Art & Design Department

Films can be located anywhere; creating the visual world or setting for a film is the role of the Art Department. The look of sets or locations transports audiences into the world of the story, and is an essential element in making films convincing and evocative. These settings are rarely left to chance by film makers; a great deal of work and imagination goes into constructing appropriate backdrops to any story.

The Art Department usually employs the largest number of people on any film crew. On big budget fantasy, period drama or sci-fi films, the Art Department Offices, and Drawing and Construction Studios can occupy a vast area and employ hundreds of talented people. The Production Designer is the head of the Art Department, and works closely with the Director to create the overall look of the film.

Months before the beginning of each film shoot, the Production Designer works with the Director to decide upon the visual identity of the film, and draws up sketches which provide the inspiration for the subsequent work of the entire department. Since the work of the Art Department usually accounts for the biggest spend on films, the Production Designer also works closely with the Producer to ensure that all the sets can be delivered on time and within budget.

Transforming the initial drawings to 3-dimensional sets takes an enormous amount of talent and commitment from everyone in the Art Department – from the Production Designer to the Art Department Runner. Months are spent researching, story boarding, drafting, model making, visiting locations, building sets, ordering props and dressing sets before filming begins.

Throughout the shoot, new sets must be built and dismantled in short periods of time, and the Art Department must be on constant standby in case sets need to be changed or rebuilt. Most practitioners in the Art Department are Art School graduates, and for those who aspire to become Art Directors and/or Production Designers experience is as valuable as talent.

The creative jobs in this department require an eye for decoration and detail, the ability to conceptualise ideas and think visually, a methodical approach to work, and excellent communication skills. Art Directors and Production Designers usually enter the Art Department as Runners, progressing to become Trainees, Assistants, and Junior Draughtsmen* before earning the opportunity to take more senior positions as Assistant Art Directors or Draughtsmen*. Set Decorators usually start as Assistant Set Decorators. There are also a number of support roles, including Production Buyers and Art Department Co-ordinators, which are less creative but which require excellent organisational skills.

1. Production Designer

Production Designers are major heads of department on film crews, and are responsible for the entire Art Department. They play a crucial role in helping Directors to achieve the film’s visual requirements, and in providing Producers with carefully calculated schedules which offer viable ways of making films within agreed budgets and specified periods of time. Filming locations may range from an orderly Victorian parlour, to a late-night café, to the interior of an alien space ship. The look of a set or location is vital in drawing the audience into the story, and is an essential element in making a film convincing and evocative. A great deal of work and imagination goes into constructing an appropriate backdrop to any story, and into selecting or constructing appropriate locations and/or sets.

Directors of Photography and Production Designers are largely responsible for informing and realising the Director’s vision. Production Designers begin work at the very early stages of pre-production and are requested by the Director and/or Producer. They work on a freelance basis, and may have to prepare detailed drawings and specifications in order to pitch for work on a number of productions before they are offered work on one of them. Although the work can be very demanding and the hours long, this is one of the most highly skilled, creatively fulfilling roles within the film industry.

What is the job?
Production Designers may be asked to look at scripts before a Director is approached, to provide estimates of the projected Art Department spend on films. When Production Designers first read a screenplay, they assess the visual qualities that will help to create atmosphere and bring the story to life.

After preparing a careful breakdown of the script, they meet with the Director to discuss how best to shoot the film, e.g. to decide: whether to use sets and /or locations; what should be built and what should be adapted; whether there is a visual theme that recurs throughout the film; whether there are certain design elements that may give an emotional or psychological depth to the film; whether CGI (computer generated imagery) should be used. Production Designers must calculate the budgets, and decide how the money and effort will be spent. These discussions are followed by an intense period of research during which Production Designers and their Specialist Researchers source ideas from books, photographs, paintings, the internet, etc.

