Art Directors Guild looks to the future

Craft org celebrating 70 years

DIALOGUE: ADG executive director Scott Roth

When production designer Mark Worthington was given just six weeks to design and build the sets for ABC's "Ugly Betty," he left his pencils and paper behind -- and went digital.

"I had a digital draftsperson who was adept at three-dimensional drafting, and we were able to input all the information into the computer and look at the set in three dimensions, with camera lenses and angles, to make sure that what we were building was visually going to work for what we needed," he remembers.

Certainly, not every art director and production designer is putting aside the old tools of the trade, but in the world of Hollywood art design, traditional pencil drawing is being supplanted by digital technology. Whether this is an evolutionary shift or a revolutionary one is something the Art Directors Guild & Scenic, Title and Graphic Design Artists is about to tackle just in time for its 70th anniversary.

"Everybody is in a tizzy about digital technologies," acknowledges Thomas A. Walsh, ADG president and chair of the Art Directors Guild Council. "And rightfully so, in that they are a powerful tool and allow you to do many things. But they are just another tool. There is (room) for both digital and hand drawing."

Finding out where that room exists will be part of one of ADG's most ambitious projects, an international conference held in conjunction with the University Art Museum of California State University, Long Beach, in April 2008. The two-day conference, called "5D -- The Future of Immersive Design," will focus on the marriage of storytelling and technology across all narrative media. Though the guild has been proactive in offering classes in software and computer training to its members at its Los Angeles headquarters, organizers now say it's time for something more comprehensive.

"The role of design in storytelling has become the centerpiece of several other related industries," notes Alex McDowell, chairman of the ADG Technology Committee.

Those related industries are the obvious -- film and television -- and the less so -- animation, interactive (including video gaming) and environment (including theme park rides). Each of the media requires some sort of visual narrative, making design a common theme. And increasingly, the same digital tools are being used in all five areas.

Not everyone welcomes the new technology, but few deny that it is changing the profession dramatically. Warren Alan Young, production designer on Focus Features' "Talk To Me," says, "SketchUp software by Google comes with a series of textures, colors and other tools. But you can also go into the real world with a digital camera and photograph whatever texture you want, then input that image into the drawing, giving you an even better version of the actual texture."

Production designer Andrew Menzies went from James Cameron's "Avatar," with a complete digital department, to Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma," which had very little digital work, and notes that his responsibilities remained the same on both pictures. "(I was) still there to oversee the overall look of the film and the continuity of that look."

One big plus of digital software is that it helps people previsualize the set. Ruth Ammon, production designer on NBC's "Heroes," confirms that "three-dimensional rendering is a great tool for showing a director size and shape and for communicating how a character is going to flow through a certain space."

But there has been a downside to the digital development, says Worthington: Producers now expect prep times to be shorter. "Time for thinking has really been compressed," he laments.

All of this talk of digitalization is a long way from 1937, when the Society of Motion Picture Art Directors -- the ADG's original name -- was founded. At that time, the title of "production designer" didn't even exist. Until 1939, the person in charge of formulating the visual design of a film was the supervising art director, and other art directors worked under him or her. But producer David O. Selznick felt that William Cameron Menzies deserved a special credit for his work on "Gone With the Wind," and coined the term "production designer."

In 1960, the society joined the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) for union representation. "Television" joined the guild name in 1967; in early 2000 the organization changed its name to the Art Directors Guild. Three years later the 850 members of the ADG merged with the 550-member Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists and adopted the somewhat unwieldy title of Art Directors Guild & Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists (Local 800).

Today the guild offers an annual awards banquet, an active film society and, for the second year in a row, is sponsoring Art Unites, an exhibit that showcases the personal artwork of its members. An apprenticeship program that would give aspiring young art directors real-world experience is currently under discussion. Regional offices have opened in Chicago, New York and Wilmington, N.C.

And in May 2006, the guild took the momentous step of purchasing its own home, acquiring the three-story building in Studio City in which it had rented office space for the previous five years. Members of the guild redesigned the interior, installing open, airy corridors that curve around a large oval conference room.

In concert with other IATSE locals, the ADG has also been taking up certain political causes, such as supporting legislation that is intended to stem the tide of runaway production. A few years ago, the guild, along with its brother and sister locals, helped win reforms that exempted nearly all guild members from Los Angeles' city business tax.

For now, the one cause that unites all of the disparate elements of the ADG is how to proceed with a future of digitalization. Notes McDowell, "The roles of the director, cinematographer and production designer have spread further and further apart. Digital technology offers (a means) of coming together again."

That bodes well not only for designers but for the projects themselves. In fact, "Talk to Me's" Young places digital drawing software alongside the computer and the mobile phone as three recent inventions that have made a tremendous difference in filmmaking. With a note of sadness in his voice, however, he also says, "I have been drafting manually since I was 12 years old, and there is something about taking that pencil and putting it to paper that is still so rewarding."

"Ugly Betty's" Worthington, who got his first job while he was still in graduate school -- doing art design on George Romero's "The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar" segment in the 1990 film "Two Evil Eyes" -- confesses to a similar fondness for the old-fashioned ways.

"On the other hand," he notes brightly, "any tool that allows us to be more efficient and helps us to get our vision on screen is welcome."