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"Designing a film is like painting a landscape in a hurricane," said the late, great production designer Richard Sylbert (Shampoo, Chinatown) — and whether one is seeking to weather that creative storm as a production designer, art director or set decorator, a B.A. or MFA with an emphasis on production design can give a leg up.
Says Longmire production designer and Art Directors Guild production design co-chair Thomas A. Walsh, "While only two schools provide true, pure production design programs" — AFI and Chapman Dodge — many aspirants find their way via theater arts. "There is no difference in the training for motion pictures and for television as the tools, knowledge, talent and curiosity required are all the same, and the only thing that distinguishes the two from one another is time and money.”
Adds production designer Stuart Wurtzel (HBO's Divorce), a Carnegie Mellon alum: "Production designers come from many different avenues — architecture, decorating, costume designing, etc. Period or contemporary, a designer must be observant of culture and behaviors and visually interpret a story into a physical world."
American Film Institute's AFI Conservatory
Students seeking a two-year MFA in production design benefit from small classes that focus on narrative storytelling and computer design skills. While tuition may be steep, and liberal arts classes as an elective are not on the menu, the chance to present at the annual production design showcase to film and TV production designers such as La La Land's David and Sandy Wasco or Darkest Hour's Sam Greenwood is a big plus.
The Art Directors Guild PA Initiative selects grads for on-the-job training and mentorship. "I brought everything as an AFI student to the film," says Joseph Garrity of working on Christopher Guest's The Big Picture; Guest hired him for eight other projects.
TUITION $59,348 (first year), $61,425 (second year)
NOTABLE ALUMNI Joseph Garrity (Best in Show), Ray Yamagata (Ray Donovan), Todd Cherniawsky (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Sharon Seymour (Argo)
Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama
Pittsburgh may seem a million miles from Hollywood, but CMU is one of the nation's oldest, most respected film schools. Six-time Emmy-nominated production designer Mark Worthington (Ugly Betty, American Horror Story) trained in theater set and costume design at the graduate drama program. "I spent a summer drafting secret rooms and torture devices — including the classic pendulum from The Pit and the Pendulum," he says of his experience working for the head of the program Cletus Anderson, who was production designer for George Romero’s Two Evil Eyes. "Little did I know this would prep me for my five-season stint designing Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story where the secret rooms blossomed into mansions inhabited by ghosts and witches, a circus featuring a murderous clown and a hotel owned by a vampiric Lady Gaga.”
While there is no art direction in the four-year BFA or three-year MFA design program, CMU offers classes from lighting to scenic design; students work on full-scale productions with companies like the Pittsburgh Opera.
TUITION $54,244 (undergrad)
NOTABLE ALUMNUS John Shaffner (The Big Bang Theory, Roseanne), Stuart Wurtzel (HBO’s Divorce, Hannah and Her Sisters)
Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts
At the U.S.'s second-oldest production design program, both the four-year production BFA and a three-year production design MFA center on film.
Students watch their designs materialize at one of five facilities that mimic Hollywood soundstages and design a feature upon graduation through Chapman Filmed Entertainment, a production company that makes micro-budgeted films with talented students and alumni. Star Trek: Into Darkness production and set designer and CMU department head John Chichester says, "Our facilities are state of the art and our new set shop opened last year that can support the wildest design fantasies our students can dream up." Students can also major in production design and minor in visual effects, which Chichester says "gives them the perfect educational foundation for a professional film designer of the 21st century.”
TUITION $26,170 (undergrad, grad)
NOTABLE ALUMNUS Brendan O'Connor (Shameless)
As if studying in the City of Light weren't enough, an entrant mingles among only about 50 other students across all disciplines, including production design (only four students per class gives new meaning to the term hands-on). To get a four-year master's degree, students must first have a baccalaureate (the French equivalent of a bachelor's degree), plus two years of studies, preferably from art or architecture schools.
Formerly a film studio (with four soundstages and carpentry and paint shops), the French national school is a working lab where students benefit from the tutelage of such French production designers as Oscar-nominated Woody Allen favorite Anne Seibel (Midnight in Paris), Jean Vincent Puzos, Jean Rabasse and Michel Barthelemy.
