A Day in the Life of an Art Director

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Photo Source: Paul Sarkis/SHOWTIME

The art director’s daily to-do list is never typical. Some responsibilities and procedures can be expected and divided between pre-production, principal photography, and post-production. Since so much of my work takes place before we ever set foot on a set, I’ll describe here what could be a typical day during pre-production. It should be said, however, that the role of art director is a complementary force, driving the design process forward as a proxy for the creative vision of the production designer

To start, let’s assume the art department is established, up and running, and positions are filled. In this case, we have a graphic designer, two set designers, and an office PA on board. Our art department coordinator, who’s efficiency and productivity are key to the success of any art department, is in full swing. We have a clear file naming protocol set in place to streamline our office and shared online information. The production designer has given us research images, sketches, mood boards, and quick 3D models. We move on each element as it comes to us as some design work is still evolving. We’re currently considering additional color choices, ordering samples, and confirming the availability of specialty hardware and detailing materials. We’ve established a timeline and we’re in full pre-production mode. 

6:30 a.m
The sun has not quite risen on Monday when I’m on the way in well before the art department office is officially open. Soon I’m on the phone with our construction coordinator going over our immediate status and reviewing our notes so that we’re on the same page to start our work week. 

7 a.m.
I’ll make my first stop to our stages to oversee our current build, one that is at the top of our shooting schedule. I’ll walk through the set with our general foreman. We’ll move swiftly to cover everything as I answer questions to clarify the direction of the production designer. We’ll review drawings and discuss any outstanding issues so that our construction team can start their workday efficiently.

8:30 a.m.
I’m on my way to check on a location or two. My access is dependent on the work of the locations department. They’ll be confirming with owners, landlords, and tenants as to whether we’re able to access these spots. There are a number of things I can be doing at any given location: extensive photo documentation, color match signage for graphics, additional surveying for set design, existing conditions for the production designer, or overall feasibility for production. After my visit I’ll remain to further discuss with our locations team progress in establishing contracts, gaining access, and going over any potential hazards or location issues. 

10:30 a.m.
By this time my phone has rung 12 times and I may have responded to 2030 texts. I’ve communicated with the special effects department, paint, production office PA, our 1st AD, an outsourced structural engineer, and a follow-up question from our general foreman. Before heading to the office, I know of a place en route that salvages elevator parts and stop to attempt to salvage a car operating panel for an elevator we’re building. I text my PA to check another vendor who may have a similar piece of equipment. We’ll gather what we can and meet up at the office to see what treasures we’ve managed to find. 

11:30 a.m.
With some minimal success, I pick up a half-constructed panel and other miscellaneous parts. As I’m leaving in the direction of the office I receive a request from locations to make an additional stop at a great residence that was a favorite choice of our production designer. We need to get over there as quickly as possible to walk through with the owners, discuss exactly what work we’re planning, and answer any additional questions they might have. At any time I might need to return to the location, I’ll notify our location manager to be sure we have permission. 

1 p.m.
From this location, there were a few details I managed to survey and photograph. I do a quick digital sketch and forward it to the set designer so that they have an uninterrupted flow of information coming to them throughout the day. They are well into a full set of working construction drawings. This drawing in particular is very important because we may be ordering materials in relation to a detail with a tight lead time. The set designer’s drawing weighs on getting that material in on time. 

1:30 p.m.
At some point, I remember I’m hungry and grab a quick lunch. Making time to eat well is really important. To be honest, I skip a lot of meals during this period. It’s easy to dismiss this but I’ll mention it because you need to stay charged for this high stress and intense job. 

2:15 p.m.
At every turn throughout my day I’m updating the production designer with our progress. I’ll be copying them on pertinent text threads and emails, forwarding photos and survey notes they require, and following up on any immediate issues that have come up. It’s important to note that my job is to back the designer fully, to deliver a set based on their design, and give them the mental space along the way to get it done. They cannot be bothered with minutiae. They’re being inundated on many fronts while working on all aspects to deliver the visual concept of this project. I must convey clear and precise information. You hope to establish a strong relationship with your designer. When this is fluid and the partnership is in place it’s a great working experience. The project really flourishes under this kind of dynamic. 

3 p.m
When I make it back to the office I touch base with our team. The set designer hands over a set of finished construction drawings ready to review. We then quickly distribute drawings to all impacted departments. I’ll sit down to revise our set list as some locations have changed. I go through as many emails as I can, scanning for the most urgent requiring responses. Based on what I’ve seen today I’ll update working notes to paint, set dec, lighting, SPFX, construction, and locations so when they start the following workday no time is lost on receiving the next set of instructions.

5 p.m.
I will update our prep/wrap schedule since we have received a revised shooting schedule and unfortunately lost a location. How many prep days do we have at a given location? What departments have work there, for how many days, and in what sequence in regards to other departments? The art department needs to orchestrate a smooth workflow of overlapping departmental needs. I’ll keep close contact with all department heads to ensure we’re working smart. All the while, I’m revising the budget. By the end of the week, production will need a final budget turned in from art and construction. 

8 p.m.
The end of the day has probably crept up on me. Ideally, I make it to the stage to check progress. If I’m not going to the shop I’m certainly speaking with my general foreman and the construction coordinator before they’re out for the day. I don’t start or end a day without these conversations. I end with, “Thank you, I’ll talk to you first thing in the morning!” 

It’s exciting work. We’ll be that much further ahead and closer to final sets to be turned over to our shooting crew on our first shooting day!

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Author Headshot
Jami Primmer
Art director of the “Candyman” sequel currently in post-production. Following an arts and architecture education, Jami began in the art department in 2008. Production designer of 13 stages for the 2018 “Red Bull Music Festival” Chicago. She is known for work on HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” “Shameless,” “Sense 8,” Soderbergh’s “Contagion,” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” 2010, among other film and television projects. She continues as an exhibiting artist, designer, and advocate for the arts community.
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