Production Designers deliver their design sketches (detailing mood, atmosphere, lighting, composition, colour and texture) to Art Directors who oversee the production of technical drawings and models, which are used by the Construction Department to build the sets and to adapt locations. Props Buyers and Set Decorators liaise closely, sourcing props and organising the manufacture of specialist items. As the start of shooting approaches, Production Designers manage a large number of individuals, prioritising the work schedule and carefully monitoring the budget. When shooting starts, they are usually on set early each morning to view each new set up with the Director, Director of Photography and Standby Art Director, responding to any requests or queries. Subsequently, in the Art Department office Production Designers check on the construction and dressing of other sets, and sign off on sets/locations for the following day’s shoot. Although Production Designers usually finish work on the last day of principal photography, on larger films they may be involved for longer periods.

Essential knowledge and skills
Production Designers must have expert knowledge of many art and design related subjects including draughtsmanship, technical drawing, colour theory, architecture, building and construction, history of design, interior design, cameras and lenses, lighting, etc. Production Designers must also have full knowledge of computer budgeting software and computer aided design programmes (CADS).
Key Skills include:

  • excellent visual awareness and design skills;
  • ability to inspire and motivate a team towards a common aesthetic goal;
  • excellent management and leadership skills;
  • ability to prioritise and to meet deadlines;
  • good communication and presentation skills;
  • tact and diplomacy;
  • knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.

2. Art Director

Art Directors act as project managers for the biggest department on any film – the Art Department. They facilitate the Production Designer’s creative vision for all the locations and sets that eventually give the film its unique visual identity. Art Directors are responsible for the Art Department budget and schedule of work, and help the Production Designer to maximise the money allocated to the department. Art Directors are usually requested by the Production Designer, and are responsible for the Assistant Art Director, the Draughtsman* (as many as 20 Draughtsmen may be employed on big budget films), the Art Department Assistant(s) and all Construction personnel. As Art Directors must find practical solutions to creative problems while simultaneously monitoring the budget, this is highly skilled work. Many Art Directors work on television drama and commercials, as well as on films. The hours are long and the job can involve long periods working away from home. Art Directors work on a freelance basis.

What is the job?
On big budget films, Art Directors start work up to 4 to 5 months before shooting begins (on low budget films 8 weeks may be sufficient). When the Final Schedule is delivered (detailing the precise order of scenes in which the film will be shot), Art Directors begin the work of overseeing the preparation of the first sets required. Art Directors analyse the script to identify all props or special items that may require longer lead times. Simultaneously, a team of Draughtsmen draw up numerous plans for sets and locations for use by Art Directors when working with the Construction Managers and their team. This is an extremely busy, pressured time for every member of the Art Department; as well as coping with this pressure, Art Directors must also tightly control the budget (which is prepared and monitored on a spreadsheet).

On big productions, weekly meetings with the Accountant are key to this process. A major part of Art Directors’ work is troubleshooting – they must find cost-effective solutions which also provide practical answers to construction and decorating problems. During pre-production, they are also responsible for commissioning all Special Effects (such as explosions or car crash sequences), hiring all vehicles (from cars to horse-drawn carriages) and organising the casting of all animals (chosen by the Director). As the shooting date approaches, Art Directors liaise closely with the Location Manager to negotiate when locations can be prepared and dressed.

During filming, Art Directors continue to oversee the construction, dressing and striking (dismantling) of the remaining sets. After the film wraps (shooting is completed), Art Directors must ensure that all sets are struck and locations cleared, and that all outstanding Art Department bills are paid.

Essential knowledge and skills

Art Directors should have a good all round knowledge of interior design and architecture as well as a practical understanding of building and construction. They also need a good knowledge of computer budgeting software, e.g., Excel. A full clean driving license is also required.
Key Skills include:

  • a good eye for decoration and detail;
  • ability to conceptualise ideas;
  • ability to think visually;
  • methodical approach to work;
  • ability to lead a team;
  • ability to see the broader picture and to co-ordinate effectively;
  • diplomacy and sensitivity when working with artists and crew;
  • knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.

3. Carpenter

Carpenters on film productions are key members of the construction team, and they must be very skilled at their craft.  Reporting to the Chargehand Carpenter, they build, install and remove wooden structures on film sets and locations, and also make wooden props, furniture and scenic equipment.  The role requires extensive carpentry experience and creative skills, as well as the ability to work to deadlines, and under pressure.

