Film & TV

What Is the Art Department and What Does it Do?

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 15, 2019 • 5 min read

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The art department is one of the most important departments of a film crew, spanning multiple disciplines and employing workers with a variety of artistic skill sets. But what exactly does the art department do?

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What Is the Art Department?

The art department is the team responsible for creating the overall look of a television show or feature film, as determined by the director. Together, they design, build, and decorate the sets on which the actors shoot, being mindful of every little detail that can support the director’s vision.

Who Is in the Art Department?

The art department contains a number of sub-departments, each with their own crew and set of responsibilities:

  • Production designer: runs the entire art department and is responsible for translating the film into visual form.
  • Art director: designs sets, oversees construction, and helps determine the overall look of the production.
  • Set designer: creates the technical drawings telling the construction crew what to build.
  • Concept artist: creates computer-generated images to represent the visual effects that will appear in the film.
  • Storyboard artist: creates drawings that represent the director’s shots to help visualize the framing, movement, and sequence of how the story is told.
  • Set decorator: decides what furniture and decorations should be used in set dressing.
  • Production buyer: finds and either buys or rents the set dressings.
  • Set dresser: places the furniture and decorations the set decorator chooses on set.
  • Property master: finds and keeps track of all the props that appear on the screen to add authenticity.
  • Graphic artist: creates props that require design and/or text.
  • Prop maker: crafts props by hand that are unique or difficult to find.
  • Construction crew: builds and paints the sets. The construction crew includes carpenters, painters, scenic artists, and plasterers.
  • Coordinators: keep the departments running smoothly. The coordinators include the art department coordinator, the set decoration coordinator, and the construction coordinator.
  • Production assistants/runners: run errands, fetch coffee, handle logistics, and do whatever needs to be done to keep sets running smoothly.
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What Is a Production Designer?

The production designer is in charge of making sure that every stage and location looks the best it can look for each scene. It’s a high-pressure job both logistically and creatively. By the time the director and cinematographer are on set, the production designer has already worked for weeks in preparation. It’s important for the director to have a creative connection with the production designer and feel that their instincts align with how they want to tell the story.

The production designer has to juggle the needs of many different departments that contribute to the look of the film, like the camera crew and lighting crew, while maintaining consistency in the look.

MasterClass instructor Ron Howard emphasizes that production designers need to be a mix of a dreamer and a carpenter. They should have wild imaginations, but also understand what’s required to help bring that vision to life.

What Is an Art Director?

An art director reports to the production designer. They design sets, oversee artists and construction workers, and help determine the overall look of a film production. During pre-production, the art director acts as a liaison between the production designer and the construction crew. When principal photography begins, they report to set and keep the production designer informed of how the look is coming to life.

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How Does the Art Department Interact With the Rest of the Film Crew?

The art department and its sub-departments work closely with the director of photography, camera crew, lighting crew, locations crew, visual effects crew, makeup department, and costume department. Even the most talented production designer would be lost without the right camera angles, lighting setups, location permits, special effects, and makeup and wardrobe to help make the sets shine.

Are Art Departments on TV Different Than Those on Films?

Art departments for television are similar to those on films, but the biggest difference is that art departments for television shows are designing, building, and decorating sets on a more ongoing basis. Plus, since many of their sets are used in every episode, they must find ways to refresh and redecorate them over time so they’re not always the exact same from episode to episode and season to season.

How Do You Start Working in the Art Department?

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After film school, most people get their start in the art department as a production assistant or a runner. While production assistants and runners don’t have the most glamorous jobs in the film industry, they gain invaluable experience from being on a film set and learning first-hand how everything works in Hollywood. The most important part of being a production assistant or a runner is having a positive attitude and a good work ethic.

What Does a Typical Art Department Career Path Look Like?

Your career path in the art department depends on what sub-department you’re interested in pursuing. After you pay your dues as a production assistant or a runner, you’ll likely become an art department assistant. From there, you’ll veer off into your desired department and work your way up. If your goal is to become a production designer, you’ll work your way up the art direction ladder; if you want to become a set decorator, you’ll work your way up the set decoration ladder.

What Does the Art Department Do During Pre-Production?

Some members of the art department start working before the official pre-production even begins. During this time, the production designer meets with the director to understand their vision and start thinking about how to translate it into visual form.

The art department is at their busiest during pre-production. They must design and build sets, gather props, and create storyboards so everything is completed and camera-ready by the first day of shooting.

What Does the Art Department Do During Production?

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The art department’s work isn’t finished once pre-production ends. Art directors remain on set to make sure the film maintains the proper look; the prop master is on hand to help actors incorporate props into their performances; and the construction crew is available to make last-minute repairs or build any new set pieces required.

What Does the Art Department Do During Post-Production?

The art department is significantly less involved in post-production, but their work still isn’t over. Graphic artists may need to create title cards and credit sequences, and art directors give input over what those finishing touches should look like.

Learn more about film crew roles and responsibilities in Jodie Foster’s MasterClass.

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