Building connections and getting a foot in the door in the film industry can take a lot of perseverance and hard work. But, if you really love what you do and are willing to chase it, building your career should be a really fun and exciting journey. Joining The British Film Designers Guild can be an invaluable (and easy!) way to make connections and begin to build up your knowledge and experience. Joining the Guild with one of our Student or Newcomer Memberships is the perfect way to help you meet people and gain the experience that you need to kickstart your career in film and television. If you are interested in a career in the Art Department, this guide is designed to teach you everything you need to know when you’re starting out.
What is the Art Department?
The Art Department is one of the most vital parts of a film crew, including roles that employ a variety of artistic skill sets from a broad range of disciplines. The Production Designer and their team which includes Construction, Props, Set Decorating and Graphics, are responsible for bringing the world in which the Film, TV shows or Commercials are set, to life. In other words, through design, construction and decoration, the Art Department creates the set and setting of a production. Sometimes this may be magical fictional worlds, and other times it may be the task of accurately recreating an historical setting. The film’s aesthetic and Directors vision are in the hands of the Production Designer and their Art Department.
This makes the Art Department a crucial asset for the director and therefore the whole production. Many Production Designers begin work before official pre-production has commenced and collaborate with the Director to sketch out and plan their vision. At this stage the Production Designer is working through the script, breaking down locations, and sketching out designs in preparation for them to be transformed into a physical reality in time for shooting. Together, the Production Designer and Director then decide whether to create their vision in the studio or whether to build it outside in real locations (often it is both).
Entry Level Roles
Entry level roles into the Art Department (and the industry more broadly) are usually as either an Art Department Assistant/PA/Runner, Set Decorating Assistant / PA/Runner, or a Graphics Assistant/PA/Runner. These positions are generally dictated by budget, and the functions and tasks can crossover between the two titles, so be sure to clarify what your responsibilities are from the beginning.
Feature films and higher budget television dramas are likely to have runners attached to every department. Runners work under the supervision of their department’s coordinator, and their primary function is to assist in the smooth running of operations and logistics. This role does not always mean you will have the opportunity to work on set, but you will gain first hand knowledge and experience of the design process and how sets are constructed. You’ll also have the opportunity to make invaluable contacts that may help you gain your next job!
Art Department Assistant for Film:
As the junior member of most departments, assistants have slightly more responsibility than runners, and are likely to have some experience behind them. Assistants operate on the first rung of the Art Department’s career ladder, and many of your senior colleagues will have worked their way up from this position. You can find assistant or trainee positions through contacts you might make as a member of the British Film Designers Guild, or through another recognised body such as ScreenSkills trainee-finder. Art Department trainees report to the Supervising Art Director and might be working with anyone in the Art Department – including the Draughtsmen, Art Department Coordinator, Set Decorator, Art Director and so on. On smaller productions they may fulfil some of the Runner’s duties, while larger scale productions might offer some practical experience. Trainees and Assistants are there to fill gaps and help out wherever they are needed in the Art Department. This makes being an Assistant a great way to get a taste of where your skills are most suited and which areas of the department you feel most drawn to.
It is also worth noting that some broadcasting companies run apprenticeships and work experience placements which can also be a wonderful way to gain experience (Screenskills regularly run work placement initiatives).
British Film Art Department Structure
On a large, high-budget production the Art Department can include hundreds of people, while on smaller scale projects it can amount to a team of five to ten members. Below is the typical structure of an Art Department and the roles found within each subsection of the department.
They preside over three main teams:
Art Department, Set Decorating including Graphics/Props and Construction.
Supervising Art Director
Senior Art Director
Assistant Art Director
Senior Draughtsperson/Senior Set Designer
Draughtsperson/Senior Set Designer
Junior Draughtsperson/Junior Set Designer
Art Department Assistant
Art Department Runner
Graphic Art Director / Key Graphic Designer
Assistant Graphic Designer
Graphics Assistant / Junior
Senior / Assistant Set Decorator
Assistant Production Buyer
Set Dec Coordinator
Petty Cash Buyer
Set Dec Assistant/Runner Prop Crew
Assistant Construction Manager
Construction Crew (various skill divisions)
Assistant Prop Master
Action Prop Buyer
ADDITIONAL ART DEPARTMENT POSITIONS
Art Director Locations
Art Director Vehicles
Art Department Sculptor
Art Department Model Maker
Art Director Stand-by
Art Director Stand-by 2nd Unit?
Unit Décor/Lettering Artist
PA Personal Assistants
Data Wrangler Liaison
Driver (for various departments)
Sometimes, due to a special production requirement, a new title will be created. There are no hard and fast rules, so this is just a guide for job descriptions…
VIRTUAL PRODUCTION AND SPECIAL EFFECTS
More recently with the introduction of Virtual Production, the Production Designer will also take on responsibility for / collaborate with the construction of the virtual world through the Virtual or Digital Art Department Team, and Visual /Special Effects.
