Want A Career In The Arts

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want a career in the arts film industry

New Spotlight on Artistic Careers to Support Your Artistic Career

For more than thirty-years I have been wandering around the art world or at least the fringes of it and it never occurred to me for the first twenty or so of those years that this art stuff I was dabbling with had suddenly become a career.

Apparently that’s how it goes for many of us, we sort of stumble into the world of art. Others though actively pursue a career in the arts, but whichever way you happen to break in it is one tough arena. If you go to arts school and study things do get slightly easier but not always. I studied art many years after leaving school and wished I had done so sooner. But it’s not a prerequisite to become an artist, it’s just a little easier eventually. I know many self taught artists who wouldn’t change a thing, everyone has a view, everyone is different. 

For those of us who remain independent visual artists it becomes an even tougher world. No longer are you just an artist you become everything and everyone including the coffee maker and washer upper. One minute you can be painting away happily and the next you can be negotiating commission rates with a gallery, or hawking your work on social media, oh and then you might want to go a fix that leaky pipe.

For others their careers become structured and planned out to the minutest of details. Often represented by a gallery who will for the most part do whatever they can to promote your work. But if this option sounds easy it’s not. It can be equally as difficult as being totally unrepresented and even then you will still go home and have to fix that leaky pipe.

You see there is a misconception that sweeps across the onlookers to the visual arts world and that it that it is easy to be an artist. Allegedly we can pick our own hours (we can to an extent but they are usually very long), and all we do is draw and paint (I wish that was all that we did), oh and we make a huge amount of money because our work is constantly selling quicker than we can make it (we don’t and it doesn’t, and even if you are the very best, you can go for long periods of time without a sale). 

Perhaps the biggest misconception is around just how much an artist can make selling a new work. Well, sorry to burst any pre-conceived ideas you have on this but most artists and especially those who only sell through print on demand often only receive a tiny percentage of the overall cost in commissions, and those who are represented by galleries will see commission rates of around 50% of the total cost. Great if your art is selling for thousands, not so great on a $50 print or a $5 sheet of stickers where the commission might equate to a dollar or two or a few pennies. 

Those who are making a good living are generally pursuing their art careers full time and they tend to price their work in the mid-high range of the market and are often to be found in multiple galleries and attending multiple art shows and other events. They will also have been more likely to have been doing this for a while. Many artists though are doing a second job or diversifying into other markets to support their creativity. 

There is something I should mention here and that is that the measure of success for an artist is not always measured in monetary terms. Success for me is knowing that my work is hanging on someone’s wall or that this blog not only gets read but that people come back to it again.

If I can help another artist through the work I do on this blog, that’s success too. Having said that the art that I do sell has to cover the costs of me writing this, hosting, and a myriad of other costs, and provide materials for my traditional art and software and subscriptions to create my digital art. 

With all that said the art world is one of the most fascinating businesses to be a part of. The people you meet are for the most part wonderful people, but just as in any career there will be those who are not so wonderful. Thankfully I have always managed to find the nice ones though.

Many artists me included, will also have day jobs. Mine couldn’t be further apart from the arts world but I know that come the end of the working day I can go back to my art and my writing. 

Many artists might not be doing a day job that they love or one that isn’t even remotely related to the arts, but there are art careers that will beautifully compliment your own creative process. So for my new periodic series I will be taking a look into some of the areas that might not be such an obvious a choice for an artist who also needs a day job. This week we will take a look at the film industry.

Regular readers will know that one thing I love to specialise in is to provide artwork and document props for use in TV and film. It’s one of those things that I stumbled into after being asked if I could produce a few historic documents which could be used in a scene of a TV show long since forgotten. It wasn’t anything major, it was an independent production that had a shoestring budget and not even Z-list actors, but looking back everyone was having fun even if no one was getting paid. 

I remember visiting the set and thinking wow, but in a wow, this is a bit wonky way. Wooden sets were held up with offcuts and rope, and if anyone had have leaned on something the whole set would have come crashing down. 

That was way back in the 80’s and things have changed since then. Nowadays you more often than not need a safety induction before you go anywhere near anything on set and mostly you never get anywhere near a set at all if all you are doing is providing some artwork which might or might not make the final cut. 

