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Art Directors: What the Future Holds

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures

The guild's Thomas Walsh and John Shaffner on technology, the lack of eco sets and ADG's plans for the next generation.

While advances in technology allow greater creative freedom for members of the Art Directors Guild, issues of education in new media remain. Runaway production and studio belt-tightening also threaten their collective knowledge. Third-term guild president Thomas Walsh and John Shaffner, the newly elected chair of the Art Directors Council (one of four divisions under the ADG umbrella), are passionate about "looking for every opportunity we can to extend the education and life span" of their 2,000 members' careers, says Walsh. On the eve of their organization's annual awards ceremony on Feb. 4, the duo spoke with THR.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: How has technology changed the art director's job?

Thomas Walsh: It's both freeing and befuddling. Technology changes so rapidly that for anyone to be at the head of their game is a temporary thrill. It's freeing because it allows us to do certain things -- build worlds in a bigger and more complicated way, for instance -- we'd never consider doing before. We're spending more every year on workshops, seminars and continuing education.

THR: Do designers have to approach their work differently when working on a 3D project?

Walsh: It requires a deeper conversation with your director and cinematographer in terms of how you're going to stage that shot to take most advantage of the depth of field that 3D photography permits you to work with.

THR: Are studios' tighter budgets affecting the art director's role?

John Shaffner: It has always been about being creative -- maximizing and making the best choices with available resources.

Walsh: Studios have been doing an aggressive job over the last 20 years of divesting themselves of their physical assets -- sets and props -- the things we depend on to make movies and hopefully save them money. It's ironic that they're all being green, but they still throw everything away at the end of the movie. The accountants tell them it costs too much to keep.

THR: I'm surprised it's not repurposed.

Walsh: It should be. That's a challenge and a shame on them for not being as serious about the big picture as they are about the little things. It's ironic: The studios were far greener in the '20s, '30s and '40s than they have ever been since. They used to recycle and reuse everything, but that required having full-time art and construction departments. There are no art departments really working for the studios anymore. They're all freelancers. The biggest danger from that is a loss of collective knowledge. We used to be able to learn from each other, from our successes and failures working in tight quarters in the studios. All the guilds have a bigger responsibility now to share that knowledge. The studios make one movie at a time now, and we live with two bags packed by our front doors ready to go wherever the clarion call directs us. It's a frustrating time for those of us who really love the craft. With all their incentive-chasing around the planet, we're losing local craft practitioners and vendors. They can't afford to do one or two movies a year.

THR: While film studios are working with tighter budgets, it appears that might not be the case with TV, if you consider shows with elaborate sets such as Boardwalk Empire and Pan Am.

Shaffner: The walls between feature and TV work are slowly dissolving. The big challenge is that audiences are so sophisticated -- they're seeing great production design, and they expect to see more and better all the time in both film and TV.

THR: What are you doing so the ADG's four branches can work effectively together?

Shaffner: It's a lot about being patient and listening in the short term. My goals with the council include continuing to knit together the four groups that are part of our Local 800. The challenge is to be as up-to-date as possible and to educate, especially those who are at the start of their careers. We have to make sure that the next generation has all the right tools in their tool belt.

♦♦♦♦♦

16th ANNUAL ART DIRECTORS GUILD AWARDS

  • WHERE: Beverly Hilton
  • WHEN: Saturday, Feb. 4, Dinner 6:30 p.m.
  • LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD: Production designer Tony Walton

THE OTHER COUNCIL CHAIRS

  • C. Scott Baker Elected 2009
  • Branch Set Designers & Model Makers
  • Recent credit Bridesmaids
  • Patrick DeGreve Elected 2009
  • Branch Scenic, Title & Graphic Artists
  • Day job Supervising scenic artist, CBS
  • joseph musso Elected 2009
  • Branch Illustrators & Matte Artists
  • Recent credits Monk, Life

 

Michael Buckner/Getty Images; Courtesy of ADG