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Art Department Assistant

Building sets in the studio and working on location, the Art Department under the direction of the production designer offer a variety of career paths from set decoration to design to construction.

My First Job in Film: How to become an art department assistant
Stage
1

If studying apply for work experience, contact scenery companies, short films can help build your portfolio. Technical drawing experience can be important, take a course if lacking knowledge.

Stage
2

Apply for trainee positions via Creative Skillset, research the other areas of the industry who employee trainees and assistants in the art department.

Stage
3

Depending on the type of production your working on, it can take two years and over as a trainee to move up in features. In other areas of the industry your progress will be quicker such as TV.

What is the art department?

The production designer and their Art Department are responsible for creating the fictional world the film's characters inhabit, through design, construction and set decoration they build magical worlds and accurately recreate historical settings, often down to the minutest detail on the curtain runners. Members of the Art Department can be found working on features of all budgets, commercials, corporate videos, promos, TV dramas, digital content, fashion, short films and student films. On a large budget, the Art Department can be counted in the hundreds, while working on smaller budget TV shows or features the Art Department can comprise of 5 - 10 people. 

Ideally, production designers begin work early on in the process; some designers can be involved months before the official pre-production period has even started! During this time they collaborate with the director to sketch out their vision, then prepare to turn that world into a physical reality after working through the script; breaking down the locations and sets as they go. The production designer and director decide whether to create that world in the studio or to build the sets into real locations or both.  

The Art Department is made up of many sub-departments. Those working directly with the production designer such as the art directors, draftsmen and assistants. Set decoration which includes the set decorators, props and prop making, and the construction crew; which includes plasterers, carpenters, painters and scenic artists. All these elements come together to create detailed sets found in the studio or built into existing locations. Creating a set can be advantageous as the production can retain absolute control of the lighting and space. Any props, painting and furnishing, can be added or taken away to facilitate specific requirements of filming the action within the design/construction. Wall's can be taken away to facilitate the track and dolly, or seeming priceless furniture can be struck to make way for a light. When the production designer is conceptualising their designs they often need to achieve a balance between the visual and the practical; they also need to be aware of the safety of the crew.  The Art Department work in close collaboration with Camera, Lighting, Locations, VFX and Costume Departments to achieve the overall atmosphere and look of the film. 

WHAT ARE THE ENTRY LEVEL POSITIONS IN THE ART DEPARTMENT?

Production designers, art directors and set dressers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some start as runners and assistants working their way up through the department; others enter the film industry from working in theatre set design. Some have degrees; others have GCSE’s. As with most departments, it’s work ethic and attitude that are so critical to attaining those entry level roles.   

Entry level positions are dictated by budget and the functions of the trainee and assistant can cross over and often become one, so ask what your responsibilities will be from the off.  As a graduate, school leaver or career changer wanting to work in the Art Department, you will find that the majority of entry-level opportunities come in the form of:

  • Art Department PA/runner: Features with a bigger budget will have runners attached to each department, as would TV dramas and some commercials depending on the scale of the project. As a runner you will be working under the supervision of the department coordinator, taking care of the logistics and smooth running of operations. You may not get the opportunity to work on set, but you will certainly see how sets are constructed and observe how the design process unfolds. 

  • Art Department assistant: The assistant is the primary rung on the ladder of the Art Department, and a well trodden path for many.  A trainee position run through a recognised body such as Skillsets traineefinder can offer you the opportunity to get some hands-on experience while in the department, unlike a runner, you will be put to work quickly within the department. The assistant is the junior position in most Art Departments, they will have more responsibility than a runner, and need to have some experience behind them at a low-level capacity. On smaller budget productions the assistant can find themselves completing the tasks of the runner alongside any other responsibilities they may have. Working on a bigger budget can offer an assistant some time to become involved with more practical tasks, ultimately, it's about filling gaps in the Art Department - using your skills and being used for them! 

Some features and in-house departments for broadcast companies can run work experience placements and apprenticeships. Make sure to take your portfolio of work with you if you are asked in for a chat. Don’t be shy about letting the rest of the department know what you want to do, but be realistic. It is unlikely you will be working as an art director within a week of your work experience. Starting at the bottom can be an excellent opportunity to work with a variety of people, and time in the industry may have you questioning which career path is right for you. While on work experience ask questions at the right time; you will always receive the information you need to help you on your journey.

