The production designer and their Art Department are responsible for creating the fictional world the film's characters inhabit, through design, construction and set decoration they build magical worlds and accurately recreate historical settings, often down to the minutest detail on the curtain runners. Members of the Art Department can be found working on features of all budgets, commercials, corporate videos, promos, TV dramas, digital content, fashion, short films and student films. On a large budget, the Art Department can be counted in the hundreds, while working on smaller budget TV shows or features the Art Department can comprise of 5 - 10 people.
Ideally, the production designer begins work early on in the process; some designers can be involved months before the official pre-production period has even started! During this time they collaborate with the director to sketch out their vision, then turn that world into a physical reality after working through the script; breaking down the locations and sets as they go.
The Art Department is made up of many sub-departments. Those working directly with the production designer such as the art directors set designers and assistants. The set decoration includes the set decorators, props and props making, and the construction crew; which includes plasterers, carpenters, painters and scenic artists.
Creating a set in a studio can be advantageous as the production can retain absolute control of the lighting and space. Any props, painting and furnishing, can be added or taken away to facilitate specific requirements of filming the action within the design/construction. Wall's can be taken away to facilitate the track and dolly, or seeming priceless furniture can be struck to make way for a light. When the production designer is conceptualizing their designs they often need to achieve a balance between the visual and the practical; they also need to be aware of the safety of the crew. The Art Department work in close collaboration with Camera, Lighting, Locations, VFX and Costume Departments to achieve the overall atmosphere and look of the film.
WHAT ARE THE ENTRY LEVEL POSITIONS IN THE ART DEPARTMENT?
Production designers, art directors and set dressers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some start as PA’s and assistants working their way up through the department; others enter the film industry with a background in theatre set design or architecture. Some have degrees; others have a high school education. As with most departments, it’s work ethic and attitude that is so critical to attaining those entry-level roles.
Entry-level positions are dictated by budget but the role of the art department PA exists over most scripted drama, from long-running TV shows to feature films. As a PA you will be working under the supervision of the department coordinator, taking care of the logistics and smooth running of operations. You may not get the opportunity to work on set, but you will certainly see how sets are constructed and observe how the design process unfolds from the logistic perspective.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER ROLES IN THE ART DEPARTMENT?
The Art Department is often the largest below-the-line department in production. A film's budget will dictate how many of these positions are available on any given project, but on a film or tv show with a large budget you can expect to find the following positions:
Production designer: In charge of the department and one of the first members of the crew to be appointed in pre-production by the director.
Supervising art director: If working on a big-budget production a supervisor will be needed to handle the budget, schedule, liaise between Art Departments (set/construction) and production office, they are involved in all aspects of logistical operations.
Art director(s): Depending on the scale of the production you can find the positions of senior art director, art director(s) and assistant art director. If working on a big-budget production, the art directors will be responsible for individual sets, within the three structures of seniority. On more modest productions art directors assimilate the role of supervisors and become project managers, taking on the managerial and project management of the individual sets. Art directors are also present on set when the production enters principal photography, acting as the liaison between the department and the production designer.
Concept artists: Work within pre-production to aid the pre-visualization process. They bridge the gap between the VFX team and the Art Department, creating wireframe computer-generated images that represent the virtual world within the film.
Storyboard artist: Work in close collaboration with the director sketching out each scene of the movie that is used as reference material for the rest of the departments. Even though shots can change at the last minute, visually understanding what the director requires is essential during production.
Set designer (draftsmen UK): Depending on the scale of the production there will be senior SD, set designers and junior SD’s employed to work on the technical drawings that enable the construction crew to do their job.
Art Department Coordinator: The coordinator role is found in large-scale productions, and they are responsible for ordering materials, passing on documentation, monitoring expenditure, consumables, liaising with the production office, call times and communications throughout the department.
Art Department Assistant: On a low to medium budget production the role of the assistant will also be the trainee position of the department. On big-budget film, assistants can be found model making, drafting, surveying and using Photoshop and Illustrator software.
Set decorator(s): The set decorator is the production designer's key ally when approaching a project, just as the art department constructs the world the characters inhabit, the set decorators fill the world with the everyday items we find all around us. They work with the production designer on the overall look of the film and pay particular attention to color, texture and light when dressing the sets. On large scale productions, there are usually assistant set decorators also.
