Set Designer/Scenic Artist Job Description, Education, Training Requirements, Career, Salary, Employment

Job Description: Set designers design motion picture, television or theater production sets, signs, props, or scenic effects to establish the time period and mood of the story. They prepare scale drawings to guide the construction, modification, or alteration of their designs and usually oversee the production of their design plans.

Training and Educational Qualifications: While there is no set path to a career in set design, many designers have completed coursework in studio art, design, architecture and interior design. Many scenic designers also use computer software to create three dimensional renderings.

Job Outlook: In 2004 there were 13,000 set designers in the United States. Through 2014, employment of set designers is projected to grow about as fast as the average for all industries.

Salary: Average earnings are $37,600 for set designers working for performing arts companies and $60,010 for set designers working in motion picture and video industries.

Significant Facts:

•    Set designers design motion picture, television or theater production sets, signs, props, or scenic effects to establish the time period and mood of the story.

•    Some scenic designers also use computer software to create design renderings in three dimensions.

•    Many designers have completed course work in studio art, design, architecture and interior design.

Do you know which companies have the best internships in this field that are known to help launch a successful career?

The best way to get into the film business in the art department is to start at the bottom of the lowest budget production you can find, work for whatever they will pay you even if it’s in hamburgers meet the production people, and get credits on your resume. The film industry is about who you know. Get to know as many people as you can (and hopefully have them like your work while you’re at it!). Find listings for this type work in “the trades”: Variety, The Hollywood Reporter; or online sources, or contact local film commissions.

Where are the best cities to live to find jobs like yours?

Los Angeles, New York, certain cities in Florida.

What is your typical day like?

Ten to 14 hours, lots of leg work, very exciting but hard. I get to meet a lot of directors, writers and celebrities, and I also get to work with a lot of very talented and fun people. Think “Studio 60″ but with more lag time and fewer fascinating people. I do a lot of research on styles and designs, have a lot of meetings, do a lot of driving and shopping to find materials, and sometimes get very tired.

What are your job responsibilities?

A set decorator is responsible for delivering a finished and believable environment for the crew to shoot. The set decorator brings everything to the set that is literally not nailed down. That includes rugs, furniture, pictures, lamps, curtains, knickknacks, personal items that the characters might own, you name it. If you are shooting an exterior, a set decorator may bring tents, logs, wagons, farm implements, or other outdoor “decor.” You never know what you might be working with from one shoot to the next.

What is your favorite part of your job?

The people who work on film crews are some of the hardest working, most diverse and creative people on earth. Some guy who is pounding

nails for your set may turn out to also be a published author or a professional sitar player, or a pilot you just never know who you are going to be working with. It’s a really wonderful way to explode preconceptions about people. I also love the creativity of translating the script writer’s words into a three dimensional visual which people look at and go “Wow!” That’s when it all clicks.

What do you dislike about your job?

Not all of the people in the film business are nice. Some actually go way out of their way to be exceptionally cruel. You have to keep an eye out for those and watch your back.

Have you had any turning point or “light bulb” moments in your career that have helped you get to where you are today?

Every day has a “light bulb” moment.

How did you get into this industry?

My first job was working as a graphic designer in New York City. I moved to Los Angeles and took a job as a receptionist at an ad agency before returning to graphic design once again. I met people who worked in movies and got an interview (based on my portfolio of paintings and illustrations) for a job opening to paint sets for a low budget feature and I got the job. I then worked as set painter/scenic designer for Android and later, I worked several jobs as a scenic artist for TV commercials. From there I moved into set design and then set decorating for various low budget features such as Witchboard and Lady in White. In 1989, I got hired as set decorator on a new TV series, The Wonder Years. I got into the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada (IATSE) as a set decorator, and I have now worked for 12 years as a union set decorator {Article 99, Tales from the Crypt, Chicago Sons, Freaks and Geeks, The Bette Show, and The Hughleys, which is my most recent job).

How did you know you wanted to pursue this career?

When I worked at the ad agency, I had to “dress for success” every day: tweed skirts, permanent press shirts with the “non threatening” bow at the neck, pantyhose, and pumps. When I had the interview at Roger Corman studio (which was called “New Horizon”) to work on Android, I met the production team and they all looked like the “me” I was at home: creative/comfortable/eclectic. They loved my artwork (which was really dark and quirky) and were altogether positive about everything just a fun bunch or people. I knew they were my lost tribe.

What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishment?

There is no single accomplishment I can point to as the best there are many times that I look back on with satisfaction. I hope the best is yet to come.

If you weren’t doing this job, what similar careers might you consider?

I’d run off to join the circus.

To what professional associations do you belong?

Set Decorator’s Society of America and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada (IATSE).

What professional publications and Web sites do you read?

Web sites and journals are too numerous to list. For the novice, I would recommend reading everything possible that has to do with film production learn the lingo and find out who the players are: the production designers, set decorators, producers, directors, prop makers, special effects people anyone who might be able to offer any information on a possible career. A lot of people like to give newcomers a few bits of advice. All of this information is on the Internet.

What advice do you have for others who would like to pursue this career?

The business has changed a lot in the last 20 years. It’s a lot more corporate. The low budget “starter” niches like New Horizon and Concord Pictures are getting smaller and smaller. But they’re still out there. Be tenacious.

CAREER LADDER:

Floral clerk, composite wing builder for radio controlled gliders, floral designer, decorative painter, actor on Shakespeare tour, art store clerk, Seattle Repertory Intern, decorative painter/ milestone artisan, scenic artist for Intiman Theater. I also do various scenic painting over hire gigs in the offseason, as well as pet portraitist, and specialty prop builder

Did you have an internship in this field prior to starting your job?

