What Is a Key Scenic Artist? Job Description, Salary, Responsibilities + More

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Key Scenic Job Description: What Does a Key Scenic Artist Do? 

The key scenic is an artist, supervisor, and organizer responsible for making the surroundings/sets of a film appear dramatic and realistic within the world that’s being established on screen. This includes painting scenery to create the illusion of “authentic materials” such as wood, brick, metal, stained glass, marble, stone, titanium, and/or aging and altering actual materials and decorations, as laid out by the production designer and art director. These artists play a huge role in not only immersing the audience in the scene, but saving the production lots of money: why use up a large chunk of the budget to pay for the real thing when key scenic can replicate it cheaply with craftsmanship?

The key scenic reports to the production designer and art director to ensure their visions for the sets are made a reality. In close communication with the production designer, art director, paint coordinator, and construction coordinator, the key scenic leads and supervises a crew of scenic artists and painters in the execution of desired imagery outlined by technical drawings. In addition to adding intricate textures and details onto the surface of set pieces, backdrops, and props, key scenic artists handle signs or graphics seen on screen. They also help organize and supervise the purchase of materials and prepare/manage the budget of each set.

“[I] take care of painting problems, of making things go away, making things look better, making things look worse...depending on what the overall vision for the show is,” explains Tim Dingle (“Stranger Things,” “Revolution,” “Planet Terror”).

Jason Edwards, a scenic charge artist for theater, described himself as “the scenic artist...painter, artist, paint guy, the one with all the messy clothes...we’re the third-string quarterback of scene design. When a designer and their assistant [aren’t] around, and there’s some sort of aesthetic question...I have to answer.”

The key scenic commonly works throughout pre-production and principal photography, though they’re rarely on set during shooting. Sometimes, depending on the budget and size of the project, the key scenic takes on the responsibilities of the paint coordinator.

Department

Art

Alternate Titles for Key Scenic

Key scenic artist, charge scenic (UK)

Crew Hierarchy

The key scenic reports to many, including the production designer, art director, painting coordinator, and construction coordinator, and supervises a team of painters, to whom he or she assigns specific paint jobs. 

Key Scenic Salary

Key scenics earn an average of $72,505, ranging from $68,446 at the 25th percentile to $76,307 at the 75th percentile, with top earners (the top 10%) earning more than $80,133.

Key scenics are represented by Local 829United Scenic Artists—which sets mandatory minimum rates on union productions.

How to Become a Key Scenic

Most key scenics start as PAs and make their way into the art department through hard work and years of experience. Once in the art department, it’s common to begin as a painter, plasterer, or sign painter before landing the role of a scenic artist, all under the supervision of the key scenic. It’s also possible to advance into the role of an on-set painter and paint foreman, who works especially closely with the key scenic. Key scenics may advance throughout the art department, with the production designer being the top position to aspire to.

Key Scenic Required Experience + Skills

The key scenic should be extremely artistic and creative, and possess a vast knowledge of scenic painting techniques, color mixing, texture, layout and paint application skills, traditional drawing, and sculpting, as well as wood graining and marbling, among other baseline paint/construction skillsets.

Similar to costume designers, the budding key scenic should also be well-versed in the history of the field, such as different period styles of art and architecture, as they will have to do a significant amount of research into different time periods/settings/locations depending on when and where the project takes place. A key scenic should also be a great communicator, listener, collaborator, a creative problem solver, and a leader.

While not a be-all-end-all, many key scenics obtain undergraduate and/or graduate degrees in theatrical design or fine art, from which they develop a background in color theory and art history. 

For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!