NOTABLE ALUMNUS Samuel Deshors (Call Me by Your Name)
New York University's Tisch School of the Arts
Emmy Award-winning designer John Iacovelli says that "students as far back as the '70s benefited from such instructors as famed Broadway designer Oliver Smith [Guys and Dolls and Oklahoma!] and longtime chair Lloyd Burlingame," making the school attractive to those interested in theater design. Tuition and living in Manhattan are expensive, but the close-knit alumni base can be worth the price of admission.
Adds Emmy-winning production designer Kalina Ivanov (Grey Gardens), who was mentored by Smith. "Thanks to him, I learned to tackle musicals, to squeeze scenery in impossibly tight spaces and to solve design problems with grace and a smile. It was a very exhilarating time for me. You can trace my conceptual approach to every script back to my NYU training."
With a four-year BFA or three-year MFA (production design is a recent minor elective) comes the chance to work with writers and directors in the Tisch Graduate Film Program, which can be instrumental in landing postgrad work.
TUITION $56,924 (undergrad), $58,000 (grad)
NOTABLE ALUMNI Howard Cummings (Westworld), Dan Bishop (Mad Men), Jeffrey Beecroft (Transformers), John Iacovelli (Peter Pan), Mark Ricker (Trumbo)
Nottingham Trent University
Trips to the Harry Potter film studios in London and Cinecitta Studios in Rome come with the B.A. (known as Hons) in design for film or theater. Costume and set design stints at the Birmingham Opera Company and Royal National Theatre impart practical experience. Boasting a 96 percent employment rate, with grads landing on projects ranging from Downton Abbey to Star Wars, Nottingham Trent was named U.K. university of the year in 2017.
TUITION $15,591 (international students)
NOTABLE ALUMNI Uzair Merchant (Skyfall), Carly Reddin (Hugo)
San Diego State University's School of Theatre, Television and Film
SDSU offers a four-year B.A. in theater and B.S. in film production with an emphasis on design for TV and film, as well as a three-year MFA in design and technology for film and TV production (taught by a well-rounded group of practicing professionals, such as NYU-trained art director David Morong, who also teaches at AFI.
Greg Durbin, program head of television, film and new media, says, "We give students knowledge and skills to work in the film and television industry through an intensive curriculum that encompasses history, theory and practice of production design and art direction."
TUITION $3,730 (undergrad), $4,447 (grad)
NOTABLE ALUMNUS Peter Beck (American Crime Story)
Savannah College of Art and Design
SCAD features BFA, M.A. and MFA degrees in production design, with the option to emphasize cinema studies, motion media and interior and sound design.
Production designers Garreth Stover (Dynasty reboot) and Chase Harlan (Empire) serve as mentors; grads seeking work as production designers, art directors or scenic artists enjoy a high employment rate. Students work alongside filmmakers and can design up to six live theater shows. The SCAD Savannah Film Festival draws luminaries while Atlanta, a $9.5 billion film and television hub lauded as "the Hollywood of the South," is just three hours away.
TUITION $35,910 (undergrad), $36,765 (grad)
NOTABLE ALUMNI Jeffrey Dennis Simon (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Leigh Poindexter (Glee)
UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television
While the theater program was established in 1947, production design is a recent elective for students selecting a four-year BFA or three-year MFA degree in theater arts. With a high postgrad employment rate; courses in film history, drafting and cinematography; and classes in design for film and TV and the Cecil B. DeMille Master Class — taught by production designers Tony Fanning (Better Call Saul) and Mark Worthington (American Horror Story) — UCLA is a popular choice.
Classical training plus the latest techniques in digital can also be found in the UCLA Scenic Design program that is headed by Yale-trained scenic designer Myung Hee Cho.
TUITION $16,818 (resident), $31,920 (out-of-state)
NOTABLE ALUMNUS John Dexter (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Michael Corenblith (Saving Mr. Banks)
University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Design & Production
Says dean and Emmy-winning Deadwood and Sesame Street designer Michael Kelley: "Our students are going directly into the top echelon of the major companies, such as Universal, Paramount and Disney. But the world’s much bigger than film and television, and they must come out of school well-versed on multiple platforms and trades." Those with a bent toward set decor will find classes in furniture history, construction and upholstery along with grad studies in architecture.
TUITION $6,497 (in-state, undergrad), $22,640 (out-of-state)
NOTABLE ALUMNI Tony Fanning (Ocean's Thirteen), Michael Ward (Passengers)
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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