WHAT ARE THE OTHER ROLES IN THE ART DEPARTMENT ON A UK PRODUCTION?

As you will see from the following roles the Art Department can be the largest below the line department in production. A films budget will dictate how many of these positions are available on any given project, but on a film with a large budget you can expect to find the following positions in Art Department, which includes set design and construction:

Art Department:

  • Production designer: In charge of the department and one of the first members of the crew to be appointed in pre-production by the director.

  • Supervising art director: If working on a big budget production a supervisor will be needed to handle the budget, schedule, liaise between Art Departments (set construction) and production office, they are involved in all aspects of logistical operations.

  • Art director(s): Depending on the scale of the production you can find the positions of senior art director, art director(s) and assistant art director. If working with on a big budget production, the art directors will be responsible for individual sets, within the three structures of seniority. On more modest productions art directors assimilate the role of supervisors and become project managers, taking on the managerial and project management of the individual sets. Art directors are also present on set when the production enters principal photography, acting as the liaison between the department and the production designer.  

  • Concept artists: Work within pre-production to aid the pre-visualisation process. They bridge the gap between the VFX team and the Art Department, creating wireframe computer generated images that represent the virtual world within the film.  

  • Storyboard artist: Work in close collaboration with the director sketching out each scene of the movie that is used as reference material for the rest of the departments. Even though shots can change at the last minute, visually understand what the director requires is essential during production. 

  • Draftsmen (set designer US): Depending on the scale of the production there will be senior draftsmen, draftsmen and junior draftsmen employed to work on the technical drawings that enable the construction crew to do their job. 

  • Art Department coordinator: The coordinator role is found in large scale productions, and they are responsible for ordering materials, passing on documentation, monitoring expenditure, consumables, liaising with the production office, call times and communications throughout the department. 

  • Art Department assistant: On a low to medium budget production the role of assistant will also be the trainee position of the department, carrying out all the responsibilities outlined here. One big budget films assistants can model making, drafting, surveying and using Photoshop and Illustrator software. 

Set Design:

  • Set decorator(s): The set decorator (set designer US) is the production designers key ally when approaching a project, just as the art department construct the world the characters inhabit the set decorators fill the world with the everyday items we find all around us. They work with the production designer on the overall look of the film and pay particular attention to colour, texture and light when dressing the sets. They are responsible for the dressing of each set, (whether location or studio) with the set decorator taking responsibility for the department. On large scale productions, there are usually assistant set decorators also. 

  • Property master (Props): Responsible for renting, making or buying in props for the production.

  • Production buyer: Working with the property master, production buyers will do the footwork and source the props needed from rental houses, shops, flea markets etc.

  • Set decoration coordinator: Found on higher end productions the coordinator for set decoration will be ordering materials, passing on documentation, monitoring expenditure, consumables, liaising with the production office, call times and communications throughout the department.

  • Graphic designer: Working with the props master and maker, graphic artists work on any prop that requires text, such as documentation, newspapers, maps, books, menus, shop signage etc. They will also be responsible for any of the hero props used in the film if graphics are involved. Graphic artists will make sure there is one prop for close ups but a few identical props for everyday use, reserving the best one for its close up.   

  • Prop makers: On a big budget certain props that are hard to come by can be made by skilled craftsmen and women. If the film is set during a specific period the budget will contain enough money to craft these items in-house.

Construction:

  • Construction manager: Working closely with the production designer, draftsmen and the art directors, the construction manager is responsible for set building and the large workforce needed to make sets for feature films.

  • Construction coordinator: Liaising with the other departments the coordinator takes on the responsibilities such as ordering materials, passing on documentation, monitoring expenditure, consumables, liaising with the production office, call times and communications throughout the department.

  • Carpenters.

  • Painters.

  • Scenic artist.

  • Plasterers: If working on period films they can recreate a specific moulding within a set, as well as giving the sets their authenticity.

  • Sculptures.

What is the career path in the art department?

Due to the vast range of positions on offer in the art department, your job can see you going from art department PA to assistant props buyer, deviating by way of the painter and into set dressing. Most of the positions are interconnected and will give you the opportunity to broaden your experience, allowing you to collect skills along the way. Ultimately, knowing which job it is you would like to do (designer, dresser) will give you the structure you need to make the most amount of progression in your chosen career path. One career path to consider is:

Runner/PA > Art Department Assistant > Jnr. Draftsman > Draftsman > Assistant Art Director > Art Director > Production Designer. 

