In the interest of finding out a bit more about what a Los Angeles art department is like, I interviewed Los Angeles art director and art department coordinator Monica Sotto. In the future we will be interviewing someone from each film production center to discover the differences in various film and television art department’s around the world.
Life in a Los Angeles Art Department
Which production center do you work in? Describe what the scene there is like.
Monica: I work in Los Angeles. Currently working on a television program for TNT / Warner Brothers at the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood. It’s a union show and lasts almost all year, which is a blessing in this town and in these times.
The Los Angeles production scene is complex, and still saturated with people from all over the world who want to work in show business. Every day, there are union shows, non-union shows, student film projects, commercials, videos, web series, art films/projects being shot in our streets, businesses and homes. Everyone in entertainment seems to possess many tiers of activity – a personal project, a project with or for a friend/business contact, a day job, a “filler” job or temporary job and probably another incarnation or creative endeavor on top of all of this activity. The competition for work is extremely high in LA, because there are a ton of talented (and not-talented) people here and not enough well-financed projects to sufficiently hire all of these people. A lot of people matriculate to other cities to find film work, or they simply put together their own project and find financing (or use up all of their savings/trust funds).
We all comply with the hard work that production life demands: long hours, time away from family, friends and lovers, erratic work schedules, variance in pay rates, camp-like daily life in diet and work spaces, etc. There is a definite sense of “us”, the crew who lead the crew life, and “the rest”, the civilians who have jobs that have no ties to the entertainment world. The irregular timing of this lifestyle also ensures that LA is always bustling – there’s no real “dead time” anywhere. Some people are on 14 hour work days, while cohorts have the next 3 days off and can be found at the gym, at coffee shops, shopping or whatever.
What brought you to the art department?
Monica: I’m part of a generation of art department professionals that came into the craft via film work, not theater production. Many of my teachers, mentors, superiors and co-workers began in theater production, because that’s where set building is expected and began. They learned set design by turning an empty black-painted stage into a set, using flats, furniture, props, lighting, etc. Low budget and student film-making rarely have the budgets to finance set builds, but some do, and every film project needs an art department, so there are people who get into the art department and flourish.
I got into USC film school thinking I would pursue cinematography or visual effects. But I quickly realized that I had little experience with still photography, and I wasn’t a total fixer/tinker-er of machines and such – I was a painter, an illustrator and general art room nerd as a kid. When I realized that art department required a fine artist’s temperament, and should be a person who loved to decorate and create, I found my calling. I took every art department crew position I could manage while still in college and during the summer vacations. I was pretty sure that I wanted to do art department work forever. But then I also took classes at USC that let me meet agents, managers, producers and other above-the-line people, and they intrigued me too.
How did you get into the art department?
Monica: After graduation, I took some advice from some successful USC alumni and got a job with a talent agency. This is one of the strongest recommendations I got, and one I’d pass along to anybody interested in entertainment at all – try to get a job in the mailroom of a respectable agency or management company, and move your way up to an assistant level at least. Even though it’s a completely different world, very corporate and “suit”, a good long phase in an agency as an intern, a mailroom employee and definitely as an assistant will give you the bearings and skills you need to survive the fast-paced, high pressure work environment that is Hollywood. Agency life humbles you and also stirs the embers of your ambition, if you’re doing it correctly. Also, you are forced to learn every working and important person/name out there, giving you a general but informed sense of how business is moving and where it may go.
I wasn’t that interested in the business representation of actors or directors, but I was/am interested in directors of photography, production designers, editors – crew department heads whom I felt akin to. I wanted to know how they got work. I wanted to know WHO was working, why, how they were like, what kind of money they made, what kind of projects they got attached to, all of it. I was still curious about the “suit side” of Hollywood and wanted to see how I could get along in it and with it, and still be close to production people aka “below the line talent.” At least, I could get a few important phone numbers for the next job – agents and managers have all the contacts in the business, and a good relationship with your agent or agents could segue into a good relationship with a client, which could mean your next big job.
The latter is exactly what happened to me – I became friendly with a production designer client, and when the time was right, my boss/agent let me move on and get a job in the art department with this designer client. I worked my ass off for that agent and for that client. They rewarded me for it and helped me with the Next Big Step. I went from the trenches of the agency bullpen, and straight into the production office and set life (in a different city too! I moved out of LA in a whirlwind for this new job). After that first job, I got into the IATSE 871 union in Los Angeles and began my television career as an Art Department Coordinator. I kept freelancing in union and non-union shows and projects. Last year, I got into the Art Directors Guild, a goal of mine I’ve had since school!
