This blog starts with a warning. A caveat emptor if you will. I have made a few things. I have been involved in making a few other things. I have stood on the hallowed ground of medium budget feature sets, but have mainly crawled around toe-stubbingly-low-budget shorts. Everything that follows is one man’s subjective perspective, should not be taken as gospel, please direct all complaints to an official government department and read on at your own volition.
As a filmmaker, unless you happen to like your cinema naturalistic to the point of documentary, or you want to film in an empty box, you are most probably going to have some involvement with the art department. The colour of the walls in the coffee shop, the coffee cup, the coffee in the coffee cup, the table under the coffee cup, the roof of the car that the coffee cup is left on, the smashed coffee cup on the tarmac, and the several other smashed coffee cups for the times that someone forgot to hit REC. All of these things, from the smallest prop to the biggest set have been considered by someone, and then crucially, someone has gone out and made them possible. Built, bought, borrowed, or err.. faked. Which spoils my alliteration, but is probably true more times than not. It’s no small task, and depending on the project, it can range into a mammoth one.
For something so visible – literally everything in the camera’s eye – it is also strangely invisible. The art department have generally, by-and-large, done their job by the time the rest of what people think of as the ‘film crew’ arrive, and if they’ve done their job well, by the time you watch the finished result, you won’t notice it. It is just ‘a part of the world’ that you’re watching. Of course, sometimes it’s much more on show than others, but I’m not sure how many people really see the Millennium Falcon and wonder how much work went into that.
Fact: The model used in the Empire Strikes back took three months to build and was 65ft wide. (Source: Wikipedia)
Conversely, despite its apparent invisibility, the work of the art department can do so much for your film – if you let it. I’m not talking about recreating the Titanic or having sixteen Spitfires flying in formation, with enough time and money anything is possible. I’m talking about a subtle progression of colour hues that subliminally say something about the protagonist’s deteriorating mental state, a sofa that tells you the family have lived, loved and lost on it while staying on a middle-income bracket and being immune to passing interior design trends of the kind that a more image-conscious young couple in Shoreditch might be prone to. A sombre scene with a character in crisis might be undermined by bright cheerful painting in the background. Or, depending on what has come before, the irony of it might serve to enforce his isolation.
Spend smart, carry a big stick.
I was the designer on a short film where we painted the walls of the living room set in the dated beiges of a family home, not updated since the kids were born, and the drabness spoke to the mother’s depressed state. It was a little thing but it was effective. The little choices can mean a lot, and some choice items can say a lot.
Making it work…
All of this and more is possible. Of course it is. But is it possible for you? The time-money-quality triumvirate conundrum is never more apparent than when trying to brute-force the demands of a script into too short a time, without enough money. If you don’t have a lot of money, you’re going to need time. Time to find good deals. Time to borrow things for free. Time to scrounge favours and think of alternatives. I have seen (bear in mind the personal safety announcement at the top of the article) time-over-time, short films where the demands of the director have been so out of line with the realities of the budget. Square pegs and round holes come to mind. And much like anyone will attest who’s tried to coerce cylinders into cubes, you can often kinda make it work, but it’s never satisfactory, and there’s usually tears. (A little personal tangent, but when lack of finances is a front-and-centre immovable object, I fully subscribe to the model of ‘accounting for and utilising what resources you have available to you’ when trying to write a script. Have a mate that owns a campsite in Penryn? Maybe consider setting a film there rather than, say, the Sydney Opera House. I think you wind up closer to fully realising your story and everyone goes home happier.)
On big budget films, the art department is up there in terms of being the biggest in both budget and boots. On micro-budget projects, the art department is often one or two extremely frantic people running from prop buying to costume fixing to digging a hole in order to erect a phone box in the woods, before going out to buy last minute vomit ingredients. The point is that the difference in scales shifts the demands of the job. And this is something that many makers of filmmaking decisions (be they writer/producers/directors) who are new to the game don’t fully appreciate. It is hard for a department with few staff, working on limited resources (time included) to always perform miracles.
