Movie Artists come in all shapes and colors: art directors, storyboard artists, set designers, costume designers, graphic artists, marketing advertisers, and many more. My guest is Lisa Sheehan, a multi-talented art director, writer, editor, designer and motion picture producer. She has worked with academy award nominated writers and directors and has her own production company that helps businesses establish and enhance their brand.
Lisa received her BFA in both graphic design and architectural design and later completed her graduate studies in Communications from the nation’s most recognized Film and Communications School, Emerson College.
As a movie producer, I’ve had story ideas pitched to me by screenwriters who brought along artwork to accentuate the appeal of their concept. A visual rendition of a super hero or horror monster can be very compelling and leave a lasting impression even if the pitch idea was not compelling. So you get an idea of how important a movie artist is from the get go! Lisa agrees that one picture is worth a thousand words, especially when trying to simplify a complex inspiration. She suggests that every director or producer hire an Art Director early on to help them realize their vision through an artist’s creative mind.
One of the first priorities for a director is to have an artist draw up a storyboard from the script. This allows the director a “comic strip” guideline to assure all necessary angles will be covered when actual filming begins. It also provides the Director of Photography a glimpse of each scene so appropriate lenses and lighting can be preppedm. Lisa is an expert on storyboards and starts by reading the script, talking in depth with the director, then sitting back and letting her imagination fly — there are no limits. You can limit yourself later on. It’s about sequences and shots. These are the visuals that move the story forward. Every time there is change, a significant movement, an angle requirement, a story board should reflect this. Arrows and a few words added can clarify directions. What’s the hook, what’s significant about the scene, who’s doing what, when?
All those lavish sets in fantasy fiction films like “Lord of the Rings” and “Avatar” are conceived by artists then re-created by set builders. Lisa explains the Art Director is responsible for the overall look of the production, working closely with the director and producer, and also oversees the art department budget and schedule. The AD and supporting team of artists are not just mirrors for the director, they also can shape the production and influence its success. The team includes: painters, construction crew, set designers, prop master, graphic artists, special effects, costume designers, illustrators.
Lisa once again emphasizes the script to determine the genre, time frame, characters and their actions. An action hero will need clothing that allows for unrestrained physical movement. A Costume Designer must have a good understanding of plot points and character arc — these will influence design. Then they research, design sketches, oversee construction of garments, the colors, the fabric, the fittings and end with screen test shots in wardrobe. Costumes can be custom made, pulled from stock, altered, off the rack. There is also a Costume Buyer.
Another invaluable contribution of the movie artist is in creating and designing Opening Titles and Closing Credits. There are many variations in font, size, colors, and presentation. Since there is an average of 588 credits on a feature film, there is ample time to make the tedious rolling names and job descriptions more interesting with innovative artwork. The credits can be slowly dripped in, as full action ensues, or there can be a mini movie just for the credits.
Lisa stresses that there is no limit to the imagination when it comes to credits. For example, Se7en (1995; starring Brad Pitt) revived the tradition of elaborate credit sequences and became iconic for the horror genre. The logo Se7en uses a technique called “word play.” Instead of using a v in seven, an artist essentially rotated the v on a 45 degree angle — and the actual number 7 accomplishes this. The word play here shows tension; something is upturned. The credits were made from a combination digital text (Helvetica font) and handwriting. Designer Kyle Cooper wanted the titles to look like they were designed by the killer, the main character himself. You are already creeped out before the movie begins. You know you want to stay away from the guy!
Another example is Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, Psycho (1960). The titles capture the essence of the film by racing on the screen from left to right in rectangular lines that shove, push, and splinter the text — creating visual tension and anxiety from the onset. By the time the titles give way to the famous wide to tight aerial shots of Phoenix, one’s nerves are already thoroughly rattled.
Arguably, the most crucial contribution of the movie artist is the movie’s One-Sheet or theatrical poster. It can make or break a movie’s box office appeal! To come up with one image, one visual message for a 2 hour production is a daunting task for any artist. Lisa notes the one sheet is used to provide a burst of information for one purpose — to sell tickets. The artist must answer the questions of why someone would want to see this movie and the demographics/psychographics of the target audience. There should be a central theme and focus. The artwork should have a personality. It should be provocative and original, and yet the buying public should be able to identify with the concept.
For example, the one-sheet for Jaws is a classic. It is still imprinted in everyone’s mind.
It is constructed with 3 simple elements starting from the top:
The large, bold title of the movie JAWS
An ocean waterline with a tiny female swimming horizontal across the poster
Underneath and undetected, a shark of monstrous and unrealistic proportions heads vertically up toward the oblivious swimmer.
From this one image, we know the essence of the movie. It’s scary!!
And that is the mark of a successful concept: a few elements that have an impact and lasting impression.
How much do movie artists earn? Pay scales vary like anything else, especially between union and non-union. An art director/creative director can make $125.00 per hour. It depends on a lot of factors. On big productions there is no limit on salary. Experience and previous success determine pay scale. A US News & World report quoted the average salary ranges between $85,000 – $180,000 per year.
The highest concentration of jobs is in New York, Missouri, California, and Oregon.
The highest pay is in New York, California, and Massachusetts in that order.
Now that we know a little more about movie artists, what does it take to become one?
Get an art education at either an accredited film school or university. Not only learn the latest computer skills, but start with basic art and illustration training. Learn depth of field, how to convey you message to get the most impact. Take architectural and construction classes, fashion design, advertising and graphic/design and film. Take business classes because you will be in a managerial role too.
Most art directors will have at least a Bachelor of Arts degree and at least three to five years of work as graphic designers, industrial designers, illustrators, copy editors, set designers or photographers before becoming art directors. It is essential to develop a portfolio — a collection of an artist’s work that demonstrates his or her styles and abilities. Managers, clients, directors, producers, and others always look at an artist’s portfolio when deciding whether to hire the person or contract for his or her work.