Film is a uniquely visual storytelling medium. Everything you see within the frames of a shot is carefully thought out by someone behind the scenes. More often than not, these details in the frame come from the art department. An art department is responsible for the larger creation of a film set as well as the small details that are placed within that set.
This may sound like a lot to do for one department. But the art department delegates responsibilities to various roles. In this article, we’ll be discussing what these roles are and how each is an integral part of the art department. Let’s dig in.
Film art department positions
First, let’s define art department
Even though an art department is divided even further into sub departments, they are all geared to one similar goal. To better understand this goal, let’s take a look at the art department definition.
ART DEPARTMENT DEFINITION
What is the art department?
The art department is responsible for creating the overall visual look of a television show or film in collaboration with the director. An art department is supervised by the production designer, who manages the various sub-departments. Together, the art department designs, builds, decorates, and makes adjustments on a set.
What is the art department responsible for?
- Conducting research for production design
- Designing sets in collaboration with the director
- Creating and building sets, decor, props, etc.
Art department film function
Why is the art department important?
An art department is responsible for the design of the visual elements of a film. Everything from the set to decor to props is carefully thought of to serve the story of the film. It may seem like an art department focuses on simply creating a pleasing visual aesthetic. In reality, their goal, like all other filmmakers, is to tell a story. They do this through production design.
The production design that an art department creates is essential to not only filling the frame with interesting visuals, but serving the story. In this video breakdown, we analyze how production design can contribute to establish a film’s mood, characters, and themes.
As you can see from the video, production design is an incredibly powerful filmmaking technique. It can be the difference between a film with depth and a film that falls flat.
Art department film jobs
Who makes up the art department?
An art department is responsible for numerous tasks from research, to set design, to set building, to props. To make sure each task is executed effectively and efficiently, an art department has several sub departments.
Each sub department focuses on a specific area of production design. Each sub department also has its own head that is in charge. Let’s take a look at each and the different roles that make them up.
Head of art department
The production designer works closely with the director to get on the same page about the visual direction for the film. They also work closely with the producer to ensure that the art department is on budget to achieve the goal of the production designer.
To better understand the responsibilities of a production designer, check out this video by Indy Mogul. Sam Lisenco, production designer of films like Uncut Gems and Eighth Grade, discusses everything that goes into being a great production designer.
Production designers can make anywhere between $450 to $2000 a day depending on experience and level of production. Production designers oversee and collaborate with all of the sub departments in an art department to ensure that all of the visual elements align with their and the director’s vision. Let’s take a look at the sub departments and roles the production designer oversees.
Art department jobs
The Art Department
Within an art department is a sub department that, confusingly enough, is called the art department. An art department is primarily involved in the pre-production phases of production design. They plan the overall look of the film under the production designer's direction.
In film production, the art director handles the logistical execution and administrative work required to achieve the production designers goals. The art director must think creatively and have a solid understanding of the tools at their disposal to create what is necessary.
They must understand how construction, props, and even VFX can work together to create the desired visual look of the film.
The art department film salary of an art director averages around $75,000 depending on experience and level of production.
Assistant Art Director
Assistant art directors are responsible for executing any task the art director needs. This can be taking measurements, creating models, drawing blueprints or research. On larger productions, there are first, second, and even third assistant art directors.
Standby Art Director
The standby art director is on set during filming to monitor the art department. Oftentimes, the art director also serves as the standby art director on set. Sometimes they are different people depending on availability and production needs. They watch the monitor and the shot to ensure all production design elements are in place.
Set Designer (Draughtsman)
The set designer, also called the draughtsman, is responsible for creating the blueprints, 3D renderings, or models for the actual set. The set designer often collaborates with the construction department in the design of the set.
Concept Artist (Illustrator)
A concept artist is somewhat of a specialist who focuses on one specific piece of production design for a film. This can be a prop, small location like a ship, or even a special effects monster like the notorious T-Rex in Jurassic Park.
The graphic artist creates literal graphics for a film. This can be billboards, letters, flyers, notes, signs, or even logos. The graphic artist is sometimes considered a specialized prop maker. For example, this legendary prop maker’s letters can be seen in some of cinema’s most famous movies.
Storyboard artists work closely with directors and cinematographers to create visual drawings and representations of each individual shot. They show camera angles, movements, visual elements and characters.
Many storyboard artists utilize softwares like StudioBinder’s storyboard software to organize their drawings in an easily accessible and shareable way. The average art department film salary of a storyboard artist ranges $85K to $149K depending on experience and level of production.