Property master (Props): Responsible for renting, making or buying props for the production.
Production buyer: Working with the property master, production buyers will do the footwork and source the props needed from rental houses, shops, flea markets etc.
Set decoration coordinator: Found on higher-end productions the coordinator for set decoration will be ordering materials, passing on documentation, monitoring expenditure, consumables, liaising with the production office, call times and communications throughout the department.
Graphic designer: Working with the props master and maker, graphic artists work on any prop that requires text, such as documentation, newspapers, maps, books, menus, shop signage etc. They will also be responsible for any of the hero props used in the film if graphics are involved. Graphic artists will make sure there is one prop for close-ups but a few identical props for everyday use, reserving the best one for its close up.
Prop makers: for big-budget films certain props that are hard to come by can be made by skilled craftsmen and women. If the film is set during a specific period the budget will contain enough money to craft these items in-house.
Construction manager: Working closely with the production designer, draftsmen and art directors, the construction manager is responsible for set building and the large workforce needed to make sets for feature films.
Construction coordinator: Liaising with the other departments the coordinator takes on the responsibilities such as ordering materials, passing on documentation, monitoring expenditure, consumables, liaising with the production office, call times and communications throughout the department.
Plasterers: If working on period films they can recreate a specific molding within a set, as well as giving the sets their authenticity.
Many of these positions work on set during filming, known as ‘standby xxx’ or ‘onset xxx’, and deal with last-minute alterations before the camera turns.
What is the career path in the art department?
PA's can be found in every sub-department - which is great if you are unsure of your path. The department positions are interconnected and will give you the opportunity to broaden your experience, allowing you to collect skills along the way. Take your time when you are at entry-level to experience as much as you can. Many production designers have taken a varied route. If you want to be a production designer the path could be:
PA > set designer > Assistant Art Director > Art Director > Production Designer.
If you are coming into the industry from a professional position in a related field, architecture, theatre design, etc, then you will most likely jump the chain and enter the industry as a set designer or art director. Usually, these opportunities come from word of mouth recommendations and you will still have to prove yourself set worthy.
WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE ART DEPARTMENT pa?
Working as a PA can see you pitching in and assisting with the smooth running of the department. Under the supervision of the art department coordinator, you will be involved with the logistical operations of the department, such as:
Issuing drawings. When one of the draftsmen has completed their drawing it's placed in the "drawing book", the drawing is numbered, printed out, and sent to whoever it has been issued to (the construction crew, SFX team or riggers for example).
Running errands. This can be anything from collecting supplies to collecting the cookies. You may also be delivering the drawings that have been issued.
Keeping everyone caffeinated. As the junior member of the team, you can be sent out on coffee runs so keep a notebook handy and remember who has soya milk and who has cream.
Keeping the office supplies in order and reporting when you are low on any materials such as foam core (model making material), glue, spray paint, tape, etc. The set builders will have a list that will go straight to the coordinator or the buyer.
Dressing graphics. On smaller productions with no props master or graphics, you could be called upon to help out which is why knowledge of photoshop and illustrator can be advantageous.
HOW DO I FIND WORK AS AN ART DEPARTMENT pa?
Members of the Art Department come from different backgrounds. Carpenters have been apprentices on building sites; set dressers may have come into the business from the theatre, art directors have been architects and so on.
The first few years of your career is all about self-investment. Investing in yourself means being prepared to work infrequently for less money than you would like. As you establish yourself as a member of the Art Department you will begin to generate work via your contacts. Take some time to research other mediums where an art department is called for, such as theatre, live events, television and build your professional experience whichever way you can. Scenic companies and props warehouses offer a foot in the door so start your research.
When working on your resume check it (or ask someone else to) to see it reads well and is correctly formatted. You can use the advice to help create a resume and covering letter. You can check it against our example to see if it includes all the relevant information. You’re going to want to keep it short and to the point, as many coordinators will be ‘scanning’ rather than reading so try and keep it down to one page, two max, and make sure your portfolio has a clear link at the top. Here are some things to consider:
If you have taken internships whilst studying be sure to include them and highlight what you've learned.