Has it been difficult?
Monica: Difficult doesn’t begin to describe this type of life and work life. You can reference the old stories about artists and entrepreneurs trying to eek out a living, trying to hold onto self-worth while no work arrives, trying to face parents and friends when no paychecks are coming in, when the dreams become muddled and are sometimes lost. Motivation to continue can be punctured by too many disappointing moments and news.
Honestly, the poor state of the economy allows “civilians” to feel the sporadic, desperate, unstable life that many artists and filmmakers experience. But if you keep trying, keep applying, keep making, the work usually arrives.
I’ve talked about this life choice with many people – film life is a marathon. You just have to keep running. You’re the one who decides to stay in or to tap out. You have to do something extraordinary to get thrown out – we all know how many crazy, insane and offensive people work in entertainment and get away with it! So if you have the stamina to keep going AND the talent to back it up – you will most likely succeed.
What kept you going?
Monica: It’s pretty simple – I love movies. I love motion pictures. I love being part of something that can tell a great story. We get to be kids and somewhat savants – we have to use our imagination and learn complex skills to execute good filmmaking and “tricks.” Succeeding through imagination and hard work is rewarding, socially and creatively speaking.
What are the differences between union and non-union worlds in Los Angeles?
Monica: Union and Non-union are different planets that use the same language. Union work, despite its shortcomings and small injustices and often lackluster product, is the way to go. Going Union means benefits, usually decent pay, and having some protection from producers/companies that can overwork and underpay crew members. Union jobs guarantee that the office kitchen is always stocked and you get paid on Thursdays. There are a lot of older people working on Union jobs, which is beneficial since you are working for and with experienced filmmakers. However, there is a lot of bickering, complaints, lack of care and disillusionment among seasoned crew members – studios and companies tend to take advantage of people, wearing down the morale and passion in many. The competition is also more traumatic because you can go from making upwards of $1200 a week with benefits when working, to nothing, if you miss the opportunity to hop onto another project. The up-and-down lifestyle can wear a person down, especially someone who has a mortgage, children, debt and other expensive, permanent hard costs.
Non-union filmmaking is the wild west. A good non-union crew understands the fundamentals of film-making, and by that I mean they know the BASICS: call sheets, meal times, sufficient and identifiable crew positions, set protocol, and hopefully the knowledge that a project needs a decent budget. You learn a lot on a non-union job and quickly recognize the innovative hardworkers. You learn how to do things the wrong way, and then the means to create a solution out of the problems. You do more than what’s expected and you can pleasantly or unpleasantly surprise yourself. Getting the job done under strenuous conditions makes you the hour’s hero and everyone gets his/her turn to shine. The creative energy tends to be high and complex because you have people who just want to create things with the little they have. That ambitious, dreamers’ energy is fantastic to participate in.
The union world is cushy and sometimes corporate. The non-union world will beat you up and give you that tough skin you’re supposed to have.
What have you learned from working in Los Angeles art department’s?
Monica: Everyone serves the story. If one dares to serve the ego – the personal or collective ego – then the entire work experience can be marred and ruined. If you fail to tell the story because you are distracted by power, budget or entitlement to comforts, then you fail as a filmmaker.
Also, if the crew life is too hard for you, take a break. Or be honest and stop pursuing this line of work. There are a lot of people out there who want a chance to try to succeed in entertainment production and they shouldn’t be held back by disgruntled, ungrateful workers.
What is the best part of your job?
Monica: Every moment is about how to make something. Art department is focused on “making it real”, making tacit environments and objects that help tell a story – directors have space to navigate, cinematographers have something to film and actors have area to perform. As part of the Art department, you create the make-believe world that other people can only imagine.
Why do you love the art department?
Monica: I grew up on movies and television shows. I was always in love with the “worlds” that motion pictures could create – fantastic other-worlds, or simply a different view into someone else’s life, someone who could be living in a nearby apartment that is completely visually different from my house. Art department is in charge of manifesting these ideas. We build huge playgrounds so everyone on set and everyone who watches can believe they are somewhere else. We get the first real pass at suspending disbelief. That’s pretty magical.
Why do you love your job? I’d love to know in the comments below.