All That You Can See

In keeping with last week’s post, I was talking with our construction coordinator about how sets are built.  In the middle of the conversation, he tossed out his philosophy about the art department: “The only things the audience sees are the actors and the art department.”

As a guy who’s worked in camera and production, and who is trying to be a writer, I really haven’t given enough thought to the art department.  When I make my own shorts, they’re usually set in the present, so the actors can wear clothes from their closet and we can film in a friend’s apartment.  The set decoration is usually whatever’s already at the location.

But the construction coordinator is right.  You can have beautifully-lit actors reading great dialogue, but without the art department, you’re remaking Our Town.

I've really never seen this play.  I just know there's no set.
My next short film.

I think a lot of filmmakers think this way.  They’re so fascinated by gorgeous celebrities and cool shots, they forget about the world the story takes place in.

Of course, others focus only on that.

Batman wasn't that great, either.
Seriously, fuck Tim Burton.
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5 Responses

  1. I’m a mother of a 4th yr film school student and have, consequently, immersed myself in the fascinating world of film production. As a non-industry ‘just a fan of films’ person, I have grown to appreciate so much more the incredible detail, complexity and talents of people such as yourselves who give us/’the public’ a wonderful cinema experience. My thanks to the bloggers on this site for sharing their hard work, frustrations and just your efforts overall! – From an appreciative fan of film

  2. Art DepartMENTAL – Not to get too off topic or anything, but I can say the same for the lighting department that you said about the art department: a lot of people either don’t realize or don’t care about the amount of shit someone in the lighting department is supposed to know. And I can verify that the lighting department DOES NOT have a finite amount of equipment to use. Things are constantly evolving with the use of new technologies including moving lights, LEDs, plasma lights, new programming boards, DMX, etc, etc. Even in camera, the advice usually given is to not invest in a camera right now since things are constantly changing. And the good best boys, gaffers, and juicers also need to know drafting, architecture, film theory, art history, painting, etc.

    That all being said, I do have mad respect for what you guys do. But based on your comment, I get the feeling that respect may not be mutual.

    Nathan’s right. Everyone thinks their department is the most important.

  3. It always amazes me how much disrespect the art department receives, particularly from the independent film community, but also in mainstream film & tv. While I agree with Nathan (we rely on locations heavily) that every single person’s job is important I think a lot of crew are naive to the fact that the Production Designer is one of the first crew members hired, second (usually) only to the DOP. Given that the designers job is to not just build sets but collaborate in this creative triangle with the DOP and Director to create the entire visual identity of a project it seems absurd that people forget the art department. Once the visual look is decided everything else is then possible.

    I could go on forever but I won’t. The only other thing I want to say that a lot of people either don’t realise or don’t care about is the amount of shit someone in the art department is supposed to know (graphic design, drafting, architecture, art history, film theory, interior design, painting, etc, etc.) At least camera, lighting, and grip, etc. have a finite amount of equipment to use and once they know about all the equipment and techniques it takes the rest of their lives to learn how to perfect the application of those skills. For someone in the art department the equipment, tools, techniques, and skills needed are infinite not to mention the amount of prep time. It’s overwhelming and yet some of the time it’s a struggle just for the designer to get proper billing after the DOP.

    I’m glad you wrote about the art department. I had a feeling you hadn’t had much experience with the art department when I read your post about costume design. Not your fault though. I generally blame film school for this. 🙂

  4. I’ve done Our Town….you don’t want to see it. It’s more of a learning experience for the actors than it is for the audience to enjoy. It’s supposed to teach them how tell a story without the use of a set or most other technical elements.

  5. I think there are a whole lot of departments who are convinced that they come up with the most important element of the film (guilty as charged here). Needless to say, if the sound guy forgets to bring mics or the camera guys forget the lenses, or…ahem…the locations guy doesn’t have the key to today’s location…everybody else’s efforts are going to be a waste. Sometimes a little less self-importance might be in order.

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