"What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others."
- Pericles, (495-429 B.C)
Pericles understood the impermanence of our practice, and also the impact on people around us who share in the creation of something wholly imagined and creative. Rather than the words of an Ancient Greek philosopher, I am more interested in what 300 Production Designers were doing on an island off the coast of Athens.
In October of 2022, around 300 Production Designers from around the world gathered on the island of Spetses, Greece, as part of the first international Production Designers Gathering to share knowledge, and skills and exchange stories of their practices and the challenges associated with them. For five days Production Designers were surrounded by colleagues and peers to whom they did not have to explain their roles or what they do, sharing the fulfilling parts of their jobs and the areas in which they wanted to see change. An air of excitement surrounded the event, as many aspects of the design practice were discussed and debated throughout the five-day event, structured as a mixture of panels and afternoon workshops.
“Production designers from around the world are getting together for the first time to exchange ideas, discuss techniques, share stories and strengthen bonds.”
-Opening memo on the Production Designers Gathering website, 2022
The conference was structured much like the process Production Designers go through when approaching a new design, beginning with; Fostering Creativity (panellists: K.K Barrett, Estefania Larrain, Jean-Vincent Puzos, moderated by Inbal Weinberg), What Makes a Great Art Department (panellists: David + Sandy Wasco, Lisa Myers, Jeannine Oppewall, moderated by Kalina Ivanov), and Wellbeing At Work (Panellists: Beth Mickel, Neil Patel, Jamie Lapsley, moderated by Marlen von Heydenaber). It then delved into the more practical aspects of the design process; Building Worlds on Screen (panellists: Grant Major, Rick Carter, Fiona Crombie, moderated by Max Lincoln), VFX Collaboration (panellists: Mara LePere-Schloop, James Chinlund, Julian R Wagner, moderated by Inbal Weinberg), and lastly Research and Inspiration (panellists: Jack Fisk, Sarah Greenwood, Akin McKenzie, Francesca Di Mottola, moderated by Thomas Walsh).
"[Creativity] is a shanty town of fabulousness"
- Jean-Vincent Puzos, Fostering Creativity, The Gathering, 2022
I want to first focus on the most energising and exciting parts of the event before exploring some of the shared challenges facing Production Designers (PDs) internationally. This gathering provided a place for PDs to talk openly and easily about their individual processes in approaching any particular project. What methods do they use to connect to a script, character or mood and who else is closely involved in those initial developments? One of the most enlightening moments for many of the designers attending the event was just how varied and unique each designer's way of approaching a project is (I will discuss later why this is a challenge for production companies and designers when facing budgets and wages). Each designer speaking in Fostering Creativity spoke about how each of them uses an external source to reengage their creativity to feel motivated and inspired.
Jean-Vincent Puzos explained that creativity for him, is also about 'normal life', hiking, plants, and alone time, he said this feeds his creativity and grounds him and allows him to design and imagine worlds. He went on to say that despite the industry sometimes feeling like an assembly line putting something together, it is important to separate yourself from that way of thinking and take time out to let your mind wander and seek inspiration outside of the restraints of an office, this sometimes means disobeying the 'rules' that structure a production.
[Creativity is related to] … play, it is ever evolving without judgement.”
- K.K Barrett, Fostering Creativity, The Gathering, 2022
In contrast, Estefania Larrain said she feels the most creative when she is under pressure when she is pushed to make decisions and find creative solutions to restrictions like team sizes, budgets and schedules. Alternatively, Inbal Weinberg uses a card game, Oblique Strategies (it gives written word prompts sometimes poetic and others straightforward; eg. Take A Break) to shift her current line of thinking, helping her with creative blocks she might be facing. She also uses the cards to engage others in this process, as a way to gain an outside perspective on what is most important at that given moment. What was so fascinating about this panel was just how diverse the designers' approaches to re-engaging their creativity were, they did all collectively agree that 'creativity is hard' and it requires work and patience.