Where does it start?
Like a lot of filmmaking, the pre-production is where the meat and potatoes of the art department, if not lie, then at least are planted, watered and jealously guarded. You’ll have many discussions about the look, the colours, what is trying to be conveyed emotionally, the art and soul (if we’re permitting puns) of what is being sought. It’s going to be different on every project and that is part of the fun of it. It’s not prescribed and everything is up for discussion. At least, everything should be up for discussion – sacred cows are a luxury that must be budgeted for.
The Art Department breakdown.
Not the mental collapse 1 week into a build when you realise that your expensive props won’t fit into your expensive studio, but your appraisal of all and sundry asked for in the script. Going through the script, line by line, and populating a spreadsheet with every action prop, dressing prop, vehicle, animal and SFX required is a tedious and slow process but is essential to getting a handle on the specifics of a script and is a good metric to see whether the budget lines up with what is being asked for.
Example of an Art Department Breakdown
Where you go from here depends on the scale of events. You might be designing huge moving sets to be constructed in a studio, kitting out a hotel room with different furniture, or anything in between. Bringing the script to life visually is a great challenge, satisfaction and often sleep- deprived ride.
Soft sands of expectation, hard rock of reality.
The shape of conversations between the art department team and the decision-making-movers-and- shakers of the film will change depending on the nature of a project. I have seen commercials where the art department was tasked to cater for every possible option and the budget was extended to accommodate it. Large scale feature films are again a different story, and what is being asked for and what that will cost are a back and forth conversation. In low budget shorts, I find the shape of relations has gone one of two ways: GO AROUND or STRAIGHT AHEAD.
There has been an understanding that the limited resources – both fiscal and temporal – doesn’t allow for a brute force “throw money at it until it’s done” approach and there is a need to be flexible, that creative solutions to tell the story are the way forward, which may well mean adapting how a scene was initially conceived to be shot. This is a good thing for many reasons. The film is more likely to get finished on time on target for a start, something everybody should want. It is collaborative and it is creative. It makes people work together and engenders solutions that everyone feels a part of. And personally, I believe that it leads to innovative, creative ways to tell your story. A short film I was the designer on had a scene that was to take place in a corner shop and was initially going to involve a lot of redressing that the shoot didn’t really have the time or money to do comfortably. The answer found was to shoot it in a more fluid manner that didn’t show the undressed area and was ultimately a more dynamic and engaging shot.
As a designer, after weighing up the demands of the script, researching and costing, you conclude that as it stands, there isn’t the money/time/resources to achieve what is being asked for in its current form. You propose adaptation and compromise. You are met by intransigence and unwillingness to alter course. This is a really hard place for everyone to be in and often leads to poor results and dissatisfaction, because where a creative solution might have been found, one isn’t.
This highlights the vital importance of early day conversations between the whole decision-making team. One of the skills that only experience will bring, is to identify at the nascent stages, a project that isn’t going to work for you as a professional. As a designer, fighting a Sisyphean task will leave you neither happy nor professionally satisfied. Hopefully, this is rare.
Getting it done. Silence is deadly.
I am not trying to advocate that the art department exists to frustrate the Director and the Producers. The art department is there to realise the Director’s vision for the film and of course, every effort must be made to achieve that. But we are all here to bring a story to life on a screen. That is the job. And sometimes part of that job is having hard conversations. I will always be an advocate that in a creative industry, the solution should be the creative one, not necessarily the obvious one. Looking to get the greatest value from what you’ve got will usually get you further than stretching to every corner. When it gets tough (and it will), the biggest thing is to just keep talking to everyone in the team. Don’t be isolated: in the low/no budget world, the people around you are the biggest asset – so make sure they’re involved. Tell the doctor where it hurts and you’re more likely to get the stitches in the right place.
Go out and make something beautiful.
- Spend smart, not big.
- Creativity will get you out of more difficulty than money. – Keep talking.