If you have a reference, add that at the top of your resume too. When you're creating your first resume with no industry experience as yet, think about other activities you have been engaged with, voluntary work, part-time jobs etc. Try to think about all the skills needed to work at entry-level in the film industry and apply these to your experience to date.
If you have volunteered at a film festival or found internships in the local theatre, it demonstrates your commitment, it also shows you are prepared to get things done.
If you have been waiting tables whilst studying it signifies to employers you are familiar with working unsociable hours, you can be on your feet all day and you've developed those soft skills working in a customer-facing job.
Much of the PA role in the art department can be logistics, so any good admin skills would also be a bonus and worth highlighting.
When you go to an interview, coordinators and senior members of the team are going to want to know you are proactively furthering your development and technique. Highlight the skills you have, provide evidence of work you have created in your own time and make it clear you’re willing to learn from your position.
Alongside researching architecture, structure and having an understanding of CAD, Sketch Up or Vectorworks, there is a host of blogs, books and internet resources available to gain further insight into the work of the Art Department, and although nothing is going to beat practical application they will give you a feel for life on set.
Although coordinators are looking for PAs with a can-do attitude who can start yesterday, a good portfolio can very easily win you your first position in the Art Department. Portfolios can contain images of the sets you have created, technical drawings, references, storyboards, examples of model making and any artistic or technical study that can highlight your suitability for the department. Only add your best work, even if that is two drawings, a picture and an animation.
The other portfolio should be a hard copy of all your work in an artist's case. Here you can add more detail on how you came to produce the work and what your methods were. Take your portfolio with you when you have an interview or if you have found a member of the department who is willing to sit down with you to offer advice. If you decide to go down the road of contacting designers directly, you may find they can’t offer you a job, but if you make a great impression they will keep you in mind for the next one.
Many short films are shot over a weekend or a few days. So if you are working full-time, this can be an ideal way to gain experience while still being able to afford to keep the lights on.
Although we do recommend collaborations, do your research first to find out who is going to be working on the production. Some things to consider are:
Film school short films will be backed by the university, so the budget (or a majority of it) is guaranteed, course tutors will be involved to some extent in the production and insurance will be taken care of.
If you’re working on a short film with people you don’t know make sure to check out the producer's track record and back catalog of work, you want to know they are following best industry practices and will be running the production properly. This means the production will be insured, catering (or at least some form of feeding the crew) has been devised, there is a schedule that is realistic and location, transport and travel plans are all considered.
You should have two networks:
A lateral network of other PA’s and junior staff who can recommend you if they are unavailable to work. Remember, this industry is founded on word-of-mouth recommendations, which is why you need to be a great PA and professional at all times.
Your horizontal network consists of those above you; art directors set decorators, coordinators etc. Keep in contact with everyone you meet, send the odd email, social media is a great way to stay in touch. Use your time to create opportunities, don’t wait for them to come to you.
Personality and Attitude
Being able to pick up the phone to look for work is a vital skill. One of the main routes into the industry is going to be calling designers, art directors and set dressers or anyone you, your tutor or your friends or family may know - to ask for advice or experience.
While looking for opportunities a wage is going to be essential, especially if you already live in a big city. If you find yourself waiting tables, working behind a bar or pouring coffee it’s relatively the same starting wage as a PA. These roles can be ideal when starting out as they offer some flexibility in your working hours. If you can take a few weeks off to work on a film and have something to go back into afterward, you should be able to keep yourself afloat until you are finding regular work in the industry.
union vs non-union productions
The role of the PA is not a unionized position, so you have the ability to work on union and non-union productions. In the US the labor unions were established to protect members of production - across the arts - from exploitation. Read our guide on union and non-union productions to fully understand their role in film production. The unions and guilds who represent the Art Department are:
It’s no secret; you can work very long hours in the art department, especially as a PA. However you won't be alone as trucks need to be unloaded, sets must be dressed, last coats of paint need to be applied and general prepping for the day ahead need to take place before many of the crew arrive. Everyone has their roles and are usually very busy getting on with them. As a junior, the best thing you can do is repeatedly ask how you can be of help.
