This year’s job offers

Most years I work from the Spring until late Autumn, then paint during the winter. This year I did some big oil paintings – flowers mostly -  and some water-colours of London views that were used to produce greetings cards. Somewhere around March every year I phone my contacts in the movie business and catch up with the latest rumours about films that might be made this year. Former colleagues are usually either hoping that I can tell them something or make cryptic comments about top-secret projects that they don’t want to discuss right now…

I carry on with my painting. I’ve never had a job on a film or television production that resulted from seeing a job advert or filling out an application form, it doesn’t work like that. There is nothing I can do to find work except let it be known that I am available – and rely on this news being passed around amongst the tiny group of people who might employ me. Most of the enquiries I receive follow a recommendation from someone I’ve worked with in the past, but occasionally one of my former colleagues will phone to see if I’m interested in something they can’t do themselves. Another Art Director calls to say he’s heard about a job in Azerbaijan and wonders if I might be interested. He gives me a contact number for the Production Designer and I say I’ll think about it, but I’m not keen as it’s low budget -  meaning that locations will be used rather than built sets and that I will probably be offered less than my usual rate. I consult a map to find out where Azerbaijan is…. wedged between Russia and Iran, not far from Syria. Maybe not…

The first serious possibility of the year is something I’ve been recommended for by a Supervising Art Director that I know. It’s a film that has been developed from a computer game that was itself developed from a comic strip.  I’m not sure that I want to do a fourth fantasy film in a row but agree to meet the Production Designer in London. We seem to get on, and he has only one other person to see, he’ll let me know next week.  Two weeks later he sends me a text saying he’s been booted off the project. Someone else has been appointed to replace him and he’s passed on my details…

About ten years ago I demoted myself from Production Designer (television) to Art Director (film). This apparently perverse move resulted, strangely, in my being paid more – but my main reason for doing it was that I no longer have to worry about vehicles or animals or props or graphics or special effects and – since I am no longer a Head of Department – I don’t have to do the budget, recruit staff or write risk assessments – so I can concentrate on what I really want to do, which is to produce beautiful drawings of beautiful sets and get them built. I still get calls from ITV drama producers and in April one of them asks if I’d like to be the Production Designer on the second series of a six-part television drama to be filmed in Cheshire. I don’t need to think about my answer for too long. Television means that there won’t be much set building and second series means that anything significant will already have been designed by whoever did the first series. It also, usually,  means that the scripts will be late and that the crew will have to work a lot of unpaid overtime.

At the end of last year I was contacted by a Producer who asked whether I’d like to be considered as Supervising Art Director for a very big film that is to be made in the UK. The Production Designer hadn’t yet been appointed but I agreed to be considered. I have the experience to do the job but it’s a managerial role and I know I’d need to spend  a lot of time organising schedules and budgets rather than designing or working with the construction crew. I hear from a friend that the Production Designer has now been appointed and it’s someone I’ve worked with before – so I’m half expecting to be offered something…

Meanwhile, someone I’ve never heard of wants to know if I’m interested in designing a mini-series set during World War II. I listen to him enthusing about the groundbreaking concept, the amazing scripts and the names of top actors who are lined up for leading roles. It’s television… low budget… filmed on location… I tell him I’m not interested.  Another old friend calls and asks whether I’d consider supervising a big set build in one of the London film studios for a few weeks, but he’s only got enough money to pay an Assistant Art Director. That’s one demotion too far so I turn him down.

The Supervising Art Director role on the film I was waiting for has been filled but that’s fine by me,  I was never sure that I wanted the job. I send the new incumbent my CV, confident that I have a good chance of getting onto it as an ordinary Art Director as I had a good rapport with the Production Designer last time we worked together. Nothing happens for several weeks, then I’m summoned for an interview. The Supervising Art Director tells me that the Production Designer has asked for me to be part of the crew and I’m not sure he’s too pleased about this – but I still leave the interview expecting to get a start date within a couple of weeks.

Another Production Designer that I know quite well offers me a job on a low-budget feature, but there is no point in thinking about it because the offer is subject to him being appointed himself, he’s just checking crew availability before he goes for the interview and two days later I hear that he didn’t get the job.  I get another phone call from another person I don’t know, who is designing another low budget feature and we meet in London to talk. I think I’m rather over-qualified for the job and am not surprised when it’s offered to someone else. Another friend calls about another low budget film. I’m expecting to get a call any day now to work with the top Production Designer who has asked for me, so I turn that one down without even enquiring what it’s about.

Several weeks go by without any news of the film that I’ve pinned my hopes on, but I hear on the grapevine that there has been a change of Director, resulting in creative turmoil. A couple of weeks later I’m surprised, and then annoyed, to be contacted by the Set Decoration department of the same film, asking if I want to be considered for a role as Art Director in the Set Decoration department. No, I don’t. I’ve never worked as a set decorator on a film and don’t intend to start now. I go back to the guy who interviewed me several weeks ago and he gives me a string of reasons why he can’t offer me anything at the moment. He’ll says he’ll let me know – but I suspect I’m a long way down his reserve list.

The next production to contact me needs some special drawings – not to build from, but as props for a film that is set in the 1960’s. Up to the last fifteen years, film set designers did most of their drawings in pencil on tracing paper but the rapid development of 3D design software means that most of us now use computers. My contact needs authentic-looking drawings that will appear on screen, in pencil, on tracing paper. As an added complication, I have to use the handwriting style of the well-known British actor who will be appearing in the lead role, because he’s going to be seen writing on them.  I accept without a moment’s hesitation – this is a peach of a job and I can even do it at home! It’s a shame it only lasts for a couple of weeks.

By now it’s the middle of June and I’m asked to take over a film shoot for a commercial, starting in three days time. I seriously consider accepting this one because it’s only for a week – although my contact hints at an unspecified role on a low-budget feature to follow on… later… He tells me that the set for the commercial is already designed and there isn’t much to do except stand by the camera and sort out any problems that occur during filming, although he mentions in passing that I will have to supervise attaching wings to sheep… he’ll get back to me about rates and dates and accommodation… Before he gets round to it there is another phone call, about a major feature that is just starting up.  Can I go for an interview on Tuesday next week? I can. Someone else will have to dress the sheep!

I have a great interview with two people who love drawing as much as I do. Our conversation has a buzz and immediacy about it that tells me straight away that this one is serious. It’s a big budget film with lots of sets to build and it will be filmed in warm places in Europe during the summer. There are no arguments about how much I will be paid and they want me to start immediately. Before I leave the office I get a non-disclosure agreement to sign, outlining the legal stuff that will be in my contract. As a result of this, I can’t tell you what I’m going to be doing, or where, or who with, or who the principal actors are, or what it’s about, or even the title of the film. Nothing I design or draw during the next five months will leave the custody of the production company and the intellectual property rights to my work will be owned by them in perpetuity, in media now known or yet to be invented, throughout the known universe. A few days later I’m standing outside my flat in Cambridge at 5am in the morning waiting for a chauffeur-driven Mercedes that the production has sent to take me to Gatwick. This year’s work has begun!