Key Scenic Artist
In film and television production, it is often cumbersome and costly to use authentic materials in set construction. Instead, wood paneling, marble countertops, or titanium alloy bulkheads are replicated and approximated with cheaper stand-ins. With help from the carpenters, scenic artists complete this illusion with the application of faux finishes and expert painting techniques. As highly specialized artists, these members of the paint department focus on disguising one material for another and tricking the camera’s lens.
The key scenic artist is one of several crewmembers under the supervision of the paint coordinator and must adhere to the design specifications as set forth by the production designer and art director. He or she will also supervise a crew of painters delegated to applying special paint treatments. This one-person crew may be responsible for painting set pieces, as well as backdrops, cutouts, props, or permanent structures and will receive creation instruction based on drawings and other reference materials provided by the art department. Specific to each project, the key scenic artist’s concentration is generally in the recreation of authentic surfaces, as well as ageing and breakdown. Common tasks include simulating wood, stone, brick, metal, or stained glass. He or she may also be responsible for the execution of portraits, murals, and similar pictorial assets. It will be the artist’s task to test techniques and different types of paint in order to accomplish the desired look, then submit those small-scale samples to the paint coordinator before proceeding on the final product.
According to the production schedule established by the paint coordinator, the key scenic artist will delegate assignments to his or her paint crew and oversee their work to ensure quality and adherence to the art director’s vision. This person will actively participate in painting activities, while simultaneously supervising the work of others, providing instruction and critique. On one-off productions such as a feature film, music video, or commercial, the key scenic artist’s work is wrapped at the end of pre-production. In episodic television, this person may be retained through the life of the show. In such cases, this person is rarely on set during shooting but will work for several weeks through the production’s season.
Skills & Education
A college degree in film and television production is recommended, though majors in theatrical design or fine art are applicable. Courses should include art history, traditional drawing, painting, sculpting, and still photography. Classes in basic chemistry are also beneficial, as scenic artists are required to mix numerous chemical compounds in an effort to create unique faux materials. Training in faux finishing techniques is necessary and can be obtained through apprenticeship or the study of scenic design as part of a college major. An understanding of lighting for film and television, as well the use of lens filters is helpful, because translating a convincing replica will depend greatly on how the camera perceives the surface. There are significant differences in these variables between standard film and digital video. As an artist, this person must be capable of recreating a look with great precision but should also display creativity and ingenuity in solving complicated artistic problems.
What to Expect
Depending on the scale of the production, the key scenic artist may also serve as the paint coordinator and must therefore take on the responsibilities of that position. This person is a particularly skilled member of the paint department with evolved talents and additional experience. Previous employment may include work as a lead painter or paint foreman, and a career typically begins as an entry-level painter prepping projects and assisting senior crewmembers. A typical workweek is 40 hours, spent in a paint shop or on location, and will include dirty work in the use of paint, as well as hazardous chemicals. Artists are required to provide a minimal collection of their own tools, as instructed by the paint coordinator. Employment as a scenic charge artist in theatrical production is also applicable. Key scenic artists may work as freelancers or as permanent employees at a scenic studio that caters to the film and television industry. These artists are also eligible for membership in IATSE, the union that represents professionals working in the entertainment industry.
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