Even if your work does make the final cut it moment of fame is rarely anything other than brief. Yes, you might have spent a week or a month on creating it, but unless it is integral to the plot it merges into the background maybe for a second or two. 

Bigger pieces which are the staple in regular office type environments are not the norm for many who manage to get their work on screen. Hey for the majority of us we don’t even get a credit at the end. 

But there are ways which you can get on set and become more involved in the process, some of them as you would expect in the world of art are easier than others to break into. 

The Art Department

I have to confess that working in the art department of a major studio would be my dream job. Either that or as an airline pilot working for a major film studio, I love anything film and drama, and I am a huge fan of Tom Hanks and Jennifer Anniston. What a perfect job it would be working with those two, flying them around and just being a bit Hollywoody for once. 

But I also realise that a majority of jobs working within the industry might only get you close enough to the set on rare occasions and especially when you are starting out. 


jobs to compliment a career in the arts

So what does the art department do?

The art department of a film production covers a broad range of areas. The production designer will oversee the creation of the fantasy like worlds that the on screen characters will inhabit, often creating such detail that it would be impossible on screen at least to distinguish something from reality, or at least until you get up close. 

Art department staff might not be employed by any particular studio, it is more likely that the department is assembled depending on the requirement of the production which might be anything from a low budget short to a commercial to a full on Hollywood blockbuster with CGI or it might be a corporate video. 

Sometimes there could be hundreds of people involved in the art department’s work, other times just a handful. What you can guarantee is that any production worth its salt will have an art department created way ahead of any production.

They will work with the productions director from an early stage, often many months before the first take is even caught on camera. Props will need to be made as will costumes, and within most art departments there will also be a team of construction engineers and architects working out and building the set. It’s not until all of these elements and people come together that the magic starts happening. 

Frequently other departments will work under the guidance of the art department. Special effects teams, pyro technicians, photographers, animators, orchestras, make-up artists, and of course you will frequently need permits and special arrangements to be made.

Logistics teams might be responsible for ensuring that the piece of art arrives undamaged and in time for the shoot to happen, someone else will be sorting out the legal side of things which might include arrangements to import a piece of art.

So what roles could you reasonably expect to find in a large art department for the production of TV and film?

Production Designer who will be managing all aspects of the art department’s work and this is usually the first person to be appointed before production starts.

A supervising art director or production supervisor will handle things like the budget, and will usually act as a point of contact between other art departments. The art director will also get involved in the logistics operations and they will usually manage schedules so that things are ready when they need to be ready.

An Art Director will work to the supervising art director although there may be senior directors and assistants on large scale productions. On lower budget productions this is the role that will be most versed in project managing aspects of the sets, or sometimes on larger budget productions might be responsible for a single or set number of sets. These members of the crew will often liaise with the production designers too.

Concept Artists are also at the top of the list to be employed pre-production. Concept artists can work in a number of different ways though many specialise in producing digital concept art too. These are the people who will be bringing ideas to life as to how a scene will look on screen, and they will work with other teams such as visual effects specialists.

Working with the Director (think J.J Abrams and Steven Spielberg here), Storyboard Artist’s sketch out the scenes which will be used in the movie and these sketches will tell the whole story.  This is a vital role because it provides a reference to everyone else as to how the director envisions the final movie or show. 

How those sets are created usually needs architects and draftsmen who in the US might be better known as set designers. If the production requires a lot of technical insight or has a large budget, these are the people who create the building plans and tell you what is possible through technical drawings. These are the drawings which might be shared with the engineers and construction teams, but also with the director and camera crews. 

All of this work clearly needs someone who has a wide view of everything and has the ability to communicate and coordinate everything. The Coordinator will usually be found ordering the materials, managing budgets, and will get heavily involved in all of the logistics needed in production. Essentially they need a helicopter view with a grip on what is really going on, on the ground. Thy will also be the links between all of the other departments. 

Thankfully there is more often than not an Assistant which is one of the positions usually offered to those who are new to the industry but not always. Production and art department assistants might be using Adobe software one minute and making models the next. It can be the best place to start to get a broader view of what goes on within the film industry and whilst it can be tremendously busy, you can get involved in everything if that’s your thing. This is my other dream job I think!

The next person is the person I occasionally engage with and that is the Prop Master otherwise known as the Property Master. These are the people who have a huge responsibility to ensure that the props used are authentic enough or convincing enough to be shown on screen. 

