In the interest of finding out a bit more about the inner workings of the art department around the world, I decided to talk to a member of the art department in each major city that produces film and television. This installment covers the British art department from the perspective of a graphic designer. You can find our first post in the series covering the Los Angeles art department, here.
Representing London is a good friend of mine, graphic designer for film and television, Matthew Clark. Matthew has been in the art department for 8 years and worked on such projects as Black Mirror, Doctor Who, Red Dwarf XII, and Loaded.
Life in a British Art Department
Which production city center do you work in? Describe what the scene there is like for British Art Department personnel.
Matthew: I’m in London – most trade papers consider Pinewood, Shepperton, etc to be “London” even though it’s in a different county, but our studio space is actually in Central London. Several productions are based in the same high rise towerblock, so you have the studio/backlot experience condensed into several floors. It’s always fun to get in a lift and each door opens into a different period or world!
It’s great to actually work in the city again – as magical as places like Pinewood are, they’re a bit rural by comparison. The majority of the large studios are in a small ring around the outside of London, with the major prop stores and TV studios located more centrally – there’s a lot of cross-over between the two worlds. London is relatively small, so it’s hard not to go a couple of streets without seeing a location sign. I did a TV show last year that filmed alongside a film based on the same story! We ended up being on the same locations, just around the corner from each other several times.
The nice thing about the industry being so dense here is that it’s easy to make new contacts and meet people. The downside is that if you don’t live in London, it’s hard to find work. There’s been a lot of attempts to create more work in Manchester, Scotland, etc but it’s early days – the money is still in London which I guess keeps the productions based there.
What brought you to the art department as your career choice?
Matthew: I’ve always loved how film and TV can create convincing worlds, starting with wood and paint. The best sets have layers of details that work in different ways to create a cohesive whole, and I’ve always wanted to learn more about those details – I’ve got hundreds of “The Art Of…” books!
Growing up I wanted to be a prop or model maker, but I got drawn into the design and creation element of working in the art department rather than the making.
How did you successfully get into a British art department?
Matthew: I had an interest in the design side of films from a very early age – I was always making copies of props from cereal packets and yogurt pots as a kid! I planned for years to become a prop-maker, but the University courses relating to that seemed more theatre-based – which at the time wasn’t what I was too interested in. I decided to do a practical film-making course – one where you get to use 16 and 35MM, learn lighting and framing, that sort of thing. After my first year there, I found myself making my own sets – usually devoid of actors – and making sets and props for my friends studying there too. I moved from learning about propmaking to production design as a whole; coupled with what I’d learned about cameras and lighting I felt like I had a good crash-course introduction to the art department.
I was midway through my course – which was based in a part of England not usually associated with our film industry – when it suddenly had an influx of regional funding so a lot of films started being made there. They reached into the student community to crew up and I found myself going from making short films at University to working on large, independent films.
My first job was on Bunny and the Bull, an independent film by Paddington director Paul King – it was a strongly visual job full of set builds, miniatures and lots of really charming props – I was very lucky to go into something where the Art Department was so important.
Has it been difficult to get work?
Matthew: The first few years were difficult – when you’re an assistant it’s hard to stand out. You spend a lot of time making cold calls and sending emails that won’t get returned. Twitter was really helpful circa 2010-2012. There were lots of designers using it then so I would post my rendered SketchUp work on there and that helped me get noticed. After I started to specialise solely in Graphic Design I found it much easier to get work. I think the key thing is to find an aspect of the art department that you’re really good at, and focus on that. People will gradually be aware of your particular skillset and it’ll go from there.
What has kept you going over the years?
Matthew: I’ve always wanted to do sci-fi shows – I love the opportunities in graphic design they bring – screens, control panels, large-format artwork, interesting signage, etc, and they usually require some level of technical skill – direct media printing, laser cutting and the like – which makes them really enjoyable to work on.
I’ve been hugely lucky that I’ve managed to work on several TV sci-fi shows; knowing that one job often leads to another, especially in similar genres, really pushed me to keep refining my skills, practicing different methods, and keeping my folio updated. Luck – in the form of timing, or the people you know – is a key part of this career so it’s always good to be prepared for the job you don’t have.
What are the differences between the union and non-union worlds in Britain? Are there unions?
Matthew: There is the main media union – BECTU, and there are smaller, more specific unions – like the Graphics Union or the BFDG – but membership of them isn’t compulsory and they don’t affect your ability or eligibility to work. For the Art Department specific ones it’s more about making Producers aware of the particular roles of the departments, acting as a guide on working practices, pay, and that sort of thing.
