5th July 2018
Job title: Production designer
Dave Arrowsmith is a production designer who works across film and TV. His work includes Paul the Apostle, Cold Feet and The Musketeers. He also worked on Jack The Boy, which was nominated for a British Academy Television Craft Award for production design.
Describe your job in your own words
There is no such thing as an average day as a production designer. Depending on the project, my day starts between 7 and 8am with meetings in the art department. Before filming has started we are designing sets, looking at location options and building and dressing studio set builds. The pre-production period also involves extensive conversations with the director and director of photography about the look and style of each scene. If the film is a period piece we have to research and collate reference materials and fabricate props and furniture.
Once filming begins I'm involved in day-to-day dressing and construction of sets (with my supervising art director and the art and set decoration teams). We're always a few days ahead of the shooting crew, prepping and then dismantling sets once they have been filmed. The average job is anything from eight weeks to over a year, depending on the size and complexity of the film or TV project. We generally work in excess of 12 hours a day.
The money is pretty good, but you can be away from home a lot. When I am working, which is most of the time, I'm away from home and away from my wife. I try to take a few months off between jobs and stay at home, to catch up with my family and friends. When you're not working you wish you were, when you are working sometimes you wish you weren't. It is very difficult, but it is one of the best and probably most exciting industries to be working in.
How did you get into the industry?
I started in theatre as a stagehand, then went to art school and worked my way up through the art department, starting as an assistant over 25 years ago.
Is there any education or training you found particularly useful?
Any art-based degree or art school qualification is always useful, though not essential. Being flexible and having a creative, problem-solving mindset are the main skills required to be a production designer. Collaboration and being able to think outside of the box is a must.
There are so many different routes into design that I wouldn't say there is any one single piece of training or education that guarantees entry. These days it is very important to have good skills in SketchUp, AutoCAD, Vectorworks and Adobe programmes.
How do you find work?
Once, when I was an assistant, a designer to me, 'You are only as good as your last job, and unfortunately he was right. The best way of promoting yourself is to work as hard as you can when you are working and do the best job you can.
How do you think the industry has changed since you started out?
It became faster. Generally the gap between feature films and television production value and budgets has closed,. In fact, most big TV projects I work on now have bigger budgets and aspirations than most mid-low budget features I've worked on in the past. This means the standard and expectations for TV now are the highest that they have been in a long time.
The art department is at the forefront of a lot of these projects. The scope and complexity of set builds, special effects and overall design is so much higher. At the same time, pre-production time hasn't changed to accommodate this, so we are a lot busier. The positive side is that, in my opinion, we are at a point where the scale and variety of projects for designers is the best it has been in 20 years. It's a very exciting time to be in the art department.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Have passion, dedication and drive. Learn your craft starting in a junior role within the art department or production generally, and get an idea of what everyone does on a film. Having an overall understanding of the whole process is invaluable later in your career. There are many routes into design for film, the main thing you have to have is drawing and design skills in general.
One way to broaden the range of work you are getting is to cold call people and arrange a meeting to show your work and let people meet you. Nine times out of 10 they will remember you the next time they are crewing for a job. However if you don't get anywhere with one or two phone calls, don't pester the person you are trying to meet, the chances are they will become irritated by you and never give you work because you're too in their face. It is a fine balance between being keen and enthusiastic and becoming a nuisance.
I would also suggest evaluating your skills and strengths in the job you want to do, phone people you have worked with and ask them which areas they think you could become more proficient in, then look to find extra training in those skills. There is no substitute for on-the-job training, so make contacts in the industry and push yourself forward.
Back to case studies