Out of all the Prop Masters I have ever had dealings with they all have a tendency to pick out the tiniest of details. If a newspaper is used on screen with the wrong date for the period, this is the person who will notice.

They are also responsible for renting props (some props need to be hired because their value will be high or it might only be needed for a few seconds), and they will be responsible for making some props, or buying in props for the production; although they will be working with a Production Buyer who will be managing budgets and sourcing the props. These are usually the first points of contact for artists who are needed to supply art and documents to be sourced as props, they are also the ones who will occasionally okay mostly beat you up on pricing. 

The production buyer will spend just as much time offset, if not more than they do onset. They might have to visit shops and stores or junkyards, or find and rent a house that will be used in the production of the film. 

Of course those props are no good at all if we haven’t got a set to work with and that is where the set decorators/set designers come into play. 

Set decorators will fill the houses from the 1970’s with the everyday objects a person would have had in the 1970’s. They tend to work with the production designers because certain colours might be important to the look and feel of the film. 

Just as with colour they will be experts in judging texture and will know exactly where to shine lights so that it doesn’t appear to be morning in one shot and late evening in the next shot a moment later, unless of course that’s what they want you to think.

Set decorators will have assistants on big budget productions, and along with the property master these are the people who really do have an eye for detail. Even the slightest faux pas for the briefest moment will stand out to avid film buffs who will vocally point out that paperclips didn’t exist in 1449 because they weren’t invented until 1899 by Johan Vaaler who was a Norwegian Inventor, so please tell me why is that paperclip spoiling this film?

Sometimes and more often on high end productions the set designer will be supervising the assistant set decorators. So if you need three years of dust on a piece of furniture, these are the people who will also know what three years’ worth of dust will look like.

All of this might occasionally need a little coordination too, so a set coordinator will be used on some productions who will be researching and ordering materials (three years’ worth of dust isn’t so easy to buy off the shelf), and they will be doing a lot of paperwork, making sure that no one breaks the budget, and will be a liaison with the production team more generally.

When you can’t hire it or buy it you have to make it. This is where Prop Builders/Makers can get really inventive. Need a sword from the Roman Empire? They’re not always easy to come by, especially if you need to break it. 

On large scale productions prop builders will be the ones who have materials to hand or will know how to come by them, and they will design and build the sword with every detail needed in house. Where they need to they will outsource to specialist prop-builders who have an expert knowledge of any particular period in time, or a vivid imagination of the future. 

If it is textual which forms a majority of the work I sometimes get asked to create, a Graphic Designer will be used. These are often employed by the arts department but for lower value productions they can be outsourced too. 

Where the prop-maker will make props, the graphic designer might be tasked to design historic documents (my speciality is Cold War era and the 1970’s) but they might also be asked to recreate a newspaper (even down to the date), or if logos are needed for the companies featured in the films. I have done a few of those too, again no blockbuster films yet but I live in hope. My longest on screen appearance for my work to date is probably about a second. 

Graphic designers might be asked to produce multiple versions of the same thing. This might be because they need a backup, or it might be that the best one is used for the on camera shots, and other versions might be needed to be scattered or placed in the background. 

Here’s a little secret, the newspaper used in the shot might be an exact replica or new design of newspaper that contains everything that people will see on screen, but the ones in the background might be filled with blank pages or just half a page of text or a corner of the page. Others might be just as detailed as the principle piece.

How it comes together…

Of course none of this would be possible if it weren’t for the teams who have to construct the sets. A façade of a shop front might need to have lots of scaffolding holding it up, or a wall might have to be torn down in a real building and then replaced. 

This is where the construction teams lead by the Construction Manager will have a role to play. Back in the days when I first started I’m not too certain anyone had ever even considered wearing a hard-hat, but nowadays the sets are filled with them. 

The construction manager will work with the production designer, and of course the architects, but they will also work very closely with the art department. 

These are the people who will assemble the often large teams needed to build sets, and who have to often do so in difficult conditions or in a very short space of time. If that building needs to be in a shot tomorrow, then it kind of needs to be in that shot tomorrow.

There is usually another coordinator doing for construction what the other coordinators do within their teams, and they might need to also get building permits sorted out or seek temporary planning permission.

