The Art Department

First some definitions:

Production Designer

A Production Designer is responsible for the overall look of a film, television episode, music videos, plays or commercials.

A cornerstone of creativity for any film, the Production Designer interfaces directly with the Director and Producer and often works closely with the Director of Photography to establish the visual catalog of a film. The Production Designer should schedule and facilitate all productions meetings. It is essential that a Production Designer not be a mere tradesman, or possessed of a single craft, he must be managerially trained polymath intimate with design, history, architecture, color theory, framing, lighting, print, typography, symbology, culture and motiffs, textures and textiles, wardrobe, fashion, weaponry, props, and a few dozen other critical interests. A genuine Production Designer is a leader of many men and women and must be able to communicate his or her expectations clearly, address/correct misapprehensions quickly and keep his team well knit, well oiled and on project. A Production Designer must possess superior communication and articulation skills, enthusiasm, sharp mental faculties, and a proven ability to anticipate, schedule, budget, mediate, orchestrate and most importantly inspire.

Most people who claim to be Production Designers actually are merely tradesmen or graphic designers. The best Production Designers are men and women of soaring talent, intellectual and creative exceptionalism, and positive-souled leaders who encourage, edify and uplift.

The Production Designer is ultimately responsible for all creative decisions (sans direction) on a film. It is not unusual for the Production Designer to also participate in various phases of media and promotion of the film as well, and help to ensure continuity of imagery and style even through the advertising phase. The Production Designer is responsible for all the Creative Briefs, Design Briefs, Character Analysis Briefs, Wardrobe Briefs, principal research for any project and all the other paperwork that guides the Art Department through any extant project. Any Production Designer who cannot communicate efficiently and expediently, follow-up, manage his department, and update and be updated on a daily/weekly basis should be replaced with a more credible creative professional.

As most of you already know, the actual position of Production Designer was created in 1939 to reflect William Cameron Menzies amazing design work on the groundbreaking film Gone with the Wind.

Art Designer

In the hierarchy of a film’s art department the Art Director is a direct report to the Production Designer and coordinates many aspects of the department including provided to him by the Production Designer: assignments, scheduling, appointments, budgets, quality and function inspections, etc.

Art Directors usually interact with other departments including Special Effects, Location & Scouting and Prop Transportation. They translate the detailed Creative and Design Briefs from the Production Designer into actually palettes, styles and themes. They also work closely with the Set Designers to prepare dimensions and floor plans.

Set Designer & Decorator

Set Designers and Decorators…well, they design sets for film and television. They are usually supported by the Lead Man, Set Dressers and a battery of carpenters and electricians.

Functionally, the Set Designers supervise the carpenters as they build the physical space in which the film is set. The Set Decorator places all the lovely props into the physical space. This often includes floors, walls, furnishings, wallpapers, lighting fixtures, props, and other tangibles.

Usually, the Set Design budget is separate from the Set Dressing budget which is wholly ornamental.

Property Master

The Property Master is in charge of the prop catalog and is responsible for its acquisition, storage, transportation to and from set, compliance to script expectations and senior Art Department personnel, and frequently interacts with Continuity Supervisors where perishable or altered props are required: these are not the same position: that is why they have different names.


Carpenters and electricians are the physical builders of sets. They are not designers, but hammer-and-nail assemblers of sets who work from a very concise set of blueprints, schematics or sketches.


The movers are simply people who move furniture, large props and other physical assets to, from and around the set. Like carpenters, they report to the Set Designer.

One of the most complicated and demanding departments of any film, the Art Department is collectively responsible for nothing less than the entire aesthetic and execution of that aesthetic in any film.

Some uncomfortable things members of the Art Department have to be prepared to endure include:

  • Grips totally disarranging meticulously dressed sets without even a blush;
  • Gaffers standing in front of monitors obfuscating the view of everyone else;
  • Directors framing out the more interesting angles or props;
  • General disregard for just how much time something actually took to make;
  • In short, the very same grievances every other department feels they alone endure.

As in the corporate world, the power, principals and protocols of a creative director or design studio might as well be sorcery to the untrained or the initiate.

You cannot teach the unimaginative how to dream or design.

Any creative person knows inspiration is an untamable force that comes and goes with no regard for its human channels.

You design as the Spirit moves you.

Now, the absolute best way to educate the rest of the crew about the co-sovereignty of design in a film (every bit an equal to directing and acting) is to methodically communicate how the Art Department works, how it generates reports, answer requests, fulfill prop needs, handles changes or correction or revision, etc.

This will create a more agreeable work environment for you, your team as well as everyone else on the production.

Design away.


~ by David Jetre on January 24, 2011.

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