Carpenters’ work on film production is varied, and they play a crucial role in both the look, and smooth running of the film.  Taking instructions from the Chargehand Carpenter, Carpenters may be responsible for producing a variety of structures, ranging from onscreen props such as window frames and staircases, through to replica spacecraft or medieval ships.  They also carry out a great deal of off-screen building, creating support structures such as the raised platforms that may be required by the crew during filming.

Carpenters are responsible for carrying out work to the standards and deadlines set by the Chargehand Carpenter.  During pre-production, carpenters usually work out of a film production’s workshop.  During production, carpenters may have to travel to the filming location to help assemble the wooden structures required.  At the end of the shoot, Carpenters help to ‘strike’ (dismantle and remove) the wooden structures, ensuring that they are safely and securely disposed of, stored, or returned to the appropriate place.

Key requirements for Carpenters are first-rate craft skills in carpentry and joinery, combined with the ability to provide creative input during the construction of film sets and props.  They must be aware of the creative shortcuts that can be used to build very short term, fake constructions as cheaply, but as safely, as possible.  They must be literate and numerate: the ability to understand complex drawings, specifications and technical literature is essential, as are strong mathematical skills to calculate angles and dimensions.  Carpenters must also be team players, have physical strength, stamina, a good sense of balance, and be comfortable working at heights.  Full knowledge of the Health and Safety requirements when working with tools, is essential.

4. Set Decorator/Assistant Set Decorator

Set Decorators provide anything that furnishes a film set, excluding structural elements. They may have to provide a range of items, from lumps of sugar and tea spoons, to newspapers, furniture and drapes, to cars, carriages, or even cats and dogs. There are two types of props: action props, or all props that are described in the shooting script; and dressing props, or items that help to bring characters to life or to give a certain atmosphere and sense of period to a place.

Small details often tell the audience the most about characters in feature films: the pictures hanging on the walls of their homes; the contents of their fridge or bathroom cabinet; their books; the treasured objects kept in a box hidden in the desk drawer. All of these details are created by the imagination and creative flair of Set Decorators, who research, prepare and oversee the dressing of every set and adapted location on a feature film. Many Set Decorators work on commercials, where they are known as Stylists, as well as on films. They work on a freelance basis with a number of Set Designers who usually specifically request them. The hours are long and the job can involve long periods working away from home.

What is the job?
Once Set Decorators have met with the Production Designer to discuss the agreed aesthetic of the film, they visit numerous Prop Houses, where they carefully select the bigger props and book them for the shoot. In the Art Department office, Set Decorators prepare a detailed prop breakdown, marking the script up and listing requirements for action props, animals, vehicles, dressing props and any graphics items (letters, newspapers, posters, books etc). Production Buyers and Graphic Artists also prepare their own lists which are compared to check for any missing items. These lists are combined to make the definitive list from which Set Decorators work. The required items are then located, purchased or hired, and where necessary model-makers are commissioned, arrangements are made for furniture to be re-upholstered, etc. When the Final Schedule is delivered (detailing the precise shooting order of scenes in the film), definitive lists of all props and set decoration are prepared according to daily requirements.

Set Decorators may also work on product placement arrangements, or on acquiring copyright clearances for branded items. Close to the beginning of the shoot, Set Decorators photograph all items, taking careful measurements where necessary, and allocate the appropriate props to each set. The day before shooting begins Set Decorators and their teams arrive in the early hours to begin dressing the set. After the Set Designer has checked over the dressed set and made any last minute changes or additions, and the Director and the Director of Photography have given their final approvals, Set Decorators begin work on the next scene detailed on the schedule. Because locations and prop hire can be very expensive, striking (dismantling) each set and returning all the props must be completed as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Essential knowledge and skills
A wide knowledge of the history of design and decoration is important. Set Decorators must also have contacts with a range of Prop Hire companies. Basic computer skills and a full clean driving license are also required.
Key Skills include:

  • good eye for decoration and precise attention to detail;
  • enthusiasm for dressing objects and for decoration;
  • good sense of colour and form;
  • a methodical approach to work;
  • creative flair;
  • ability to see the broader picture and to co-ordinate effectively;
  • ability to work as part of a team;
  • knowledge of the requirements of the relevant Health and Safety legislation and procedures.