How to Become an Art Director

Article Image
Photo Source: Courtesy Netflix

From the lush whimsy of a Regency romance to the surrealism of a dystopian sci-fi, fictional worlds are brought to life by the capable hands of an art director. An essential part of any production crew, the art director helps finesse a film’s visual identity from concept to creation. 

But how does someone become an art director? While a variety of educational and experiential paths can help ease the way, a background in the arts, production experience, and the willingness to grind are necessary to land this coveted position.


What does an art director do?

Behind the scenes of 'Day Shift'“Day Shift” behind the scenes Credit: Parrish Lewis/Netflix

For films, the art director is responsible for translating the production designer’s vision into the real world with sets, props, and graphics; drafting and overseeing any set construction; conducting scenic work; and creating advertising graphics. As a senior member of the art department, they work extremely closely with the production designer, director, and producers to create the visual identity of a film. They ensure that vision is executed by the rest of the art department on schedule and on budget. 

The art director’s job is a mix of work that’s creative (figuring out how best to depict a visual concept), managerial (supervising other staff such as set designers and construction crew), and administrative (cross-department coordination and developing budgets and timelines).

During preproduction, they oversee the creation of concept art, model and maquette sculptures, and pre-visualizations of ideas for characters, sets, and other filmic design elements. Another aspect of the job is commissioning special effects, hiring vehicles needed in scenes, and organizing the casting of animals. 

Though most of the art director’s work happens in preproduction, and they tend to be one of the first crew members brought in, they are still needed once principal photography begins. During production, the art director takes on a more administrative role to manage set design teams, supervise art department operations, and oversee set construction builds and payments.

Art director education requirements

Scene from 'Dune'“Dune” Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), an art director will usually need a bachelor’s degree in a subject relevant to art or design. Some design programs even offer an art director degree if you’re certain that this is your desired path. However, a degree isn’t always necessary; having five or more years of work experience in a related field such as graphic design, photography, or illustration can substitute for education.

Where does the art director fit into the crew hierarchy?

Scene from 'The French Dispatch'“The French Dispatch” Courtesy Searchlight Pictures

The art director is a senior-level position that oversees the daily operations of the art department. They lead a crew that consists of assistant art directors, art department assistants, scenic artists, set decorators, set dressers, draftspersons, construction workers, and carpenters; they report to the production designer. On smaller sets, the art director and production designer may be combined into one role.

Once the art director has determined how sets will be built, the plans and drawings are passed on to assistant art directors and drafters to turn into construction drawings. From there, the art director oversees the build by regularly visiting the workshops and stage, and meeting with the heads of the carpentry, paint, and plaster teams.

How much do art directors make?

Scene from 'Roma'“Roma” Courtesy of Netflix

The median salary for an art director in film is $137,380, while the median salary for a general art director—which includes magazine, newspaper, marketing, and industry—is $100,890, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021 report. Education, any additional certifications (such as graphic design, art design, and project management), years in the field, and location (New York and Los Angeles nearly always offer higher salaries) all impact the typical art director salary.

Art directors are represented by IATSE Local 800 of the Art Directors Guild (ADG), meaning members are guaranteed mandatory minimum payments on union productions.

Art director vs. creative director: what's the difference?

Scene from 'The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power'“The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

While similar, an art director and a creative director differ in scope. The creative director, or production designer, designs the overall film aesthetic. Art directors take more of a hands-on role by adapting the creative director’s strategy and vision into imagery. 

Becoming an art director versus a creative director is all about whether you prefer coming up with heady concepts or bringing them to life. Many art directors go on to become production designers, but it’s not uncommon for many to remain in their art director roles.

What’s an art director’s career path like?

Scene from 'House of the Dragon'“House of the Dragon” Credit: Ollie Upton/HBO

The job outlook for an art director is strong: Per the BLS, employment of art directors is expected to jump 4% by 2031. Follow these steps to be a marketable candidate for an art director career:

1. Learn the trade

Earning a B.A. or BFA in visual arts, graphic design, or another similar field will help get your foot in the door. You can even get a more applicable degree in art management, set design and production, or film production. 

It’s also a great idea to seek out a mentor in the field who can help guide you through some of the tougher concepts—and hopefully recommend you for an internship or job.

2. Gain experience in related positions

Gain hands-on experience by landing an arts-related industry internship. You can then catapult this into a full-time position in a lower-level industry job to give yourself further experience, learn more about the ins and outs of the trade, and make important connections.

The art director is the second-in-command in the art department, so they should have experience in other positions. Many art directors begin their careers as PAs within the art department before moving into roles such as set graphic designer or set dresser, then set decorator, before landing the art director job. 

3. Build skills and work your way up

Once you have some experience working in set design and production, see what skills you still need to be promoted to the art director role and actively seek to build those skills.

These may include experience in set design, fine art, art history, photography, or graphic design, and training in draftsmanship. Proficiency in design software—Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch—is a must. You’ll also need solid experience working on film sets to understand how all departments function together, as well as project management skills to be able to oversee that process.

What experts say about being an art director in the film industry

Scene from 'Cruella'“Cruella” Courtesy of Disney+

For those looking for expert advice, here are some helpful tips from pros in the industry:

  • On breaking into the field: “I worked hard in the art department for many years. When I felt confident enough to speak up, I reached out to my previous department heads,” Jami Primmer (“Shameless,” “Sense8,” “Candyman”) told Backstage. “You have to always be open to opportunity and diligently preparing for it so that when the stars align, you have that extra bit of knowledge and confidence to forge ahead. I was given the chance and fortunately, I proved myself.”
  • On the importance of preproduction: “As an art director I come on board fairly early in prep,” Luke Whitelock (“Cruella,” “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”) said in an interview with Bournemouth Film School. “A designer might [have] already been working on the concepts for a few months, and I’ll come on board when they are ready to start fleshing out the sets and the costs.”
  • On the daily routine: “I will start at call time to open set with the director and the crew. That can be very early. Then it’s back to the office to supervise the varying design processes: set design, graphic design, etc. We have meetings with the production designer and department heads,” Mark Steel (“Miss Sloane,” “The Umbrella Academy”) told Pushing Pixels of his typical day during principal photography. “We talk about concepts on the latest script, special effects, stunts, location scouting, scheduling with the assistant directors. The second thing after opening set is usually visiting the shop to check in on build/install progress. You also find some desk time to do budgeting or scheduling. It is usually a 12–14 hour day all included, and in the middle, you try to take a half-hour break for lunch.” 
  • On what makes a good art director: “Details in the visuals often make the difference between good and bad art direction,” Susan MacQuarrie (“The Fly,” “The Bone Collector,” “Rollerball”) shared in an interview with Cargo Collective. “An art director has to be inherently curious, always reading, wandering around shops or even just stopping on your bike when you see something interesting.”

By working hard to break into the field, recognizing the value of preproduction, and being willing to work long days, you too can become an art director. Above all else, when it comes to your ongoing success in the role, great art directors need an eye for detail, a curious mind, and a fantastic imagination.