Model makers are responsible for creating specific models or miniatures that are needed by the draughtsmen or concept artists.
Art Department Coordinator
With so many artists and jobs occurring simultaneously to create a singular vision for a film, coordination is of the essence. This responsibility is left to an art department coordinator.
An art department coordinator manages time schedules, budgets, and tasks to ensure everything in the art department runs smoothly.
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Art department film jobs
The construction department takes all of the planning, models, and concepts from the art department and brings it to life by building it. The construction department builds walls, doors, windows, and anything else that the set calls for. They work both logistically and creatively to create the set of a film.
Construction Coordinator (Construction Manager)
The construction coordinator is in charge of the construction department and oversees all of the construction department. They are in charge of time management and schedules to ensure everything is built on time. They also order all construction materials to make sure the crew has everything they ended to build the set.
The head carpenter is the foreman of the construction department and leads the carpenters on the floor.
Carpenters cut, build, and install all wooden elements to build the set. In addition to building walls and doors, this may also include building any wooden structure such as furniture.
The key scenic is responsible for achieving specific surface looks and textures. This can be anything from aged wood, stained glass, or old brick.
A painter is responsible for just that, painting. They are responsible for priming, painting, and finishing all surfaces that require paint.
Plasterers apply plaster to any surfaces that require it like walls and ceilings. This can be especially important for specific locations in the science fiction genre or in period pieces.
Sometimes movies may require statues, busts, or models. The sculptor is responsible for creating all of these through various materials such as foam, wood, or clay.
Art department film jobs
Once the construction department builds the set, the sets department comes in and styles it to make sure it is ready to shoot. This is where the details of production design come into play.
Set Decorator (Stylist)
Set decorators are responsible for choosing the decorations and dressing for the entire set. This involves macro decorations like furniture to micro decorations like curtains, blankets, picture frames, etc.
They must have a key understanding of the film’s story and characters to dress the set in a way that reflects both. Set decorators are an important part in the telling of a film’s story.
Set decorators also collaborate with other departments. They collaborate with the cinematographer about practical lights that appear in frame. They also collaborate with the wardrobe department to align a color scheme. On average, the salary of a set decorator is around $104,000 depending on experience and level of production.
The leadsman directs the set dressers as to where to place what on set.
Set dressers are responsible for placing and removing the decorations chosen by the set decorator. They are directed by the leadsman on where to place specific items.
Set dressers that are on standby on set during shooting are known as the swing crew. They make any final or last minute adjustments in set dressing in between takes. A set dresser makes anywhere from $30 to $35 dollar per hour or an average salary of $75,000.
The buyer is in charge of all renting and purchasing of set decorations and set dressing items. They must have an understanding of the production’s budget.
Film’s that have a lot of greenery and plants have specific set dressers known as greensman. The greensman specializes in landscaping on film sets. They bring in and plant specific plants, rocks, or other shrubbery for the shot.
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Art department film props
A prop is any item that is handled by the actors of a film or is operated within a scene. The number of props that a movie uses can accumulate. Renting, creating, and managing these props is the responsibility of the property dept.
The prop master on a production is the head of the props department. The prop master, also called property master, is responsible for acquiring appropriate props, organizing them, and overseeing the usage of props on set.
For a show like Late Night with Conan O’Brien, props accumulate. Organizing them requires both space and a system. Here is a tour of the organized prop room with the prop master of the show Bill Tull. Notice how props are organized and labeled.
The prop master often directs a team of prop makers and prop runners. They report directly to the production designer and are a part of an art department. On average, a prop master or prop manager makes a salary of $60,000 depending on experience and level of production.
Prop makers are responsible for making or renting the props needed for the film. This can vary tremendously from production to production. They must make sure props are functional and also have multiples just in case.
Weapons are a common prop in a production and require a specific type of prop master called a weapons master. They are completely responsible for all the weapons on set and ensuring they are handled safely.
Check out this video of one of the most famous prop gun rental houses in Hollywood to get an inside look at the world of a weapons master.
As you can see from this article, an art department has a plethora of responsibilities. They are an absolutely essential part of filmmaking. Everything you see on the big screen was carefully thought out, created, or placed by someone in the art department.
So next time you are watching a great movie, take notice and appreciate the details that tell the story that came from the art department.
What Does a Production Designer Do?
The commander-in-chief of an art department is the production designer. While this might seem like an overwhelmingly ambitious duty, there are some key responsibilities that fall onto the production designer. Our next article helps to better understand what a production designer does and why their work is so important.