Be proactive about making sure you keep asking as people get caught up in what they’re doing and forget to delegate. Those who have worked in the department for a long time will always have tricks of the trade to pass on, many of them you wouldn't know unless you had done it before. So, never feel nervous about asking, it's your job to ask the best questions to make you better at your job.
One thing you will discover is that Art Departments are punctual! So be sure to give yourself that extra time in the morning for traffic, it sets a good impression from day one. As you spend more time in the environment, you should become more relaxed about the tasks you are assigned, and start to have a good handle of how to carry out the work. Knowing when and when not to offer an opinion is a great skill. You should never be overly critical of work that’s already underway as there could have been months of conversations that result in the manner the work is carried out. So watch what you say in front of senior members of the team as there is a definite hierarchy, but it's also very collaborative.
The PA role is very logistical so you should listen to your coordinator and find out what needs doing at the beginning of the day. Keeping on top of the production schedule is a must, knowing what paperwork needs to be released when and the filming schedule should be imprinted on your mind.
DO I NEED ANY QUALIFICATIONS TO WORK IN THE ART DEPARTMENT?
If you are working on a big-budget production the coordinator will be the one taking on PAs. Entry-level roles, where you are more likely to build experience are less likely to have a coordinator; so the designer, supervising art director or the art director will be looking for crew.
Art Departments will be on the lookout for enthusiastic can-do individuals. A degree is not essential to work in the Art Department, but you will need to be skilled in certain areas and display a level of technical competency and most of all a passion for film and the art department can go a long way.
Many graduates have completed courses in art, architecture, technical drawing, illustration and set design. If you have come from a fine art rather than design background and would like to learn more about technical drawing skills there are online courses to improve your knowledge of software packages and their capabilities such as:
While being paid to work in a junior position, take the time to generate as much independent work in your portfolio as you can. If finances allow, work on short films and put into practice the skills and techniques you have witnessed in a professional Art Department. If your portfolio can demonstrate your understanding and implementation of space, structure and design, it can be what’s needed to show your talent over academic qualifications.
WHAT PAPERWORK/EQUIPMENT/SOFTWARE SHOULD I BE FAMILIAR WITH?
Depending on the type of production you're working on the Art Department can work closely with the VFX team on the Pre-Vis, so keep this in mind if you are looking for short courses. The work of the Art Department and the VFX teams are continuing to become heavily entwined, so a good knowledge of how conceptual artists work would be advantageous.
Here are some of the packages used:
Adobe Illustrator CS5
Adobe Photoshop CS5
Google Sketchup Pro
Microsoft Office Suite
3D Studio Max
Although not necessary for entry-level jobs, getting familiar with managing budgets and being aware of the process of running cost to complete spreadsheets will be of use. And when you have to hire props knowing how to raise a purchase order will be necessary.
Whichever sub-department you're working in, items hired in will be checked off as they arrive at the studio/location, so they will be able to account for anything missing or damaged, and Visa- Versa checking them off as they go back to the hire companies. Having good admin skills will serve you well as the department PA.
TOP 10 TIPS FOR NEW ENTRANTS TO THE ART DEPARTMENT
Understand what the sub-departments actually do.
It may sound obvious, but you should take every opportunity to really understand the structure of the department and the many many roles within it. Also how they work, whose onset and who's not. At present, the majority of the art department is away from the set to comply with covid regulations. Meaning there can be an onset dresser and a standby painter onset only. The department will make sure they have everything they need for the day, meaning the logistics can fall to the coordinator and the PA.
Always wear appropriate clothing.
This may sound obvious but in the height of summer, you may opt for the soft shoe or worse - sandals. Please don’t! You will be on your feet for most of the day, keep your shoes comfortable but remember you could be called upon to do anything so keep those toes protected.
Research isn’t a case of looking it up on Google, well sometimes it is, but good research is going to mean hitting the books, periodicals, archives or planning departments for answers. Knowledge of architectural history would come in handy too. Look at how buildings are constructed, why they are designed the way they are, what were the influences of the time period, the list goes on.
Label your personal items.
With props and set dressing everywhere it can be easy for personal effects to go astray, try to put them somewhere safe and out of the way.
