The art department is often the largest department on a production and is responsible for all the visual elements of a film or high-end TV show. Whether its creating whole worlds of fiction from scratch or replicating period detail precisely, the art department is one of the most creative departments in the screen industries. The department is overseen by a production designer, who manages a team that includes art directors, assistant art directors, set decorators, concept artists, researchers, production buyers, graphic designers, draughtsmen and runners.
Skills needed to work in the art department
- knowledge of art and design, including draughtsmanship, technical drawing, hand drawing, drawing to scale, calligraphy, computer-aided design, colour theory, architecture, building and construction, history of design, interior design, cameras and lenses, lighting, etc.
- knowledge of computer drawing programmes like Maya, Cinema 4D, Sketch-up and Vectorworks
- ability to prioritise and meet deadlines
- ability to work well under pressure
- ability to manage budgets, petty cash and time resources
- communication and presentation skills
- tact and diplomacy
- knowledge of health and safety legislation and procedure
- willingness to work long and irregular hours
Ways into the art department
Many people starting in the art department are graduates of art, architecture, theatre, interior design or 3D design who then take a specialist course in film or TV production design, and maybe even a short course in draughtsmanship. However you don't need a degree to work in the art department, it's creativity and technical drawing skill that are the essentials.
Researching forthcoming productions and contacting art directors may provide an opening as a runner, trainee or assistant. Working as an assistant is considered a prerequisite for progressing through the art department. Good assistants often move up quickly to junior draughtsmen, and then continue up the ranks to become an art director or production designer over a number of years.
Jobs in the art department
Beginning work at the very early stages of pre-production, production designers are largely responsible for informing and realising the director's vision. They will read a screenplay and imagine the visuals that will create the right atmosphere and bring a story to life. They will manage a large team and work closely with the director to pick sets, locations, design elements and visual themes and provide estimates of art department spending. They will work very closely with the director of photography in determining a colour palette and style for the film or TV production. In fact, the production designer works closely with all the creative heads of department, including costume, make-up and visual effects (VFX). Production designers often work on a freelance basis.
Supervising art director
During pre-production supervising art directors work with the production manager to estimate the costs of set construction, set decoration and art department labour. They analyse the shooting schedule and plan set building and dismantling (or 'striking') of sets and oversee the entire art department during shooting to ensure the production stays on schedule and on budget.
Before the start of shooting, production buyers prepare orders for props. They are responsible for petty cash, will produce weekly budgets and may help with research and last-minute requests for the set decorator, using an expert knowledge of suppliers and hire companies to source specific items. Production buyers always work on a freelance basis.
On big productions, art directors may start work four or five months before shooting starts. They have to analyse a script to identify all the props or special items that will be needed and find cost-effective creative solutions to construction and decorating problems. Art directors are usually freelancers, work long hours, and may spend long periods travelling with productions away from home.
Standby art director
Standby art directors are present on set throughout the shooting day, and it's their job to find quick and creative solutions to any art or design problems that arise during the shoot. They break down the script, list all props required - including graphics, animals, vehicles, food, drink - and give this checklist to the props master. Standby art directors may fulfil multiple roles on set, working as draughtsmen or assistant art directors or even stepping in to make a prop last minute.
Assistant art director (first assistant, second, third)
Assistant art directors' responsibilities vary depending on the size of the production. They may help the art director with research, surveying locations, model making or producing sets. On large productions with multiple sets, an assistant art director will take responsibility for some of the smaller sets and manage the cleanliness and props for that set. Assistant art directors also sketch ideas, refine them, and work on 3D models. During shooting some assistant art directors may work as standby art directors, monitoring video playback to see what the camera is shooting and how this impacts on set requirements.
Assistant buyer, or petty cash buyer
Assisting the production buyer with the locating, purchasing or hiring of set dressing. The assistant buyer carries out research, sources items and manages a petty cash float listing all expenditures per set.
The set decorator is responsible for the decoration of a set, including furnishings and all objects that are on view. They go through the script and work with the production buyer to find all the props or commission making them. Working closely with the construction team, set decorators will prepare the sets ahead of the start of filming and be responsible for striking (dismantling) them afterwards.
