Unscripted TV

Art department assistant

Art department assistant

What does an art department assistant do?

Art department assistants help the whole art department, but particularly the art director. In a studio, they help dress the set and manage the props, ensuring they are in working order and available when needed.

They also help with styling when the filming is on location, where there might be a very large area needing styling and props. If an art department assistant is experienced, they might be the only person from the art department on location.

Otherwise, much of an assistant’s work is in the preparation before filming. This involves helping with the sourcing and purchasing of materials, as well as the building, painting and finishing of props. They sometimes design and make props themselves.

Generally, art department assistants are expected to pitch ideas and assist in any way that’s required, from helping transport items and making coffee to filling the gaps of any work that needs doing. On smaller budget studio shows, they might do the work of a runner alongside their other responsibilities.

Art department assistants sometimes secure staff jobs in bigger art departments. As freelancers, they are often requested by art directors with whom they have formed good working relationship on previous projects.

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What’s an art department assistant good at?

  • Art: draw conceptually, technical and freehand, work with specialist design software, build props and dress sets
  • Attention to detail: have thorough research skills, source correct materials and props, be organised and tidy
  • Knowledge of construction and design: research and be aware of the latest developments in production design
  • Knowledge of production: understand production techniques, studio environments, studio capabilities and the challenges of working on location
  • Hard work: be able to multi-task and meet deadlines

Who does an art department assistant work with?

Art department assistants work directly to art directors and manage runners, but they will also work with everyone and anyone in the department, including production designers and buyers.  They will also work with production managers and coordinators, researchers, assistant producers and producer directors in the preparation and making of a programme.

How do I become an art department assistant?

Build up your skills as an artist. Then try to find work in an entry level role in unscripted TV, such as an art department runner, and work your way up.

At school or college:
If you want to go to university, A-levels or Highers in art, architecture, photography, graphic design or graphic communication are useful. Or you might want to take the following Level 3 vocational qualifications:

  • BTEC National Diploma/Extended Diploma Art and Design
  • UAL Applied General Diploma in 3D Design and Crafts
  • NCFE Applied General Certificate in Art and Design
  • If you want to go straight into a job or apprenticeship, the following Level 3 vocational qualifications will equip you:
  • BTEC National Diploma in 3D Design and Crafts
  • UAL Diploma/Extended Diploma in Art and Design

Get an apprenticeship:
Apprenticeships are jobs with training. They’re a great opportunity to earn while you learn. Some of the major broadcasters offer apprenticeships. Check out the schemes with the BBCChannel 4Channel 5Sky and ITV to see if they offer apprenticeships in the art department. If you can’t get an apprenticeship with a broadcaster, it might be worth looking for a job as an apprentice in an industry that uses similar skills, such as being an illustrator in publishing or a graphic artist in advertising. This could help you develop your craft and create a body of work for a portfolio that you can use to find your way into unscripted TV at a later point.

These are the relevant apprenticeships available throughout the UK:

  • Props technician (Film and TV drama) (Level 3, England)
  • Design (Level 3, Northern Ireland)
  • Furniture, Furnishings and Interiors (SCQF Level 5, 6, Scotland)
  • Creative and Digital Media (Level 3, 4, Wales)
  • Design (Level 2, 3, Wales)
  • Design Practice (Level 5, Wales)
  • Furniture and Furnishings (Level 2, 3, Wales)

In Scotland, you might be able to find the following degree-level apprenticeships:

  • Creative (SCQF Level 6/7, Scotland)
  • Creative and Digital Media (SCQF Level 6/7, Scotland)
  • Design (SCQF Level 5, 6/7, Scotland)

Before taking any apprenticeship, check what you’ll be learning with your prospective employer and college, so you can be sure it will give you the skills you want. Go to how to become an apprentice to learn how to find apprenticeships in your region, or approach companies directly.

Develop a wide range of art skills:
Learn how to paint, do 3D modelling and graphic art. The more you can do at this stage, the more chance you have of being useful in the art department later on.

Learn to drive: 
If possible, get access to a car. This makes you more versatile and means you can help more.

Get a degree:
It isn’t essential, but if you want one, you could take a degree in architecture or graphic art. Or you might want to have a look at ScreenSkills’ list of recommended courses and select one in unscripted TV. We recognise courses with our ScreenSkills Select award where they offer training in the relevant software, dedicated time to building a portfolio and have strong links with the TV industry. 

Build a portfolio:
This is essential for impressing admissions tutors and people in the film industry. Go to build your art portfolio to learn how.

Get work experience: 
Try to get work experience by writing to local production companies and asking if they offer any. Keep an eye out for work experience opportunities at the BBCChannel 4ITVSky and the PACT Indie Diversity Training Scheme.

Network: 
Get to know people in the unscripted TV industry by attending events. Meet professionals and ask them questions about their work, while demonstrating interest in and knowledge of the industry. Offer to provide them with your professional contact details and try to stay in touch with them. Go to how to network well to learn how to do this. 

Network online:
Create a LinkedIn profile. See if there are Facebook pages or other social media groups for people making unscripted TV in your area. There might even be groups for runners and trainees. Join them. Create a ScreenSkills profile. There are a lot of crewing agencies that will charge you to be on their books. Sign up to the free ones initially. Wales ScreenNorthern Ireland Screen and other areas offer free crew databases. Find a film office near you and get connected. If you do sign up to paid sites, make sure they specialise in the areas in which you’re interested. 

Search for jobs: 
Research unscripted TV production companies that you’d like to work for and watch the programmes that they make. Regularly check their websites and job listings websites to see if they are advertising for roles. You can also send in a short speculative letter with your CV to the production manager. Register your CV on websites like The Talent Manager, which is used by most broadcasters and independent production companies when looking for staff. StartinTV offers tips on creating your CV and attending interviews, as well as some advice on your first day working in TV.

You might also be interested in…

Being a production buyer in the unscripted TV industry, an art director in film and TV drama or an environment artist in the games industry.

Further resources