The head of the Art Department in film is the Production Designer, while in Television the same job is called Art Director. Just to make sure of maximum confusion, in films the Art Director is a separate position, reporting directly to the PD, who generally takes charge of all set design and construction activities. The Art Department is usually one of the largest and busiest departments, with a long preparation and pre-production period, and a post/wrap period too.
Here is a round-up of the jobs.
Production Designer – works closely with the Director and Cinematographer to design and realize the over-all mis-en-scene or physical space of the narrative. The PD brings in visual metaphors, chooses colors, researches period, and provides a visual canvas for the DP to light, as well as helping the actors embrace their place in this universe. This person is also responsible for hiring their team leaders, managing the department budget, and communicating with all other departments about the overall direction of the design vision. One department with which the PD works very closely is Locations.
Qualifications: Design degree, especially theater scenic design or from film school, ability and interest in historical research, very strong visual sense, understanding of film history, genre, and visual conventions. Also helpful is an understanding of camera lenses and filters, and the basics of film lighting.
Paths to PD include working your way up from any entry level job in the Art Department, including set dressers and concept artists. Sometimes people move sideways from Costume Design. Pay attention to your portfolio, and network to start your career with a working designer, art director or set decorator. Or work with a set building company and work up to designing for them. Work on set as an on-set dresser or PA to gain an understanding of what happens when the company moves in to your beautiful set.
Art Director – second to the PD, this person takes charge of ensuring that all sets are constructed. They hire foremen and builders, set designers, scenic artists and other specialists, such as miniature or model builders. They are responsible for the walls, floors and ceilings. They will manage their allocated budget, plan and manage the construction schedule, and ensure that the needs of the shoot are met in terms of practicalities like flying walls. Useful qualifications include drafting abilities and general construction experience – or theater set building experience. There are a lot of balls in the air all the time, and the Art Director will also need leadership and communication skills. People work their way into this job via set design (drafting) or via building sets and furniture.
Set Decorator – again second to the PD, the Decorator is responsible choosing for all furniture, rugs, wall decoration, small décor, draperies, greens and lighting fixtures. This person supervises the Lead Man and Set Dressers, Drapers, and Greens people, as well as specialists such as upholsterers, or furniture finishers. They will also hire such people as Buyers, researchers and art department coordinator if the project is big enough. They might have custom draperies made, or have art pieces created. Qualifications include design degrees, including interior design, a very strong understanding of the history of international furniture, textiles and décor as well as popular culture, knowledge of plants, and a love of research. The SD should know all the Prop Rental houses and other local vendors, including having a rolodex of suppliers and artisans to call on as needed.
Getting to Set Decorator usually means starting as a Set Dresser and working up to Buyer. There is a wonderful group, the Set Decorator’s Society, that allows aspiring decorators to join as Associate Members and Student Members, and will facilitate your networking.
Lead Man (who may be male or female) – works directly for the Set Decorator, drives the truck, and leads the team of Set Dressers. These folks go to the vendors (either rental or purchase), sometimes pack the dressing items, load the truck, take the decorations to the set, unload the truck, unpack, and then place all the items in time for the shoot. Then after the set is done with, they return and take everything away again. The Lead Man works out the schedule, manpower requirements and routes, as well as supervising and training new set dressers. Experience with household moving services is helpful. Set dressers need to be energetic, with strong attention to detail and familiarity with basic handyman tools and tasks, like picture hanging and minor repairs. Sometimes set dressers do some light construction work on locations.
Set Designer – this is the person responsible for drafting elevations and construction plans both for full sets, and for set pieces that will be built. Once upon a time, this was all by hand, using scale rulers and other tools, but now is mostly done with CAD. Meticulous attention to detail is important. Study architectural drafting, and work as an assistant. Learn about standard measurements, construction techniques and both old and new materials. Some engineering can be helpful, especially for major projects.
Scenic painter (or just Scenic) – paints sets and other smaller pieces, including creating aging/distressing, faux finishes and trompe l’oeil illusions. Know about color theory, and multiple techniques. Apprentice with a set building company and learn all the tricks from other scenic artists.
On-Set Dresser (or Stand-by Set Dresser) – responsible for moving set items and ensuring that the set in the background of shots looks good, serves the story and maintains continuity. This person usually stays close to camera, and is also ready to “greek” unwanted labels, hide reflections, tilt pictures so that they look straight, and create illusions on the fly. Train with a working On-Set Dresser, and build up a kit of useful tools and materials. Often works closely with and in tandem with the Props Master. Larger shows will often have a Stand-by Scenic and Stand-by Carpenter.
Property Master – anything an actor picks up or uses is a prop. Sometimes things that seem to be costume turn out to be the responsibility of Props. If something was furniture then becomes used, it can turn into a prop. As well as design skills, this person needs great attention to detail, fondness for databases and lists, extreme grasp of continuity, and a Macgyver-like ability to contrive and construct small items. Sometimes the Propmaster is also the Weapons Master – although that depends on how many weapons are involved and how unusual they might be. People can move into the department via being a Set PA, Art Dept. PA, or Set Dresser. This is another position that benefits from an apprenticeship system.
Related artisans – Aforementioned upholsterers and furniture makers, greens people and floral designers, screenprinters, drapery experts, people who do custom work of all kinds, matte painters, concept artists.