Art department coordinator
The art department coordinator assists in the smooth running of the art department during pre-production, filming and wrap-up by providing day-to-day administration and support. This could mean writing schedules, organising meetings or helping with the budget.
Specialist researchers are only required on a few big-budget films, usually historical epics or sci-fi and fantasy, to do highly specialised research by talking to curators, academics and other experts to gain as much insight into a particular subject. They provide production designers with the original source material to inspire the look of a film and work alongside draughtsmen in the drawing studio. They are employed for the entire duration of pre-production and filming and usually work on a freelance basis.
Big studio productions usually hire a number of concept artists to design specific elements, such as fantasy creatures. Concept artists may analyse source material and work on illustrations that are both striking and accurate to be presented to the producer, director, and effects supervisors. Many concept artists start their careers as graphic artists or illustrators before moving into the screen industries.
Graphic artist or graphic designer
Graphic artists may build specialist props which will be on screen for a large part of the film. They often meet with the production designer during pre-production to discuss their exact requirements and work closely with specialist researchers and effects departments. Graphic artists are always employed on a freelance basis.
Draughtsman or set designer
Draughtsmen provide hundreds of technical drawings that serve as a template for the construction department. Drawings are often still produced by hand, but CAD software like Sketch-Up, Cinema 4D and Vectorworks are also used. Draughtsmen work closely with the effects departments and on smaller productions are often actively involved in supervising set construction. Junior draughtsmen are responsible for specific construction details across a range of sets, such as window or door detailing, and for making accurate models of all sets enabling the production designer and director to visualise camera positions and movements. Draughtsmen are always employed on a freelance basis.
Art department assistant or art department runner
Runners usually start work in the early stages of pre-production and can be both trainee and assistant to the art department. They spend most of their time in the drawing studio making sure draughtsmen have all the necessary materials and are responsible for monitoring and ordering supplies and basic admin (including making tea or coffee and fetching lunch). Art department assistants can work with art directors to record detailed measurements of locations and help with construction of scale models. During filming, they assist the standby art director and art department with last minute requests or changes to sets. Runners always work on a freelance basis and hours can be long but assistants who show initiative and talent may progress quickly through the department.
Find out more about working in the art department
Organisations and websites:
- The British Film Designers Guild
- The Production Guild
- Art Directors Guild (USA)
- PACT: Producers Alliance for Film & Television
- Women in Film and Television (WFTV)
- BECTU (the creative media union)
- Shooting People
- Soho Runners
- Production Base
- Screen Daily
- Concept Art World
- Ken Adam: The art of production design, by Christopher Frayling
- Production Design and Art Direction, by Peter Ettedgui
- By Design: interviews with film production designers, by Vincent LoBrutto
- Film Architecture: From Metropolis to Blade Runner, edited by D Neumann
- 2001: Filming for the Future, by Piers Bizony
- The Invisible Art: The legends of movie matt painting, by M Cotta Vaz and C Barron
- The Filmmakers Guide to Production Design, by Vincent LoBrutto
- Handbook of Set Design, by Colin Winslow
- The Interior Design Directory: A Sourcebook of Modern Materials, by Elizabeth Wilhide
- Concept Art: Digital Artists Masterclass, by V Antonov
- Mechanika: How to Create Science Fiction Art, by Doug Chiang
- Special Effects: The History and Technique, by Richard Rickitt
- Big Screen, Little Screen: Career Opportunities Inside the Art Department in Film & Television, by Byron Lance King
- What an Art Director Does: An introduction to motion picture production design, by Ward Preston
Some other job roles in craft
Construction and decorating
The construction manager and a team of painters, carpenters, riggers, plasterers, stagehands and artists build and decorate sets
Choreographers and dancers are hired by studios or production companies to create routines for films and TV shows, and dancing doubles may be used in filming
Casting directors are responsible for finding the right actor for a role and are helped by casting assistants who themselves often start out as runners