Then there are the occupations that might also lend a hand to set decorators and prop makers. Need a marble column from the Roman era? Well those are usually created by Carpenters from wood and painted by painters and artists to give the effect of marble. 

A plasterer might need to create moulds especially for interior decorations and wall mouldings, or they might need to work with other artists and sculptures to provide a Roman statue. 

The Electrician needs to make sure that power is arriving on set and to the cameras, and lighting engineers will be making sure that scenes can be seen.  

Background and Scenery Artists might be painting very large backdrops that look realistic because it is not always possible to close off Times Square. The backgrounds need to be indistinguishable on screen to how they look in real life, so the skillset of background artists is often very high.

So there are lots of opportunities to break into the world of TV and film without going in front of the camera, and which also compliment your own artistic aspirations. However, it’s not an easy gig to get.

The Gig…

Even starving artists need to be fed at times so there are a multitude of other roles that complement the work of the art department. Whether that be in catering or just as a runner for everyone, big budget productions require big budget numbers of staff. 

It’s unlikely that you will immediately get the gig of senior art director or even art director unless you have experience or are well known with a particular skillset, but starting out at the bottom isn’t that bad of an idea if you want to climb the ladder to the top.

Most of the jobs in the film industry overlap with other jobs, there is often a reliance on having a carpenter available to lend a hand with prop design, or the on screen talent require seedless grapes to be purchased as part of their rider. They won’t be running into Walmart to get them, so someone from catering will most likely be called upon but it could be anyone. 

That’s the thing I have noticed, everyone seems to have to be a master of everything. But knowing where you eventually want to end up is worth knowing from the outset. 

You might start as an assistant and work your way through collecting new skills and eventually become a creative director or production designer, equally you might find that you quite enjoy life on set running around and doing a bit of everything. 

Although I have never been on a set for long periods, those few times I have been lucky enough to get star struck and close to the action, I noticed that certain people seem to be responsible for things like making the coffee whether that’s their role or not. 

As a new entrant to this world you might want to consider looking at the jobs which will quickly give you experience and get you familiar with everything that happens. That’s not to say that your artistic skills will never be needed, it is a fast paced world and it really is all hands on deck at times. 

working in the tv and film industry

What else will you need?

You will need to have a strong and coherent portfolio of work and they will need to know what your aspirations are and any experience you have. Whilst that experience might not be in the industry itself, working on projects for other fields of work can be just as useful.

Computer Aided Design (CAD) skills might be a good area to explore, and researching everything you can about architecture or periods of time and various era’s might be useful too. 

Your portfolio has to be strong so that anyone who works in the art department and might be interviewing you will be able to see a broad range of skills. Even if you are in college and studying media, some aspects of the work you have been or are working on will also be useful to include. 4

Gaining experience whether that be from working on short low budget productions in school or college or from work experience with a production company will also give them a sense of your aptitude for this kind of work. 

Your CV should be as up to date as possible too, and if you have had no experience at all, finding an internship or voluntary work experience might also be a good move but make sure that your expenses are covered at least.

The entire film industry is not only tough, it is highly competitive. Whatever you do will have to shine above often many other candidates who are looking to work on the set too. My advice though is to be relentless in your pursuit of chasing a career in film and TV, pick up the phone, send emails, and be persistent. 

There will be times when the frustration mounts but remember that this is a day job that will support your passion for creating art. There are other jobs which can fill that need until the time you become an established artist and can support yourself from your art sales, it’s just that those other industries and jobs might not sound quite as exciting as working in film.

I expect though that many people working in the film industry already will either love it, or see it just as another job. There are lots of opportunities out there, you just have to pick something you love. In the end, it’s all about your art anyway isn’t it?

If you work in the TV and film industry, what’s it really like? Please do leave a comment and let us know, we would all love to hear from you.

If there is an industry that you have found to be suitable to balance with your art career, what is it? 

For now, stay creative and see you again next week!

ABOUT M.A

Mark A. Taylor is a British artist and blogger who specialises in abstract and landscape work and also produces art to be used within TV and film, and book covers. You can see and purchase Mark’s artwork on a wide range of print mediums and other products right here, and you can follow Mark on Facebook here

Remember to come back to this site as every week and if there is anything that you want me to cover from the art world and supporting visual artists, let me know!

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