Though art direction has been an integral part of the filmmaking process for more than 100 years, the craft is not well understood—even among those working in the industry. For many years, these artists and their contributions were underappreciated, but more recently, the skill and talent of these professionals have been better recognized through negotiation for prominently displayed credit and the inclusion of the category in popular award shows.
The art director is hired during pre-production and works under the supervision of the production designer to develop the look of the project, in accordance with the director’s vision. He or she is the head of the art department and is involved in every stage of art development. Upon taking a job, the art director reviews the script and meets with the director and senior production staff to discuss elements like setting and theme, and how those qualities can be communicated through scenery, set dressing, props, and costumes. Though the art director does not participate in the creation of costumes, the overall aesthetic of the production is established with input from the art director and production designer.
With a general idea in mind, this person collaborates with the production designer and assistant art director to begin rough sketches and layouts of important art assets, such as sets or focal props. When those initial comps have been approved by the director, the art department then works with storyboard artists, concept artists, and set designers to create detailed examples of all necessary art elements, including construction plans for sets, examples of set dressing, etc. The art director will conduct hiring for all art department crew and oversee the comp process. Based on the approved designs, the art director will aid the production designer in establishing a budget for materials and labor, allocating those funds as necessary. Through the end of pre-production, the art director is involved with every area of art development, to include construction, set dressing, painting, location scouting, and special effects. This person may be asked to continue work on set during principal photography to ensure integrity of the design and can participate in the tasks of set dressing or setting props.
Skills & Education
The art director must posses a talent in multiple disciplines of fine art, as well as carpentry. A college degree in film and television production or theatrical design is recommended, and coursework should include the study of traditional drawing, painting, still photography, color theory, sculpting, and art history. Courses in computer drafting and basic architectural principals are also beneficial. Furthermore, the art director must be an effective leader that is capable of managing large crews across multiple locations. This necessitates an individual who is highly organized, able to adhere to strict deadlines, and adept at creative problem solving.
What to Expect
Art directors may work as freelance professionals or may be employed full-time with a production and scenic design company that caters to the film and television industry. Those who perform freelance work are often hired on the recommendation of the production designer and, therefore, have a strong professional relationship. The reputation of your work will be your best calling card toward future employment, and effective networking is the chief means of securing a gig. To reach this senior-level position, experience as an assistant art director is preferred, with prior history as a set dresser, scenic painter, concept artist, or other art department role. The Art Directors Guild, IATSE Local 800, represents art directors and is part of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.
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