WHAT ARE THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE ART DEPARTMENT TRAINEE/ASSISTANT?

Working as a trainee can see you pitching in and assisting with the smooth running of the department. Under the supervision of the art department coordinator you will be involved with the logistical operations of the Art Department, such as:

  • Issuing drawings. When one of the draftsmen has completed their drawing it's placed in the ‘drawing book’, the drawing is numbered, printed out, and sent to whoever it has been issued to (the construction crew, SFX team or riggers for example).

  • Running errands. This can be anything from collecting supplies to grabbing eight four pinter’s of semi skimmed and twenty packets of biscuits (did we mention how big the Art Department is). You may also be delivering the drawings that have been issued.

  • Keeping everyone caffeinated. If there is a runner then this will likely fall more into their remit but the tea and coffee run is always going to be one of the junior level jobs, so try and make your peace with it. It's very useful to write down how everyone has their tea and coffee and keep it in the kitchen area; it can be time-consuming writing it down every time you ask, and you will ask - a lot!

  • Keeping the office supplies in order and reporting when you are low on any materials such as foam core (model making material), glue, spray paint, tape, etc. The set builders will have their list that will go straight to the coordinator or the buyer.

  • Being an extra pair of hands on set, which can mean you are doing a bit of everything and helping those who are most pushed for time.  

  • Cleaning/preparing props for use in action. You may also be asked to do some basic props-makes which can be ideal to get some hands-on experience.

  • Dressing graphics.  Props which include any writing or require Photoshop or Illustrator can fall to the assistant or trainee.

HOW DO I FIND WORK AS AN ART DEPARTMENT TRAINEE?

Due to the vast array of positions available, many of the Art Department come from different backgrounds. Carpenters have been apprentices on building sites; set dressers may have come into the business from the theatre, art directors can have spent seven years learning how to become architects; many have been to art school or worked in the theatre. As the Art Department needs people with a variety of skills, previous experience will always give you a significant advantage when applying for junior positions. To be considered for runner or assistant position you are going to need a strong portfolio and CV, which not only reveal your skills but demonstrates your potential. You need to be prepared for a few years of self investment at junior level. Investing in yourself means being prepared to work infrequently, often for low pay for those first few years, as you establish yourself as a member of the Art Department you will begin to generate work via your contacts.

With some experience on short films, film school productions and micro-budget features you can look at the junior positions run by Creative Skillset's Trainee Finder, who place trainees on good size professional productions. You can also look at scenery building firms such as Footprint (who offer trainee roles), Scenetec or Scenic to see if they are accepting application or running work placements.  As you are starting out take time to explore the other mediums where an Art Department are employed (TV, theatre, live events), at this stage of the game you are looking to build relevant experience wherever you can.

CV

When working on your CV check it (or ask someone else to) to see it reads well and is correctly formatted. You can use the CV advice and CV builder to help create a CV and covering letter. You can check your CV against our example CVs to see if includes all the relevant information. You are going to want to keep your CV short and to the point, as many coordinators will be ‘scanning’ rather than reading, cut out the chaff and try and keep it down to one page, two max. 

If you have taken work experience placements whilst studying be sure to include them and highlight what you've learnt. When you're creating your first CV and have no industry work experience as yet, think about other activities you have been engaged with, voluntary work, part time jobs etc. Try to think about all the skills needed to work at entry level in the film industry and apply these to your experience to date. If you have volunteered at a film festival or found work experience in the local theatre it demonstrates your commitment, it also shows you are prepared to get things done. If you have been waiting tables whilst studying it signifies to employers you are familiar with working unsociable hours, you can be on your feet all day and you've had experience working in a customer facing job. 

Finding paid work and applying for positions in the Art Department can be a full-time job in itself. Some people will get lucky, finding work almost instantaneously. Some may have put in the hours on short films whilst they are studying, some people might just be in the right place at the right time. In whatever situation you find yourself, the resounding advice from professionals working in the film industry is be persistent; persistent and relentless in the pursuit of your chosen career. Keep applying for positions, sending emails, and keep an eye on the British Film Council, Facebook’s UK Production News and The Knowledge noticeboards to see what is going into production.

Research

When you go to an interview coordinators and senior members of the team are going to want to know you are proactively furthering your development and technique. Highlight the skills you have, provided evidence of work you have created in your own time and make it clear you’re willing to learn from your traineeship. Alongside researching architecture, structure and being prolific on CAD there is a host of blogs, books and internet resources available to gain further insight into the work of the Art Department, and although nothing is going to beat practical application they will give you a feel for life on set.   