- Jeannine Oppewall, What Makes a Great Art Department, The Gathering, 2022
What Makes a Great Art Department panel discussed the different collaborative roles within their teams and what they love about working with others. Each panellist reflected on who they considered the most important team member when creating an art department and discussed the differences between remote work and being in the office.
Jeannine Oppewall mentioned that her relationship with the location scout was one of her most treasured members as one of the first to be hired in her team. She explained that if you have a scout who knows and loves the story, they can imagine a location along with the narrative and help you build the design into an actual place. They can plot the story points into a physical location that already exists and provide options to build the design from, providing a strong base for world-building.
David and Sandy Wasco spoke about how they like to collaborate within their Art Department; they have their entire team attend the meetings with the director so that all of their ideas and presentations of them is shared by all of those who have contributed. They acknowledge where those good ideas have come from so that the team feels like their contributions are being heard and given due respect. They structure their communications like this so that everyone feels ownership of the project and nothing gets lost in passing information on down the ‘line of command’.
Lisa Myers briefly spoke about her experience with presenting her designs remotely during the pandemic. She had a positive spin on the process, describing her need to upskill in tools to assist her in communicating her ideas to the production and the director. She embraced Unreal Engine, VR headsets (walking the director and cinematographer around the virtual sets instead of the actual space or a physical model) and team mood boards like Milanote, to collaborate with her Art Department remotely.
The panellist briefly touched on their philosophies about mentorship. Jeannine found it important to pass on what she knew to the next generations of designers and to also show them " what they do not want to do" (to learn from her mistakes). Lisa has made a conscious choice to change what roles she accepts on productions, to learn the most about what her Art Department does in their particular roles. She then finds this a valuable tool in teaching other emerging creatives, as it gives her a broad understanding of the department and its responsibilities. Sandy also reinforced the benefits of passing on ' tips and tricks' to students and emerging designers as an important aspect of being a senior designer, seeing it as a responsibility to share what you know and have learnt.
"Say yes too many times and it hurts."
- Jamie Lapsley, Wellbeing at Work, The Gathering, 2022
In danger of bringing the mood down, I think it is important to acknowledge the difficulties surrounding Production Designers internationally. It's telling to have panel discussions titled Wellbeing at Work, Production Designers United and PD Advocacy Workshops, still keeping in mind that all industries have their issues and room for improvement. It was still a bit of a shock to realise how common some of the ones facing Production Designers are and how little has been done in the past to address them.
A common topic for discussion was the hours that designers work and how often it is not reflected in the way their wages are structured. As I mentioned above when writing about creativity, the ways that designers approach a project vary beyond description. This provides a challenge when talking about fees and money, how do you 'prove' that the gardening you did on the weekend helped you realise a solution to a design problem you were facing? In the eyes of the current production structure, you can't, Jamie Lapsley elaborated, "it's hard to separate the thinking hours from the physical hours".
As designers tend to immerse themselves in the worlds they are building they regularly dream about them (non-waking hours), seek inspiration in everyday life (personal hours), and in off-kilter places (research outside of the office). It is difficult to calculate the hours that are required to imagine an entirely non-existent world. Unpaid overtime is extremely common for Production Designers and is often written into contracts that overtime will not be compensated by the Production, however, the fees currently on offer don't seem to reflect the workload of the design process. Many designers who spoke about wages were dissatisfied with the disparity between the work hours and the wages, often comparing their fees with that of the Director of Photography/Cinematographer who might be paid the same for far fewer hours.
"[My] biggest struggle was balancing the work and life... [I spent] 10 years working too hard and [watching] a lot of people around me burning out and leaving."
- Beth Mickle, Wellbeing at Work, The Gathering, 2022
There is also the dual responsibility of the Production Designer to protect their team from working too much overtime and ensure that the workplace does not encourage toxic work hours, leading by example. Neil Patel reflected that it's a balance between "pleasing the director and the production ... [and] .. at what point are you driving the team too hard."