If called upon to move any bulky items know how to lift properly. If your not sure how to lift properly don’t worry, everyone will offer advice on how to! The work will be very physical and if an item is too heavy ask for help, or if you feel uncomfortable with any of the tasks you are assigned speak up. Just because you are the departmental junior does not mean you have to put yourself in harm's way by climbing a 12-foot ladder when you suffer from vertigo or feel the need to prove your strength. Luckily the Art Department is one of the most amenable departments on the production, any concerns you have will be addressed if you raise them.
Props and set dressing.
Be aware of the difference between props and set dressing. For example; an actor can drink from a cup and saucer, that is a prop, an item which they are using in the scene. The corresponding tea set behind them will be part of the set dressing, not handled by the actors so classed as set dressing. There is always some crossover between the departments and members of the props and set dressing teams will liaise at the beginning of the day to make sure they have everything covered.
Professionalism is everything in the film industry; it's the watchword for your working life. Being professional means not getting caught up in gossip, not bad-mouthing co-workers, accepting (no matter how ludicrous the idea is) what senior members of the team are asking and getting it done to the best of your ability.
Be the best PA you can be!
If you are looking for a way into the industry and this opportunity comes up, be the best PA you can be for that department and the senior members of the team will have no worries about recommending you to your chosen department later on.
When working with other departments and the actors, members of the Art Department need to stay adaptable in the collaborative process. If the Camera Department need to move a set wall to enable the camera to track, or an actor has difficulty with a prop they are using, members of the Art Department need to be accommodating.
Stay calm under pressure.
It is highly likely as a junior member of the team that you will be called upon to complete many jobs at the same time, it can be easy to get flustered when everyone is waiting on you. Try to stay calm and focused on your tasks, if more jobs require your attention either add it to the list or deal with the one you believe to be most pressing. You need to be engaged, active and helpful too, keep this in mind during those first few years.
PHRASES EVERY ENTRANT TO THE ART DEPARTMENT SHOULD KNOW
Flying in. This is a phrase that will be shouted out if a particularly large item is making its way onto set. Having people clear a path and make sure you are not going to knock over any stands is extremely helpful.
Breakaway. Glass objects that are easily destroyed during SFX shots such as stunts.
A nervous. While working on location “a nervous” is the last scout around to check that you haven’t left anything behind. Each department will do its own; it is also called a “dummy check”. If you are asked to complete this - check everywhere. Whatever you do, don’t just casually gaze around the room. It's also an excellent opportunity to make sure that the location is left how you found it, another golden rule.
Pre-visualisation. Also known as Pre-vis or wireframe window, is the process that production designers and the VFX team refer to. The pre-visualization of a scene can be displayed either by a 3D animation, video, photography, chip art, or mood boards.
Vector Graphics. Vector plays an important part in graphics and design. The crucial thing about Vector images is they can be enlarged and will not be compromised regarding quality. The image can be scaled up or down with negligible impact on the viewer.
Wild Wall. A wall from the scenery that can be easily moved to make room for the camera. Anything labeled as ‘wild’ by the Art Department is movable.
Raked. The floor of the set is angled up from the camera.
Greeking. Swapping out trademarked items that have not been cleared by production.
Scout. As in "to scout out a location". Art Department will be heavily involved in location work
Hero Props. An item that is used throughout the film will have multiple copies made in case of damage or loss.
PA’s are often there an hour before call time and an hour after, these hours never seem to be reflected as actual working hours, so the reality is a 14 hour day. If it's a union show, 6 hours are worked before and after lunch, non-union can mean you are at the mercy of the producers.
How long will I be a PA in the Art Department?
Working hard and being enthusiastic and engaged will be your tool in moving along and making an impression. The harder you work and the more you get engaged creatively with teams you are involved with, the more likely you are to progress.
What should I take with me on my first day?
Laptop, any stationary and tools you might have. A notebook that fits into your back pocket is always a good idea.
Can I have worked in theatre or TV and cross over?
Yes, seemingly as long as you can vouch for your transferable skills and what makes you passionate about both disciplines!
How can I show off my skills?
In offering to help as much as possible - the more you can help with, the more you will prove your competence and slowly team member’s trust in your ability will grow.
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