Websites:

Books:

Website and Portfolio

Arguably a portfolio is what is going to get you your first job in the Art Department; it’s going to show your potential employers exactly what skills you have and how you can use them. Portfolios can contain images of the sets you have created, technical drawings, references, storyboards, examples of model making and any artistic or technical study that can highlight your suitability for the department.

You may wish to create two portfolios. A website that's going to showcase your work, which is extremely useful as you can display the link in your CV. Make sure your website is fast enough to display the images promptly, you want to make sure they are high quality but not at the expense of the load up time. When thinking about what to add quality over quantity is the watchword, only post your best work, even if that is two drawings a picture and an animation.

The other portfolio should be a hard copy of all your work in an artist's case. Here you can add more detail on how you came to produce the work and what your methods were. Take your portfolio with you when you have an interview or if you have found a member of the department who is willing to sit-down with you to offer advice. If you decide to go down the road of contacting designers directly you may find they can’t offer you a job, but they may be able to offer work experience, if that is the case remember to take your portfolio along.

Collaborations

Alongside a portfolio, you're going to need to fill your CV with some experience, which can be from work expereince placements whilst you are studying, your work on short films, student production or micro-budget features. A CV with no experience is unlikely to be considered for junior roles, so these initial steps are vital when starting out. Many short films are shot over a weekend, or maximum five days. So if you are working full-time, this can be an ideal way to gain experience while still bringing home the bacon.  

The film industry is fiercely competitive so you need to use all resources available to you.  Alongside the opportunities we list here on MFJF, you can also look to industry essentials to see the other service providers for collaborations. University websites have noticeboards or areas of their site dedicated to working together or swaps. If you are living in a town with a university or art school with a film MA programme, research their noticeboards to see if they need any help. You can also look for expereince in the theatre and TV, via junior level roles. In these early stages you are looking to build relevant experience wherever possible. 

Although we do recommend collaborations, do your research first to find out who is going to be working on the production. Film school short films will be backed by the university, so the budget (or a majority of it) is guaranteed, course tutors will be involved to some extent in the production and insurance will be taken care of. If you’re working on a short film with people you don’t know make sure the check out the producer's track record and back catalogue of work, you want to know they are following best industry practice and will be running the production properly. This means the production will be insured, catering (or at least some form of feeding the crew) has been devised, there is a schedule that is realistic and location, transport and travel plans are all considered. If it’s a friend you’re helping out then obviously you will be less rigorous in assessing these things, everyone likes helping out their friends if they can, even if it means long hours and a sandwich for supper.  

The likelihood is you will be working for expenses, make sure that is the case always talk money before you agree. So, although you will probably not be financially remunerated you should make sure you come away from the production with what you need; which is experience of working on a properly run shoot, experience of working as part of the Art Department and making some contacts who are working in the industry; plus adding a credit to your CV. If your gut feeling is you are not going to get these things, (you will know within the first five minutes) you could decide to say thanks but no thanks and look for the next opportunity.

Network

The network you build while working on shorts and other productions will enable you to branch out to look for work elsewhere in the industry. If you have collaborated with other assistants or trainees, ask them to keep you in mind for when they are unavailable to work, referrals to designers, art directors or coordinators are ideal ways of getting your foot in the door. Keep in contact with everyone you meet, send the odd email, social media is a great way to stay in touch. Use your time to create opportunities, don’t wait for them to come to you.

Personality and Attitude

Being able to pick up the phone to look for work is a vital skill. One of the main routes into the industry is going to be calling designers, art directors and set dressers or anyone you, your tutor or your friends or family may know - to ask for advice or perhaps the opportunity to go in and help out for a day or two. If you are a shy person you may need to brace yourself and get on with it. Set aside a day to work the phones and start reasonably early in the morning. Once you have got into the swing of it don’t lose momentum, stay on the phone all day if you have to and get the job done. A confident telephone manner is one skills you will need all through your career; so you had better start practicing now, you never know it may get easier.