Looking at the above structure of the Art Department should give you some idea of positions within the broader team and how you might be able to work your way up through the ranks, with experience. Ultimately, the way most people join the team is as an assistant or runner. From there, due to the high number of different positions in the Art Department, you might see your career going in various different directions. Unplanned deviations along the way come as standard, and offer you the opportunity to collect more skills and broaden your experience as you progress. Knowing which role it is you would like to aim for is certainly an advantage and can help you structure your career path’s progression, take on appropriate jobs and build relationships with the right people.
Look at the chart of roles in the Art Department above, and think about which jobs you’d like to do, or which skill sets you’d like to develop, along the way.
UK vs US Art Departments: Key Differences Explained
The UK system differs from the American system, in as much as the Decorator works with the Prop Master and their team of Prop Dressers and cover all areas. Whereas in the USA, the Decorator works with a Lead Man and a team of Swing Gangs decorating sets and the Prop Master deals solely with Hand Props. They still liaise when hand props are also part of the dressing, but they are two completely different departments, unlike in the UK.
How to Reach Out
If you can, a phone call always beats an email. Even better of course, is a conversation face to face. Senior members of the Art Department tend to receive a lot of email requests for work and advice, with many ending up in spam. Make yourself a memorable contact with a polite, concise and friendly phone call, which you can always follow up with an email containing your CV. A good tip is to put the word ‘CV’ in the subject line of your email so that the recipient can easily search for it if needed
If at all possible, try to visit your contact to show them your portfolio, get advice and ultimately get noticed. As a member of the BFDG you can attend networking events and join our mentoring scheme and surgeries where you will make contacts and gain advice on how to progress in your chosen career path.
Again, it might seem obvious but here’s a quick round up of etiquette to remember when reaching out:
- Start with a phone call – make sure it’s in office working hours
- Keep it polite and concise – can they talk? Is it convenient?
- Remember a potential time difference if they are working around the world
- Consider people’s workload and don’t contact them over the weekend or in personal time
- Ask if you can follow up with an email – and don’t forget to include CV in the subject line.
Have your portfolio ready
If you are asked to interview, or even have a casual chat, make sure you have an up to date portfolio to hand. Ambition and drive are great attributes, so show off your enthusiasm and demonstrate that you are willing to get your hands dirty and work your way up. It might seem obvious, but maintaining an open attitude and asking questions at appropriate times will help you learn what you need to know to succeed in your chosen area of the Art Department.
Finding Work In Art Departments
BFDG Membership Benefits to Finding Work & Making Contacts
If you are a member of the BFDG you will also benefit from finding job listings – posted both internally on our closed Facebook Page (these usually come in to us from production companies or from other guild members). We also circulate a quarterly Rumour Mill which contains a rundown of rumours and information that we have gathered or been let on to regarding projects that are in the pipeline or already beginning production.
Production guides like Kays, Production Weekly and The Knowledge all publish names, titles and contact details. You can find these books in larger public libraries, or online. Elsewhere, Screen International prints productions that are currently shooting and BECTU has a members-only ‘Early Bird’ production listing. IMdb Pro also lists projects in pre-production. Lastly, subscription based companies like mandy.com publish production and chase list jobs and might be worth checking out.
By joining the British Film Designers Guild you’ll receive access to a full directory of over 560 art department members. Our Student and Newcomer Memberships provide a great opportunity to kick start your career in a Film and TV Art Department.
Your Skills & Qualifications
Though you may be completing a degree in Film & Design, you don’t have to have these specific qualifications to start a career in the Art Department. Lots of people drawn to the Art Department come from an artistic or technical design background, with degrees like Architecture, Technical Drawing, Illustration, Art and Design. Again, don’t be disheartened if this isn’t you, if you can display these skills a degree is by no means compulsory. There are also lots of short courses that you can take to top up and prove that you have these skills.
Software and Equipment
In addition to the skills above, a familiarity with some of the software listed below could also be advantageous to you. On certain types of production the Art Department can work closely with the Visual Effects Team, so bear this in mind as you develop your skill set. Start out by using the free versions of the software, to familiarise yourself with how it works – you don’t have to be an expert.
- Adobe Illustrator CS5
- Adobe Photoshop CS5
- Google Sketchup Pro
- Vectorworks Architect
- Autodesk AutoCad
- Microsoft Office Suite
- Adobe Acrobat
- 3D Studio Max
- Form Z
- Autodesk REVIT
- Autodesk MAYA
- Adobe InDesign
Join the Guild
Join the Guild and find yourself in direct contact with key players of current UK Film and Television Art Departments. As the next generation of Art Department talent, you can network with a range of talented industry workers who can help you get your career off the ground. Use our directory to find new contacts and join the conversation on the forum to stay in the loop with other industry professionals.