Supervising art director Charmian Adams

Job title: Art director
Industries: Film/TV

Charmian Adams works as a supervising art director, aiding the production designer and director to realise their vision on set. She has worked on projects across TV and film including Downton Abbey, My Week with Marilyn, The Hound of the Baskervilles, A Street Cat Named Bob. and the BBC's new mini-series of  Les Misérables.

Describe you job in your own words

Today I got up at 6.30am and went out to location, where I’ve been recreating a rose garden from France in 1816 for Les Miserables. They are shooting now and then at lunch we will have an hour and a half to change it back to 1832 France and make it look much wilder. 

Last Sunday I was co-ordinating with the special effects team to create a quarry scene where a soldier is crushed by falling rocks. This week we’ve been changing shutters, covering tarmac, painting street signs and windows. There really isn’t a typical day for me. That’s why I do this job.

Half the time I don’t even know which country I will be in. Last year I travelled to Croatia, Russia, France…altogether I only spent two weeks at home all year. The hours can be ridiculous. I don’t even remember the last time I owned an alarm clock because by now I know I will just wake up. I don’t sleep properly when I am at work, so once I get home it takes a couple of weeks to come down from a job. I have a very tolerant husband.

How did you get into the industry?

I was working with a theatre designer and he told me to go and get my qualification and then come back to him. When I did, he was working at the BBC. So I went in with my sketchbook and they offered me a job on the spot – which I didn’t even want because I wanted to do theatre design.

Anyway, I accepted the job and started working at the BBC design department, which doesn’t even exist anymore, and they dropped me straight in the deep end. And here I am, all these years later. 

What training or education did you find most useful?

Back when I started there was no such thing a training course in film and TV. I went to Brighton Art School, which was a crucial decision. Before that I studied architecture and that background has been invaluable in advancing my career.

Most people working this job have an arts degree – although one of the people I’ve working with now studied English, so it’s not essential. On the job training increases your knowledge base, not only in terms of designing or creating a specific look but also in making you a better person to work with.  

How do you think the industry has changed since you started?

Technology changes things by the minute. It’s not my forte to be honest, but I remember the first high-definition job I did. In some ways there’s not a lot of difference, but for feature films the painting texture has to be so much better because tiny details might be blown-up across a huge screen in HD. The best way to keep up with any changes is by watching other people's work. Sometimes people forget to watch other people's films once they're in the industry themselves.

There is no need to get union membership any more, which means the industry is less structured. We’re paid less and have considerably less prep time. For art departments, this means you have to work longer hours to create things in half the time, on a lower budget, for no extra money.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

You really need to be able to draw. If you can go up to a director or designer with a paper and pen and sketch out a design wherever you are - on set, in the pouring rain, in the back of a car, then that will be a huge help to you.

You need an obsessive nature and attention to detail, plus the ability to think on your feet and not be prone to panic. And make sure you have an active passport and a clean driving licence.

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