While all of the above is taking place a wage is going to be essential as you look for employment, especially if you already live in a big city. If you find yourself waiting tables, working behind a bar or pouring coffee it’s relatively the same starting wage as a trainee. These roles can be ideal when starting out as an assistant as they offer some flexibility in your working hours. If you can take a few weeks off to work on a film and have something to go back into afterwards, you should be able to keep yourself afloat until you are finding regular work in the industry. Your pay is most likely going to be low for the first few years of your career, if you have no external source of income you may wish to consider saving up before you embark on your career plan, or look for a secondary source of revenue.

At times it going to be frustrating when you’re not getting the roles you want, keep in mind the advice on being relentless and go back to your CV, think about what you can do to make it better, what experience could you gain in another capacity to start ticking boxes for potential employers. Reflect on the reasons your CV is not being chosen for roles; it could be a lack of experience, the way your CV is presented or if you’re sending in generic CVs and covering letters - you should give yourself the best possible chance by tailoring each one to each job role or production.

Although the industry is incredibly flexible when it comes to changing career, if you’re applying for positions in another area of the industry you will need to be clear why you want to make the change, and give examples of what you have been doing to facilitate the move.

What is it like to work in the Art Department?

Those who work in the art department will be familiar with the term ‘pre-call’. At junior level, you may have cause to wonder why you didn’t save yourself some cash and train in furniture removals instead. However, trucks need to be unloaded, sets must be dressed, last coats of paint need to be applied and general prepping for the day ahead need to take place before many of the crew arrive. It’s no secret; you can work very long hours in the art department. 

For a first-timer on set, or while there is dressing going on, it can be quite intimidating. Everyone has their roles and are usually very busy getting on with them. As a junior, the best thing you can do is repeatedly ask how you can be of help. Be proactive about making sure you keep asking as people get caught up in what they’re doing and forget to delegate. As with most jobs the mantra 'if you don't know - ask' is a valuable one to keep in mind as you set out in the Art Department. Those who have worked in the department for a sustained amount of time will always have tricks of the trade to pass on, many of them you wouldn't know unless you had done it before. So, never feel nervous about asking, at junior level, it's your job to ask the best questions to make you better at your job. 

Everyone in production appreciates enthusiasm, efficiency and common sense; especially when facing a quick turn-around. Again, it’s finding where there is a need for extra help and using your skills to accommodate whatever needs doing.

One thing you will discover is that Art Departments are punctual! So be sure to give yourself that extra time in the morning for traffic, it sets a good impression from day one if you have the kettle on when people are arriving.  As you spend more time in the environment, you should become more relaxed about the tasks you are assigned, and start to have a good handle of how to carry out the work. Knowing when and when not to offer an opinion is a great skill. You should never be overly critical of work that’s already underway as there could have been months of conversations which result in the manner the work is carried out. So watch what you say in front of senior members of the team as there is a definite hierarchy, but it's also very collaborative. 

DO I NEED ANY QUALIFICATIONS TO WORK IN THE ART DEPARTMENT?

If you are working on a big budget production the coordinator will be the one taking on runners and assistants. Entry level roles, where you are more likely to build experience (without facilitates like Skillset) are less likely to have a coordinator; so the designer, supervising art director or the art director will be looking for crew.

Art Departments will both be on the lookout for enthusiastic can do individuals to fill junior position whose portfolios can demonstrate strong drawing (technical as well as freehand) and conceptualisation skills. A degree is not essential to work in the Art Department, but you will need to be skilled in certain areas and display a level of technical competency. Many graduates have completed courses in art, architecture, technical drawing and illustration and set design. If you have come from a fine art rather than design background and would like to learn more about technical drawing skills, you may wish to consider a short course such as:

There are also online courses that you can take to improve your knowledge of software packages and their capabilities such as:

While being paid to work in a junior position, take the time to generate as much independent work in your portfolio as you can. If finances allow, work on short films and put into practice the skills and techniques you have witnessed in a professional Art Department. If your portfolio can demonstrate your understanding and implementation of space, structure and design, it can be what’s needed to show your talent over academic qualifications.  

There is an active route into Art Departments through production design courses at university, some of which give you access to contacts, and they can build your CV very quickly when your tutor takes you onto professional productions. A degree, however, will not make you a qualified production designer, you are just in a stronger position regarding contacts and experience.

WHAT PAPERWORK/EQUIPMENT/SOFTWARE SHOULD I BE FAMILIAR WITH?