Why, yes, I did, but it is not a requirement in Seattle. The Internship Program and the Rep allows one to apply for up to three different positions. I applied to paints, props, and costumes. Props called back first, so I worked with them for half a season and realized, again, that I am a painter not a builder.

Do you know which companies have the best internships in this field that are known to help launch a successful career?

I wasn’t really looking to do an internship program when I saw the ad for the Rep’s program. Scenic painting was something I had always been interested in but had no idea how to get into the field officially. (I had been working with fringe theaters for several years.) I believe that the program at the Rep is a really good one. I know that Yale has a great certificate program, which my boss attended.

Where are the best cities to live to find jobs like yours?

I chose a city to live in and happened to fall into a career field that I wanted. In Seattle, I know a number of scenics who are able to keep fairly steady work without having a “house” job at a theater or the opera. It is mostly union work. I also know someone who has kept very busy doing scenic work in New York (for theater, television, and film).

What is your typical day like?

The nice thing about my work is that it changes frequently. Depending on the show, there could be just my boss and I working or sometimes four extra people helping out. We could be starching a drop or carving Styrofoam; or we could be making up some crazy texture to trowel on some flats or painting wood to look like wood. Sometimes we have to spend all day working out budgets (time and money), or we are running about purchasing materials.

What are your job responsibilities?

My main job responsibility is to assist my boss the scenic charge artist in any way she needs. That help can be in the form of working out square footage to figuring out how much material we will need; shopping for materials; working up samples based on the designer’s elevations and research, and applying the sample techniques to the full scale set and altering it as necessary. Occasionally, my job includes being in charge of a small crew of over hire painters. I also help touch up the set as it is installed, and I make sure those touch ups are dry before actors get on stage to rehearse.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite thing is the variety show to show. We get really excited when we get to trot out some of our traditional scenic artist skills. It can be a rare sight in theater these days, especially as digital projection becomes more prevalent in American theaters. I truly enjoy the process involved in creating a back drop from sweeping the starch, to cartooning and painting the image, to folding it at the end. But playing in the muck and goo of a good texture, and getting to watch what the paint does on it, can be really pleasing also.

What do you dislike about your job?

The encroaching demise of scenic art in the wake of the digital revolution. Also, the financial struggles the non profit regional theaters face can make for some frustrating cost constraints.

Have you had any turning point or “light bulb” moments in your career that have helped you get to where you are today?

The first painting class I took was a “light bulb” moment. I was in my junior year in the wood department and I came to realize that I was willing to become a sophomore again in order to change my major to paint.

How did you know you wanted to pursue this career?

I was torn between theater and visual art when I entered college. I had painted one back drop (in totally ridiculous conditions now that I know better) in high school, but I was thinking of acting at the time. After school, I toyed with set design. I worked with the Firehouse Theater Project in Richmond, VA, and I even did a couple of projects with the theater students at my former high school. But, ultimately, what I was always looking forward to (and what I watched during other performances) was the paint to me, it’s the fun part.

How did you get into this industry?

I got to paint a couple of things for plays that my husband was in at his college. Then when we moved back to Virginia, I started taking Meisner technique (acting) classes with the Firehouse Theater Project

and I did some painting and set design for them. After we moved to Seattle, I saw an ad in a weekly paper for the Internship Program at the Seattle Rep. My internship was in props; I defected to the paint department. Basically it comes down to the people. I got small jobs here and there with people I met at the Rep. For my job, I worked with a decorative painting company. But, the work for them was even more sporadic, and to me, it was frustrating to make something really lovely that would only be seen in a tiny little powder room. I missed the collaboration of theater, being a part of a larger whole, and sharing my talents with a larger audience. I finally got fed up. I gathered photos of scenic work I had done to that point, put together a resume and sent out a bunch of packets letting theaters know I was ready and available to work. And shocker of shockers, I got calls. I got an over-hire gig at Intiman (the charge artist at the time had not received his mail from the theater, so he had not seen my portfolio. But he had been told about me by another charge in town who had one of my packets). There was another full time assistant at the time, but she was not working out and they offered me the position.

What do you consider your greatest professional accomplishment?

I was the charge artist for a brief time (interim, it is not a position I am interested in, at this time), and we had a big show for which I had a great crew working for me, and it was beautiful and fun. Getting to work at the Seattle Opera as over hire is always gratifying because it is so huge and such a great education. Also, I feel proud of the great working relationship that I have with my boss and with Intiman Theater.

If you weren’t doing this job, what similar careers might you consider?

I really believe in theater, as hokey as that sounds. For all its shortcomings as a viable business (on the non profit end) I believe in its potential to reach people, to entertain and educate. The hours and materials used are more reasonable than those of television and film. Perhaps teaching. There is always the dream of being able to do your own art (having the discipline) and only take over hire gigs every now and then when you want to catch up with your friends maybe one day.

To what professional associations do you belong?

I am a member of local Union 488 of International Alliance Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists, and Allied Crafts of the United States, Its Territories and Canada (L\TSE).

What advice do you have for others who would like to pursue this career?

Really, people are the key in this industry. Niceness and a good core knowledge of scenic basics go a long way with most painters. You can learn a great deal along the way, but the networking potential involved in a training program of some sort can be invaluable. The degrees of separation in this business are low digits; production managers know people all over the country and can check a reference in an instant. It would be ill advised to burn bridges because you never know whom you will run into down the line.

Multimedia Artist Job Description
NEWSPAPER GRAPHIC ARTIST JOB DESCRIPTION
FORENSIC ARTIST JOB DESCRIPTION