Ten years ago today I started Art Departmental while sitting on a futon in my sister’s apartment during a devastating nine month bout of unemployment and I can honestly say it’s the best thing I ever did. It’s given me purpose when my spirit was crushed and taught me more about people and my profession than I ever felt possible. I love what I do as a production designer, and I love connecting with those who love production design as much as I do. I am so lucky to still be here doing what I do.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my trajectory into the film and television industry and my fortuitous turn into the blogging and social media world. I have so many mixed feelings about my art department journey that it’s been interesting to disentangle why things happened the way they did.
Everything felt so damn complicated in the beginning. I was a sheltered kid from a factory town near Niagara Falls who didn’t study film production before moving to Toronto. I had never been away from home, did not grow up wealthy, and as it turned out, I had unknowingly entered the film and television industry during the worst possible time. My circumstances were not exactly ideal.
Service film production slowly began its exodus from Toronto after September 11, 2001. Actors and filmmakers didn’t want to be away from home during this unsettling time, so they understandably headed back to Los Angeles in droves. While some productions did come back, luck was not on our side. From 2003 to 2004, Toronto experienced an outbreak of SARS, a severe viral respiratory disease first reported in China, which created worldwide hysteria.
The vibrant and booming film and television industry in Toronto was decimated as a result of several factors: 9/11, SARS, a rising Canadian dollar, and unstable competing tax credits. While we still had local Canadian productions in town, the once sizeable service industry that had been built up over decades had vanished in an instant.
I moved to Toronto to pursue my filmmaking dreams while many prop shops struggled to stay afloat, some veterans in the industry were being forced out of the business by vast unemployment, and those who were accustomed to working on big budget shows were suddenly taking on local projects with small budgets so they could pay their mortgage. The unions weren’t accepting any new applicants, so there was no way in.
During this time, I was responding to ads for volunteer positions in which there were dozens of qualified candidates ahead of me. People were willing to take anything to just get out of the house. On top of this, tourism in Toronto was dead, retail and other entry-level customer service jobs were very hard to come by. It was a dark time to be young in a new city with no clue what you were doing.
This should have stopped me, but I was wide-eyed and focused. My old boss got me a job working at a convenience store that first year and later I worked at HMV recommending movies and Christmas albums to Bay Street traders while I learned what I could on set when a production would have me. I genuinely believe my naivete was my greatest asset. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into, but I remained optimistic and determined.
By 2007, Toronto was getting back on its feet and I had done an excellent job at moving my career forward. However, just when I was beginning to meet the right people, ACTRA, the Canadian equivalent of SAG AFTRA, went on strike on January 8, 2007. Happy new year to us. All productions left the city, and during that strike only one production remained shooting. One. I saw grown men cry during these six weeks. When ACTRA finally ratified their agreement, it was too late. The damage had been done. As if we hadn’t had enough, the Writers Guild of America went on strike that same year on November 5, 2007. The American shows bolted once again but the Canadian shows were able to keep some people employed this time.
In a constant state of Murphy’s law on September 29, 2008, the US stock market came crashing down. I was able to stay employed for the rest of that year but with the Canadian dollar now above par with the US, come January 2009 I was once again unemployed. This time for a period of nine months. After many tears, blaming myself for my unemployment, which I can now see in hindsight was beyond my control, I began searching for answers and dedicating myself to increasing my skills and learning more.
With work being scarce, there was an atmosphere of secrecy in the industry. Many people did not want to share their skills let alone help you succeed. Animosity and jealousy were around every corner. If you did find a job or a mentor through skill and/or luck, someone was mad about it. I was not immune and sometimes I caved to the negativity too. I’m not perfect. The atmosphere of the Toronto film and television industry suffered so much during those years. It is because of those early unfavourable experiences that I share information here so freely.
I’ve had people in the art department ask me why I help people who could one day take a job from me. These are the type of people I try to avoid. Negativity was in the air for so long that positivity was simply rebellious. Information was and is not the enemy. I can teach you the principles of design but I can’t teach you taste or intuition or how to apply the principles. Information will guide you but it won’t get you the job. It’s only a small piece of a large puzzle so I see no reason to hide this knowledge.
I had looked for months to find the resources online and at the library that I knew I needed to be a more skilled candidate, but my search was less than successful. Many books were outdated and there was very little online about production design. When I did find something useful, I had nowhere to store it, so I had to create lengthy Excel spreadsheets and Word documents of valuable notes and links. The internet was not what it is today and I was increasingly frustrated.
Given that my spreadsheets were complicated and cumbersome to maneuver, I created the very first Art Department Facebook group where I could house useful information about production design and the art department. However, Facebook also wasn’t what it is today and it became very difficult to search through the forum. Yet again, I hadn’t found the solution to my problems.
After complaining about my unemployment to my boyfriend at that time, he suggested I start a blog to showcase my work. I thought it couldn’t hurt, so I started the blog on a free platform, but I felt weird about posting my work for some reason. The internet felt like a scary place at the time. A lot of people still used pseudonyms online and nicknames as their email addresses so I never used my full name in any of my posts the first couple of years, nor did I feel comfortable sharing my work.
Looking back, it was such an innocent time considering the world we now live in where a lot of our information is out there and our data, logged. Due to my fear of privacy and the need to store my research, I decided instead of posting my work, I would write about production design and record my experience, notes, and resources. I figured other people starting out might also find it useful.
Luckily, from 2010-2011 the entertainment industry in Toronto began to stabilize thanks to increased television production, a weaker Canadian dollar, and a considerable increase to our tax credit. Cable television was doing quite well, a big feature film came to town, and all of this was followed by a digital streaming revolution.
At the exact same time I finally joined the union and began getting solid consistent work, I started to notice many people from the UK were somehow finding my tiny little blog. I didn’t know anyone from the UK, so I thought that was kind of fun. Soon after, people from Los Angeles started finding me and many other people in other cities followed. No one was more surprised by this than me.
I remember one day I woke up for work and I saw that the late production designer Therese DePrez had emailed me out of the blue. I nearly spit out my drink. I do not know how she found me, but that email made my year. I adored her work so much. She kept telling me to keep going and gave me the confidence I so desperately needed. I can’t begin to tell you how much her words meant to me. She was the first production designer of her calibre to email me and be so kind. Sadly she passed in December of 2017, and I never told her how much she had affected me during those early years of this site.
Unfortunately Art Departmental took a backseat for a couple of years while I took advantage of the increased work opportunities I was receiving. In 2017, I relaunched Art Departmental in its current form, and my only regret is that I hadn’t done it sooner.
It’s been an eventful two years since I redesigned the site. I am now officially a production designer in the eyes of my union, I travel a lot more for work, I have an agent advocating for me, and my crews are getting slightly bigger. I continue to strive towards my rather lofty goals as I remain imperfect but motivated to learn more, as I always have. The things I need to learn are changing and this fascinates me. I’m at a much different stage in my career than when I started and that’s often scary, difficult, and exciting all at once.
It is with all of this history in mind that we start the next phase of Art Departmental, and we move towards sharing more content, more interviews, more resources, more giveaways, and more opportunities for those that need them. We will be celebrating our 10th Anniversary all year and unveiling some big new features along the way. I really look forward to sharing everything with you in the months to come. Stay tuned via our newsletter which will be resuming this month.
Thank you all so much for coming on this adventure with me. I truly appreciate you.