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The Real Poop

If you've ever watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail and thought, "You know, I would've built the Trojan Rabbit out of different materials and maybe painted it a different color," then perhaps you ought to consider a career as an art director in the film industry.

Of course, first you'd have to have some idea of what an art director does. The term is really nebulous, isn't it? Do art directors make all the paintings and sculptures and stuff you see in rom-coms set at the Guggenheim, or what?

In fact, art directors are the project managers responsible for creating the world—or the sets—the actors in a film move through. After conferring with the director (and, if the gig is big enough, the production designer), the art director will hire and supervise all of the people needed to design and build sets. You won't be in charge of mere canvas backdrops here; you'll also have partial or complete control over lighting, props, set locations, and any special effects that fall under the jurisdiction of set design. Additionally, art directors are responsible for all the scheduling and budgeting surrounding set work.

If you make it as an art director in film, you'll be part of an elite group of architects/artists/carpenters/interior designers who've been around since filmmaking took off in the 1890s. The "making it" bit might be kind of difficult, though.

See, you don't just graduate from college and step into the role of art director on a big-budget feature film. You're going to have to jump through a lot of hoops in order to reach this position, like:

  • Earning an undergraduate degree in a field like theater, the fine arts, architecture, etc.
  • Potentially earning a graduate degree in production design
  • Accruing years of work experience in film and/or the theater by doing every conceivable task related to set design and creation
  • Actually breaking into working for a Hollywood studio
  • Joining the union for art directors so you can get work in your chosen career

Not only do you need to have artistic sensibilities in order to succeed as an art director, but you must be able to understand, design, and build spaces (sets) that fit in with the film director's vision and with the movements of actors and props. Because your job is administrative, you must have excellent communication, teamwork, and supervisory skills. You'll also need to be handy with a computer: Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) software will be integral to your work.

You'll have to be a problem-solver, someone who can assess an issue quickly and accurately and then employ a cost-effective (you're on a budget, remember) solution. You'll need to handle stress well. You'll also have to have the emotional maturity to endure sometimes lengthy separations from your family, when filming takes you out-of-state or to other countries for weeks or months at a time.

Keep in mind, too, that the number of art directors in the film industry is really, really small. Tiny. A couple of thousand people and no more. And that number isn’t going to get any bigger: Studios pretty much have all the art directors they could ever need already, right at hand.

None of this dials down the coolness factor of being an art director in the film industry. How awesome would it be to see your work honored in an Academy Award-winning movie? Not that you'll be winning the Academy Award for Best Production Design, that Oscar will go to your boss, the production designer, and the film's set decorator. You'll also have to put up with the fact that, not only will most moviegoers only pay momentary attention to the sets you help bring to life, but very few people outside of the film industry will ever know or understand who you are and what you do.

Perhaps all of this, the numerous qualifications you’ll need to meet, the improbability of you ever becoming an art director for movies, is making you rethink this career. If so, there are plenty of other opportunities you could pursue.

In the film industry, you could set your sights on a lower rung of the ladder and stick to working as a set decorator or designer, an illustrator, a graphic artist or model maker, a location manager or scout, a prop master or construction coordinator, or as a member of the visual effects or special effects staff.

If you're still dazzled by the title of art director, you could work in this particular career, but in a totally different industry. Advertising and public relations firms, manufacturers, and newspaper, book, and magazine publishers all employ art directors (although the publishing industry isn't looking so hot these days).

Finally, you could take your skill set and head in a completely different direction. You could become an architect or a carpenter, an artist, a photographer, or a graphic designer. Basically, you'll pick up so much knowledge and so many different experiences in your quest to become an art director in the film industry that you'll find yourself qualified to do many other different kinds of jobs.

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