These over-extended hours often impact the way that Production Designers (PD) consider having families. Many senior PDs have decided that they won’t have the time to dedicate to a family and have therefore decided against having one while they are working in the film industry. This lifestyle sacrifice is more common with female PDs, however, affects men in the same Heads of Department (HODs) roles. Having spoken to many of my female peers within the film and television sectors in the Australian industry they have decided to delay having children or decide against it entirely while they are trying to establish their careers. Mainly because of the demanding hours, both physically and mentally they can’t imagine the current structure of the industry being able to support a would-be parent.
This sentiment was echoed at The Gathering, with many of the female practitioners from around the world expressing their concern about having to choose between their careers, the industry and children. A quick discussion about having families and work during the Wellbeing at Work panel mentioned briefly some production companies who have embraced job share (splitting the workload between two parents in the same team). They alternate days worked (three days on, and two days off, swap that arrangement each alternating week), so they still have part of the week to spend time with their families. Not yet a common practice, it was good to hear some productions making moves for a more inclusive and open work environment for people juggling work and a family.
I want to touch on briefly the issue of visibility for Production Designers in the public sector, red carpet events, film festivals, awards, and PR events. James Chinlund (VFX Collaboration), recounted a horrible moment on the red carpet event for a film he had dedicated three years of his life to, lining up for his photo he was told that no one cares about him, they were only interested in the celebrities, directors etc. As disappointing as this moment seems, it does not stand alone with the lack of recognition or knowledge about what Production Designers do for a film and how equally responsible they are for the success of a project.
This comment by the PR manager is a great example of the lack of understanding surrounding the ‘mystery’ of design. I often get asked what it is that a Production Designer does for film and television, what does my job look like, and what do I do for a film? This is reflected in the lack of representation in film festivals worldwide when there aren’t categories for Best Design, though they include awards for Directing, Cinematography, VFX, and Acting, all roles that are equally important to the finished film. Some of this lack of visibility rests with the Production Designers themselves, who have not in most countries had a union or guild representation of their own (excluding America which has the Art Directors Guild - ADG, and Australia with the Australian Production Designers Guild - APDG), and haven’t pushed to be included in the opening night talks for films, or created conditions in their contracts for due credit for festival round entries and award ceremonies.
“Repetition and visibility is the key to the teaching [of] other departments.”
-Claudia Andrade, (Brada Brazil), PD Advocacy Workshop, The Gathering, 2022
Some of these difficulties were discussed in the PD Advocacy Workshop (Chloe Chambornac, Claudia Andrade and Miranda Cristofani) on the last day of talks. Miranda Cristofani (ADG United States) originally commented that she didn’t have a lot of faith in her union to represent her needs, rather than seeing that as an obstacle she joined to advocate for her fellow Production Designers and create guidelines to facilitate better conditions and recognition for PDs. Also championing this sentiment for Designers on the global stage is Claudia Andrade (Brada Brazil) whose involvement with her union is pushing to have Production Designer names included on the clapperboards (slate boards, markers, sync slates etc), as they tend to be overlooked onset, despite their role being as equally important of that of the Director and Director of Photography/ Cinematographer who’s names have traditionally always been on the clapperboard. Claudia suggests it is the small things we can do to have our names and roles recognised daily, on posters for the film, for PR for the events and openings, in film festivals and this placement along with the other ‘important people' that will slowly bring us into the public sphere.
“Create opportunities for emerging creatives to be recognised for their contributions to the industry.”
-Chloe Chambornac (ADC France), PD Advocacy Workshop, The Gathering, 2022
There are some positive movements for change in the industry and The Gathering was one of the major stepping stones in uniting Production Designers from around the world. We are often alone in our roles as HODs, and there are very few occasions for us to get to together and find the time to talk about the satisfying and difficult parts of our craft. One of the most exciting lessons to take away from the whole experience was that, we are not alone in how we feel, we share the same triumphs and hardships, and now we have a space to gather, share, debate and build a platform for a new future for Production Designers globally.
Pericles quote: source Wikiquotes, Pericles, last edited 1 May 2022, accessed 8 Nov 2022
* The designers who are quoted in the article as accurately as possible articulated what they said, some areas for human error in notetaking should be expected.
Written by Ara Nuri Steel, on the 9th of November 2022, first published on the ARACOURT website