As far as someone in the industry in North America would be concerned, we’re very much ‘non union’. Having had no experience of the North American industry it’s hard to judge the difference between union and non union jobs but broadly speaking, films and higher-end TV shows pay more, and have more reasonable hours – probably in line with how a Union show would run – whereas lower budget TV is much more punishing.
There’s usually a lull in work between November through February and that can lead to lower wages as people will take what they can get. The appearance of Netflix and Amazon on the scene has been amazing – they seem dedicated to making high-quality shows, and as a result they spend more time and money on getting them right.
Since the film industry in London is non-union how is new talent found and how do working guidelines, wages officially get decided?
Matthew: BECTU have guideline wages for Art Department positions – graded along the lines of TV, Film, and Commercial (and then subdivided into genres) but to be honest you rarely get the rate suggested – you tend to have to negotiate, and that can often be in very small increments.
Our specific unions such as the Graphics Union has been really good about trying to establish exactly what we do with Producers / Art Directors – for example, most producers don’t realise the sheer £ ($) value of a Graphic Designer’s kit vs a Set Dec or Art Director, so there’s been an effort to educate as well as promote. The Graphics Union is always on the lookout for young/junior members and to help point them towards assisting gigs to train them up. It’s very supportive.
Generally, though, a newcomer needs to reach out via email and phone to art directors, get work experience and assisting jobs that way, and move up through reputation and word of mouth. There are a few programmes with funding available to help place people, such as Skillset or the BBC Apprenticeships but they have very few spaces open in a year.
In North America, the union brings about “art department proper” who design in the office with Set Dec and Props as separate departments working both on set and in the office. How is the division of departments separated in the UK?
Matthew: Some of it is budget but as far as I can tell it’s mostly just the working practice and culture. Set Dec departments don’t tend to be huge; I’ve noticed that Graphics can sometimes fall under Set Dec depending on how the Production Designer structures the crew. I’ve also done a lot of shows where due to the sci-fi nature there’s a huge amount of collaboration between Set Dec, the Art department and the Props department because we’re making bespoke stuff, retrofitting bought items, or putting in huge graphic panels that are integral parts of the set. I also do a lot of Set Dec myself as prop men often don’t like putting vinyls on sets or labeling things up, so there’s a lot of crossover.
What have you learned that you wish you’d known sooner?
Matthew: You never know what’s coming, either in work or out of it. I’ve had down periods that have lasted a few months followed by having to turn down several jobs in a day. In every job I’ve had moments where I’ve read a script and my heart has turned cold as I’ve read that I need to create something and I have no idea how to achieve it. You have to be prepared to embrace a challenge – and learn how to problem solve.
Some of the shows I’ve done have involved a lot of thinking on my feet. Red Dwarf had, on average, 2 days prep and 3 days shoot per episode. Scripts would change 2-3 times daily, sometimes an hour before the audience would come in for the live recording that night. We really wanted it to look as good as it could given the time constraints, so on the first day we would plot out roughly what the episode would look like – I would create a graphic identity in the first day, and prepare a ‘kit of parts’ in terms of the look so when a set got extended – or a new one was added – the next day, we already had items for the Standby Props to help make it look right. Being flexible and thinking ahead was key.
I also keep everything. I keep all my work from all my jobs on my computer, because you never known when you are going to need to generate a form or poster or screen with no notice and having an archive to work to repurpose from is a huge help. Always save the PSD files and the unexpanded AI files, keep all your fonts between computers – storage isn’t that expensive and being able to pull something together in 5 minutes rather than an hour is something you can’t put a price on.
What is the best part of your job?
Matthew: The moment when a set is finished, complete, and lit, but before the shooting crew are on it. A lot of the shows I’ve done have had very graphic-heavy sets with lots of screens and backlit elements, so to be in that space, finished as it was intended to be, it’s really amazing to be able to be in the ‘world’ you’ve helped create.
Shooting crews have to treat a set as a working environment, which sometimes means being not entirely sympathetic with it – so for those few minutes where the set is pure and untouched, it’s pretty magical.
After everything you’ve experienced on the job, why do you love the art department?
Matthew: I love the teamwork inside of an art department – with set decorators, construction crews and buyers for example, all working towards the same goal, and the way a set can go from an empty stage to something tangible and real in a short space of time. I know the majority of detail work we put in won’t be seen by the audience, but there’s something really satisfying about creating a working, living space. If it helps the actors work within that space too – gives them something to interact with, especially if it’s a character-based set, then that’s really rewarding too.
Why do you love your job? I’d love to know in the comments below. I hope this helped you understand a bit more what it might be like working in a British art department.
Rose Lagacé | @artdepartmental