As the work of the Art Department is evolving a good knowledge of some of the following software would be advantageous. Depending on the type of production you're working on the Art Department can work closely with the VFX team on the Pre-Vis, so keep this in mind if you are looking for short courses or considering a degree. The work of the Art Department and the VFX teams are continuing to become heavily entwined, so a good knowledge of how conceptual artists work would be advantageous. Here are some the of the packages that can be used:

  • Adobe Illustrator CS5  

  • Adobe Photoshop CS5

  • Google Sketchup Pro

  • Vectorworks Architect

  • Autodesk AutoCad

  • Microsoft Office Suite

  • Adobe Acrobat

  • 3D Studio Max

  • Form Z

  • Rhino

  • Autodesk REVIT

  • Sketchup 

  • Autodesk MAYA

Although not necessary for entry level jobs, getting familiar with managing budgets and being aware of the process of running cost to complete spreadsheets will be of use. And when you have to hire props knowing how to raise a purchase order will be necessary. The prop master or store man will use the hiring paperwork to check off all the hires as they arrive at the studio/location, then will be able to account for anything missing or damaged, and Visa- Versa checking them off as they go back to the hire companies.          

TOP 10 TIPS FOR NEW ENTRANTS TO THE ART DEPARTMENT

Get your foot in the door!

If you are working as a general runner/set PA make sure to let the ADs know that you are interested in working in the Art Department. If they do not already have a designated runner, casually drop this into conversation. Make yourself known to the Art Department coordinator and make that day count; you may find yourself requested for the next.

Always wear appropriate clothing.

This may sound obvious, but in the height of summer, you may opt for the soft shoe or worse, sandals. Please don’t! You will be on your feet for most of the day, keep your shoes comfortable but remember you could be called upon to move furniture or sets so keep those toes protected.

Researching skills.

Research isn’t a case of looking it up on Google, well sometimes it is, but good research is going to mean hitting the books, periodicals, archives or planning departments for answers. A knowledge of architectural history would come in handy too. Look at how buildings are constructed, why they are designed the way they are, what were the influences of the time period, the list goes on.

Label your personal items.

With props and set dressing everywhere it can be easy for personal effects to go astray, try to put them somewhere safe and out of the way.

Lifting.

If called upon to move any bulky items know how to lift properly. If your not sure how to lift properly don’t worry, everyone will offer advice on how to! The work will be very physical and if an item is too heavy ask for help, or if you feel uncomfortable with any of the tasks you are assigned speak up. Just because you are the departmental junior does not mean you have to put yourself in harm's way by climbing a 12-foot ladder when you suffer from vertigo or feel the need to prove your strength. Luckily the Art Department is one of the most amenable departments on the production, any concerns you have will be addressed if you raise them.

Props and set dressing.

Be aware of the difference between props and set dressing. For example; an actor can drink from a cup and saucer, that is a prop, an item which they are using in the scene. The corresponding tea set behind them will be part of the set dressing, not handled by the actors so classed as set dressing. There is always some crossover between the departments and members of the props and set dressing teams will liaise at the beginning of the day to make sure they have everything covered.

Professionalism.

Professionalism is everything in the film industry; it's the watchword for your working life. Being professional means not getting caught up in gossip, not bad-mouthing co-workers, accepting (no matter how ludicrous the idea is) what senior members of the team are asking and getting it done to the best of your ability.

Watch films.

It sounds simple but look at films from the perspective of an art director, look for the details and think about what it is that makes the world they have created so believable.

Be adaptable.

When working with other departments and the actors, members of the Art Department need to stay adaptable in the collaborative process. If the Camera Department need to move a set wall to enable the camera to track, or an actor has difficulty with a prop they are using, members of the Art Department need to be accommodating. 

Stay calm under pressure.

It is highly likely as a junior member of the team that you will be called upon to complete many jobs at the same time, it can be easy to get flustered when everyone is waiting on you. Try to stay calm and focused on your tasks, if more jobs require your attention either add it to the list or deal with the one you believe to be most pressing. You need to be engaged, active and helpful too, keep this in mind during those first few years. 


PHRASES EVERY ENTRANT TO THE ART DEPARTMENT SHOULD KNOW

  • Flying in. This is a phrase that will be shouted out if a particularly large item is making its way onto set. Having people clear a path and make sure you are not going to knock over any stands is extremely helpful.

  • Breakaway. Glass objects that are easily destroyed during SFX shots such as stunts.

