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How to Be an Art Director

1 Feb , 2001  

Written by Amy Souza | Posted by:

So you’ve got what it takes to decorate your own apartment, but could you do the same thing on a movie set? Find out what it takes to be part of a film’s art department.

What do you do when you want to create a grungy apartment setting for your short film but your girlfriend won’t let destroy her furniture? Or you need to turn a modern office suite into a detective’s squad room yet you have no idea where to begin? Get thee to an art director.

The folks in the art department — including the production designer, art director, set designer, and prop master — are the ones who create a film’s look. They build sets and dress them. They choose furniture, wall coverings, and rugs. They have the sensibilities and skills of an architect, an interior designer, a carpenter, and a world-class shopper all rolled into one.

On a large feature film, the art department will include a number of people with unique job titles. A production designer is in charge of everything artistic. An art director works for the production designer. A set decorator works independent of the art director, but is in charge of gathering all the set dressing and furniture. A prop master takes care of props and usually works under the art director. On a smaller independent film or sometimes on a commercial shoot, the lines begin to blur. The art director often does everything with the help of one or two assistants. And sometimes, the art department is a one-person show.

Tom Walden is an art director, prop master, and set designer who lives in Rhode Island. Though he calls his career choice "a foolish thing to do in New England," he’s been making it work here for 25 years. He’s seen the amount of feature and commercial work dwindle since the late 90s, but he also cautions those who are thinking of heading to L.A. or New York. "You have to really be on your toes [there]," he says. "You’re competing with many more people." Walden works on feature films as well as commercials. His first feature job was as a prop master for "Friday the 13th Part 2." He was also a set dresser on "Amistad" although he is quick to note that he " … spent most of [his] time making period labels for the cargo." He was also the art director on "Outside Providence." Here, he offers some advice to budding art department types.

Take design courses.

If you’re in school, take advantage of classes offered in your art department. If you’re already out in the world, look into continuing education offerings. Walden suggests taking classes in interior design, architectural design, and drafting.

Volunteer with a theater.

One of the most desirable traits of an art director is versatility, so try it all. Build and paint scenic flats, design a set, be a prop master. These skills are transferable to work in film and video, and you just might find a niche where you excel.

Learn by doing.

Walden says, "Find the most brilliant person who will have you. Work for free for somebody who’s a genius. You’ll end up doing much better work."

Remove your ego.

It’s really not about you. "People shouldn’t be oohing and aahing," at your work, says Walden. In fact, the sign of good set design is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Also, remember that you’re not creating lasting artwork. At the end of a production, says Walden, "We tear [the work] all down and throw it in the dumpster."

Become computer literate.

If you’re not comfortable using a computer, start practicing now. Here are the programs Walden suggests you learn: Adobe PhotoShop and Illustrator; QuarkXpress; and a good CAD program for drafting.

Some qualities that an art director needs are not necessarily things you can learn. For one, you need a good spatial sense. Can you look around a room and get an idea of what will fit and what won’t? If an actor is 6 feet tall, can you figure out how high the flats need to be so the camera won’t see the top of the set?

You also need good communication skills. Essentially, an art director needs to take a film or commercial director’s concepts and turn them into reality. Initial meetings are usually held a few months prior to production and that’s where you get a clue into what the director is thinking. "Sometimes what the client says they want is not what they really want. You have to hope you’re on the same wavelength," he says.

To truly succeed you also need to be a good manager. "The pressure and tone of the job can dictate friction," says Walden. The key to a good working environment, he says, is to get a great group of talented people together that you trust and that you like working with. Walden can’t stress this point enough: "It’s such a group effort," he says.


Further Reading:

"What an Art Director Does: An Introduction to Motion Picture Production Design," Ward Preston

"Art Direction for Film and Video," Robert L. Olson

"Setting the Scene: The Great Hollywood Art Directors," Robert S. Sennett

"By Design: Interviews with Film Production Designers" Vincent Lobrutto

"Film Architecture: Set Designs from Metropolis to Blade Runner," Dietrich Neumann