Career as an Art director

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John William's design and planning skills help create the soap operas, films and TV programmes we watch. As a freelance production designer and art director, he's responsible for the stage sets, the props and even the newspapers that characters read on-screen.

What does your work involve?

I tend to wear three caps – standby art director, supervising art director or production designer. As a standby art director, it is my responsibility to break down scripts into different categories and make sure we have everything we need when it comes to the shoot.

If I am hired as a supervising art director, I look after the day-to-day running of the art department. This can involve overseeing the budget and managing the members of the team. As production designer I work closely with the producer on budget issues, and the director on artistic issues and liaise with the art department team.

What have you been working on recently?

I might be working on a TV programme or series, a film, or sometimes, adverts. I have been working on River City, a BBC soap shown in Scotland. I have also worked on Ice Cream Machine, a children's programme for Channel 5, feature film, The Purifiers, and the BBC's Overnite Express.

What is your job on River City?

As standby art director, I have been given four scripts to cover the next four programmes and have two weeks to prepare. I read them carefully and pick out the elements that need design, for example the dressings on the set, props, food, effects and graphics for posters or newspapers used in the scene.

I break down the script and give a list to the props buyer and a graphics list to the design assistant. I also talk to the director about how we want it to look.

What do you do during filming?

I stand with the director behind the camera. I look out for backgrounds that aren't right, for reflections, shadows of the microphone boom and even check things like whether the curtains are straight. I might also supervise the crews that dress the set and put out the props.

Do things go wrong?

You have to watch out for continuity problems – changes made in one scene or programme that do not make sense in the context of previous programmes.We had one character breaking a light with an iron bar and we all missed the fact that she had been in the dark for four episodes already!

How do you get your work?

By recommendation really. People tend to work with the same group of people and your name becomes well known.

Do you use any tools or equipment?

For specialised construction, we bring in professionals, but basic joinery or painting skills are a bonus.

What do you enjoy most about the job?

Solving problems. When you are designing a set, you have to think about the characters in the script, the drama involved, what the characters' movements are and the different moods and colours. This involves a lot of organising and budgeting. The hardest part of the job is the hours and the potential for disagreements and confrontations!

What skills do you need?

You must be artistic and able to do competent construction designs. Usually there are lots of graphics to do, so a good understanding of the main graphics packages is necessary. You should have good people skills and a lot of patience.

John's route to becoming an Art director

  • SVQ Level 3 in Autocad – a three dimensional computer drawing program.
  • Experience with the Citizen's Theatre in Glasgow.
  • First job as design assistant on Fun House for STV.

John's Art director tips

  • It is important to be enthusiastic and show that you are willing to learn.
  • Do not give up if you are not offered a job immediately. If you are artistic, and have a passion for design and film, you'll get there.

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Art director salary

  • Starting salaries are around £15,000 to £20,000, increasing to £25,000 and more with experience.
  • Highly-respected art directors could earn £35,000 and substantially more.
  • Freelance rates depend on the production budget and your skills and experience.

A career as an Art director

  • Many art directors and production designers have a degree in art and design, perhaps specialising in theatre design, interior design or even architecture.
  • Others, like John, get their first job through persistence and experience or, start in production support jobs, working their way up to become production assistants.
  • Jobs are very scarce, so gaining experience – even if it is unpaid or poorly paid – is the best route.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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