  • A nervous. While working on location “a nervous” is the last scout around to check that you haven’t left anything behind. Each department will do their own; it is also called a “dummy check”. If you are asked to complete this - check everywhere. Whatever you do don’t just casually gaze around the room. It's also an excellent opportunity to make sure that the location is left how you found it, another golden rule.

  • Pre-visualisation. Also known as Pre-vis or wireframe window, is the process that production designers and the VFX team refer to. The pre-visualisation of a scene can be displayed either by a 3D animation, video, photography, chip art, or mood boards.

  • Vector Graphics. Vector plays an important part in graphics and design. The crucial thing about Vector images is they can be enlarged and will not be compromised regarding quality. The image can be scaled up or down with negligible impact on the viewer.  

  • Wild Wall. A wall from the scenery that can be easily moved to make room for the camera. Anything labelled as ‘wild’ by the Art Department is movable.

  • Raked. The floor of the set that has angles up from the camera.

  • Greeking. Swapping out trademarked items that have not been cleared by production.

  • Scout. As in "to scout out a location". Art Department will be heavily involved in location work

  • Hero Props. An item that is used throughout the film will have multiple copies made incase of damage or loss.

FAQ's

How much should I earn as an Art Department trainee?

BECTU and BFDG have recommended that the Art Department assistant/runner should be earning between 500-700 per week, which is dependant on hours/days worked.

Although work may be sporadic and the majority of the film industry is self-employed, the role of the trainee/runner/assistant is not currently recognised by HMRC as a ‘grade’ for self-employment. If you’re working on features films for weeks or months, the production will pay you weekly using the PAYE pay structure, meaning they will deduct your tax and national insurance at source, providing you with a P45 and P60 at the end of the engagement. However, if you’re just starting out and looking for work, potentially on dailies, this presents complications. 

Fortunately, HMRC is aware of the infrequency of work in the film and television industry especially in the entry level roles, so they use a seven-day rule. If an engagement is less than seven days, PAYE does not need to be applied, but the production company will still deduct your national insurance. This is to stop you being over taxed or emergency taxed, which could leave you with a very small pay packet indeed. Make sure you are meticulous with your record keeping, filing all documentation such as your P45 and P60’s, you may need them for reference at the end of the tax year. 

If you have been in the film industry for 12 months and worked for multiple companies on short term contracts, you can be eligible to apply to HMRC for the Lorimer or LP10 letter. The Lorimer Letter is a Letter of Authority that is valid for three years and can be applied to engagements of 10 days or less. To apply for this, you have to demonstrate that you are in business on your own account, so that individual short-term engagements which would otherwise be treated as employment are seen as part of an overall business set-up. So, even though you are not one the approved ‘grades’ listed by HMRC you will be invoicing the production for the full sum - but you will need to generate your own invoicing, file your own tax return as self-employed and be responsible for paying your Class 2 and Class 4 National Insurance

Please make sure to set up your invoicing structure in a way that will enable you to be consistent with your numbering. For example, if you're John Smith you may decide to structure your invoicing as JS01. Try not to go changing your formats too much, when it comes to the end of the tax year (April 5th); you’re going to want to keep things as simple as possible.

Who is the industry body for the Art Department?

 The CineGuild for the Art Department is the British Film Designers Guild. They offer an associate membership for graduates interested in starting a career in the art department, so get in touch with them to see if you qualify.  

What hours will I be working?

If you are working in a studio with constructed sets you will find during pre-production the hours, for the most part, are long but most people will have a designated home time. As the date to production nears the days will get longer, and whilst in production you can be working some very long days striking sets to make way for the next. If working on location the Art Department are some of the first to arrive, along with the locations team. Working on location presents many challenges, including being extremely careful when working in the existing environment.

How long will I be a runner in the Art Department?

Working hard and being enthusiastic and engaged will be your tool in moving along and making an impression. The harder you work and the more you get engaged creatively with teams you are involved with, the more likely you are to progress. 

 What should I take with me on my first day?

Laptop, any stationary and tools you might have. A note book that fits into your back pocket is always a good idea. 

 Can I have worked in theatre or TV and cross over?

Yes, seemingly as long as you can vouch for your transferable skills and what makes you passionate about both disciplines! 

 As an assistant or trainee how can I show off my skills?

In offering to help as much as possible - the more you can help with, the more you will prove your competence and slowly team member’s trust in your ability will grow.

thank you's ...

My First Job in Film would like to thank Amy McGuire for sharing her experience and taking the time to offer advice for this career guide. 

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