Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Most Valuable Lesson from Drafting School

Learning how to be a top notch draftsperson wasn't the catalyst for my successful set design career. When I enrolled in drafting school, I was one of the very few students that wasn't a recent architecture or engineering graduate. My class was filled with budding degree professionals. Why?

In the real world, a draftsperson drafts up huge projects. From the tiniest nuts and bolts to the largest spanned beams. It is the job of the engineer and architect to design the construction, however, it is the job of the draftsperson to look up every detail, and draft accordingly. From the thread of the bolt to the thickness of the I-beam. None of the graduated architecture or engineering students were qualified to take a drafting job, without a ticket.

One of the best lessons I learned was how to research. We had to research everything. Everything has a standard. I found that my research skills payed off immensely. Set design involves extensive research. In film, there are no specialties. One day you need to draft up a house, the next day a spaceship.

It's ok if you don't know how a spaceship is built, or how a sewer works. But you can find anything out. Do it before you draw it. That way, when the tough questions or criticisms arise, you have research to back your work.

Of course, this doesn't protect you from following incorrect research.... It happened to me. There's a bank teller detail in the Time Savers standards, that is at an incorrect height. I fell for it. Perhaps if I had just checked another source for reference, I would have caught it in time!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Last Minute Designer

They drive me crazy. There's too many factors that make last minute design ideas a supreme headache. There should be a law against last minute design ideas. At least a law for a mandatory huddle to discuss it in detail. I pity the poor soul working for a last minute designer in film.

I love it when it's a last minute large format print! Or a last minute hero book cover. Let's get an ice cream truck! Forget clearances it shoots in an hour! It'll be awesome!!! (that was written in sarcasm font, in case you missed it.)

Inevitably the last minute design idea gets done in a hurry and looks like shit.

I eventually learned to stop running for them. The faster you run, the more last minute design ideas they have.

Wanna piss off your assistant? Call them when they're on the road and tell them they need to come back to the office to design a 24'-0" banner that shoots tomorrow :-)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Never Use 3/4" Scale. Period.

I did it once. My drawing was ripped up in front of me. Yes. I was green. Luckily I remembered the advice I was given: Never take anything personally. The Art Director was making a point, and I got it. Never ever draw sets at 3/4" scale. He taught me a valuable lesson. Here's why.

Firstly, we pull off an incredible feat by putting up these sets in record time. The speed at which our crews pull it all together are what make the mission possible. The trouble with 3/4" scale is it leaves way too much room for error. It's a trap. Too often it will get mistaken for 1/2" or 1" scale, often it get's mixed up with 3/8" scale: another no-no.

Secondly, we always want to blow the images up on the photocopier. 50% = easy and fast. So is 200%. Both 3/4 & 3/8 give difficult scales to then work from.

Thirdly, we're always adding things in our heads. Working with 3/4" and 3/8" scale makes it harder. Too hard for most. In our heads we can easily double or half things.

As a rule, I was taught to stick with scales you can double or half easily.  1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, 1,  and full size scale only. 3 is ok for details, but avoid 1-1/2.

Of course, this doesn't apply to metric. Who uses metric in film? I'm curious.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Walk About. What It's All About.

The department heads regularly do a walkabout around the progressing set construction. They are looking for flaws and potential problems. If you haven't been a set designer yet, and you want to, you will soon find out that your drawings will often be modified, for various reasons, as the sets get built. Sometimes it happens verbally during the walkabout, as they realise technical issues. Sometimes the set builders cut corners for time and budget.

As a set designer, I often found myself missing out on the group cruise. Often the revisions happened without my knowledge. I soon found it was imperative I cruised, too. Only if I cruised the set would I spot all the discrepancies and revisions. I knew every detail intimately. Things the critical eyes of the heads on a walkabout would miss. Things they weren't looking for. Technical set detail things. Small things. Some things didn't matter. Some things did.

So they chose a different moulding because the one I picked was out of stock. No one would likely notice or say anything. Things like that don't matter.

But the time they made the 'as-stone.' steps with a straight riser and a 1" nosing because it was cheaper and quicker than bullnosing canted risers, did matter.

Often, the designer or art director will miss those small modifications.  Things like that may seem petty, but it is embarassing for a designer to later have someone come up to them and point out that their stone steps looked like wood steps painted like stone.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

'Should I Go To Film School Or Design School?'

That is by far the most popular question I get asked by promising new Art Department candidates. I think it depends on each individual person and their situation. I don't have an answer. However, I can tell you I wish I had gone to Film School.

Film School for filmmakers is like Art School for artists. You get to explore the multi disciplines and mediums that fall under the profession. You don't need to have a degree to be a successful filmmaker, or artist. But a solid  background is key. You need some basic design and filmmaking experience and/or education. Next best thing to Film School is volunteering on indies. You get to do it all.

Because I fell into the factory production end of filmmaking, and arrived with a narrow view, I learned fairly late in my career that I was also equally, if not more passionate about working in other departments. I wish I had discovered my other passions earlier. Not only that, I think that by working in other departments, it made me a better designer, as I understood the creative process from different perspectives.

Subjects that really helped my Art Department career were Drafting, Graphic Design, Illustration, Architecture, Interior Design, Art History, VFX and Math.  I use those disciplines all the time, and I think most of my associates do too. The more disciplines you can master, the more indispensable you will be.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

".....With Double Hung Windows."

I don't think I was ever asked to draft a 'single hung' window in my entire career. Yet, all anyone ever wanted was a single hung window. But I knew that.

Mullions is another one that gets misused. So many times I was asked to put mullions in the window.

How quickly the traditional architectural terms get misused and lost over time. After a while, everyone knows what you're talking about, even though you're refering to something different.

Are we already calling webisodes and online films TV?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What's A Bit?

Oh, yeah, I was that newbie that ruined the shot once. I was lucky, and given a second chance. I went on to have a great career. But I still ruined the shot. It'll haunt me forever. And since then, I've seen a handfull of newbies walk into trouble, in other, similar ways. Some made it through, some didn't.

We were installing a SPFX wall on a location. It was a cinderblock wall. We used a wood core and applied foam brick skins to it. In the center, an explosion was designed to blast through the wall. In this area, we used full size foam bricks; there was an opening in the wood frame to accomodate it.

As we were laying in the bricks, we were adding talcum powder inside, bettween the cracks, inside the wall so that when the explosion was triggered, there would be the effect of concrete dust coming out from the explosion. "Just put a bit in each crack", the head painter handed me the talc. I had never done this before.

I poured "a bit" in each crack as my partner installed the bricks. We added the mortar to the outer edges, and sealed up the wall. We painted it, it looked fantastic.

But the following day shit hit the fan. The shot was ruined. There was way too much talc in the cracks, and the explosion just looked like a big white cloud puff.

Why did this happen? Because I didn't ask, "What's a bit?"