the majority of the scenes in the interior of the chocolaterie were filmed on a recreated set in a studio.  As you can see in the “Your Favorite” clip, there are both scenes shot on location and on set, wonderfully put together.  The mise-en-scène of this particular scene is effective because the combination of the town square and the entirety of the choclaterie are meticulously presented in such a way that expose the disparity between the town and the chocolaterie.   

            Cider House Rules tells the story of a doctor trained in an orphanage who decides to set out to see the real world.  The story set during WWII is yet again based off of the novel, this time written by John Irving.  The clip titled “Adopting Homer” ( shows the detail David Gropman went into when constructing the set of the orphanage.  Everything, from the typewriter down to the style of window curtains and panes of glass all relate to what would be a 1940’s orphanage.  The St. Charles orphanage that is showed in the clip was actually a state mental hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts.  This is where David Gropman boasts his capabilities as a production designer.  As Jeannine Oppewall points out, the production designer is responsible “for altering those locations to suit the demands of the story” (Oppweall).  Gropman’s ability to turn an abandoned mental hospital into a realistic 1940’s orphanage conveys the sense of realism he is able to portray to his audience despite the time lapse. 

             Life of Pi, originally a fictional book by Yann Mattel, placed David Gropman with a difficult task as a production designer.  What seemed absurd, “visualizing a novel that was universally considered impossible to film,” David Baugh now brags that David Gropman has made it “a masterpiece of control” (Baugh 18).  Gropman has done so by turning Mattel’s fantasy novel into a reality on the big screen.  He managed to turn an abandoned airport in Taiwan into a magical forest, just as Mattel described in the novel.  Gropman also found the perfect tree, the banyan tree, to depict the carnivorous tree’s described in Mattel’s book.  In the clip “Trailer #1” of Life of Pi ( the trees are evident at 1:39.  These trees are solely indigenous to the specific location Gropman chose, and the extent of his work shows the type of realism Gropman successfully conveys to turn fiction into reality for his audiences.

            The clip “Alone with Tiger” from Gropman’s Life of Pi is a great example that proves his unique ability to bring fictional, fantasy images into realism.  Gropman did a great job creating this scene, paying close attention to every detail: from the boat to Pi’s costume. The mise-en-scène was designed in order to make the audiences believe that this story is taking place in the mid-twentieth century. This clip is important because it focuses on the details of the boat, one of the three most important objects of in the movie, other than Pi himself and the Bengal Tiger.  Knowing the importance of the boat, Gropman hired a Taiwanese Yacht company to construct two lifeboats inspired by real lifeboats that were manufactured in the 1940’s.

           Another Gropman’s signature style that you can see in his works is his ability to pick the right colors in order to create the right tone for the film.  Gropman believes that colors and tones are important as they can alter the moods of the viewer. As previously mentioned, the turquoise shade of the chocolaterie was imperative to its interior.  Colors were also crucial aspects in Life of Pi.  As you can see in the “Alone with Tiger” clip, in order to illustrate the most realistic look of the lifeboat, Gropman decided to paint the vessel in authentic hues with bright white for the boat, off-white for the tarp, and safety orange for the boat’s interior.  Gropman himself was satisfied with this work, he said: “the white, orange, and the blue of the sky and the water completely inform the color palette of the film.  To me, that image is everything… I am proud of that… that the lifeboat feels so real” (Miller 1).  This alludes to David Gropman’s unique style of color contrasts in his films, which have contributed to his recognition as an auteur.

            Through color contrasts, location, and recreation of sets, David Gropman has been able to create sets unique to his films and relatable to the audience, no matter the time period or fictional qualities.  The clips from Chocolat, Cider House Rules, and Life of Pi, are just a few examples of Gropman’s signature films that classify him as an auteur.  Although these films were adaptations of novels, Gropman successfully manifested the unique ability to make them his own in true auteur fashion.


Works Cited

Baugh, Michael. “Michael Baugh on LIFE OF PI.” Daily Variety [Newtown, MA] 1 2 2013, 18. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. <>.


Bell, James. “Carnivorous Trees.” Production designer David Gropman on how the film’s            fantastic   settings were rooted in reality THE ISLAND 23.1 (2013): 30-30. Film and Television Literature Index. Web. 26 Mar 2013.


Bergfelder, Tim. Film architecture and the transnational imagination [electronicresource] : set      design in 1930s European cinema. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press,            c2007. ebrary. Web. March 27, 2013.



Calhoun, John. “Confectionary Creations: Designers David Gropman and Renee Ehrlich Kalfus                Dip into the World of Chocolat.” Entertainment Design 35.3(2001): 35-37. ProQuest.  Web. 5 Mar. 2013.             <   680&gt;.


“David Gropman.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2013.                                                                              <;.


“David Gropman Production Designer Videos.” MOVIECLIPS. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2013.                             <;.


Miller, Julie. “Sketch to Still: Life of Pi Designer David Gropman on Creating a Magical Island,                Replica Tiger Scratches, and 1950s Paris on a Taiwanese Tarmac.” Vanity Fair Online.                    N.p., 15 Feb. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2013.                               <      nomination&gt;





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