August 31, 2012

And The Award Goes To...?

For whatever reason, very few people outside the industry (and shamefully, plenty within it) understand that films need art departments. Not just overblown Tim Burton monstrosities, but all films.

In my short career, there have been few things more frustrating than explaining to a Producer that a Lead Man is an actual, professional job title, much less that the film we're working on together requires one. To be fair: art departments are historically esoteric. They didn't exist in their fullest glory until well after the birth of cinema (after Gone With The Wind, as the story goes), and their shape and size can fluctuate wildly between any given film.

As an example: at the Academy Awards, exceptional Production Designers are awarded Oscars for Art Direction, despite Art Director being a completely different job (although they often share the award). It sounds like a simple thing, but things like that snowball into a general lack of understanding about who does what, when, and why it's important.

Fortunately, that one small issue is about to change. In revising rules that govern eligibility for "Best Song," the Academy also revised it's award aimed at the art department. According to the press release:
Upon the recommendation from the Designers Branch (formerly the Art Directors Branch), the Art Direction award will be known as the Production Design award.
It's an incredibly simple change, but it's one that I already relish.

As a PD, the very beginning to the very end of a film is a struggle for creative influence. You show up to work each day over-worked and covered in paint, carrying boxes of seemingly random crap (tape, glue, paper bags full of distressed junk, etc.), and when shit hits the fan you somehow expect to be taken as seriously as a Cinematographer whose gearset requires a million dollar insurance policy. The Cinematographer comes across like a scientist on safari, with an array of battle-hardened minions, and you look like a Kindergarten teacher.

You fight against an improperly proportioned budget, a punishing schedule, sometimes open hostility towards the finer details of your artistic goals, and an overall misunderstanding about the defining characteristics of your department. It's even worse when inexperienced Producers or Directors hire PD's so close to production that your capacity for creative input is hamstrung by ever mounting logistical concerns.

Hell, I think it's appallingly obvious and disappointing when Directors (even supposedly great ones) fail to incorporate a skilled art department... but admittedly I'm biased. So while this change from the Academy isn't much in practice, I hope the new nomenclature signals a greater awareness of the department as a whole. Films will be made better if filmmakers know what Art Departments can and should provide. There are plenty of PD's out there who can't wait for the chance to prove it.

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