I fell into the Film Industry through a Theatre call. I was recruited into the Paint Dept. I quickly noticed the draftings and immediately identified with the area I wished to specialize in. I of course secretly allowed myself a 5 minute fantasy about being the Designer, but my rational thinking kept me focused on making a living.
I enrolled in a part time drafting course, which I excelled in. I decided perhaps I had potential, maybe I should go the distance, so I enrolled in a Drafting Diploma program that certified draftspeople for the architectural and engineering industry. I learned to draft houses, roads, rail, bridges... the whole gamut. I excelled and felt confident i had a healthy career ahead of me.
The first time my schooling killed my career was an offer to work on the X-Files. It was 6 weeks before my graduation. I decided that i ought to finish my program and get my ticket.
Lesson #1: X-Files credit is valuable in film. Drafting diploma is not.
The next time my schooling killed my career was not immediately recognized. I couldn't get a drafting job! When I did get a chance to draft as an assistant, I was made to draw it badly. Constantly told to erase and redraw. I was being harassed over my drawings. I diddn't get it until a few years in, when I started noticing how all the drawings I was printing for everyone were so incorrect, drafting speak. Why wouldn't they let me draft? Clearly I had the trade cased, I was fast, wont anyone give me a break? I diddn't realise this when I went to scool, but I diddn't need to. I was one of the very few (2?) in our industry that was a ticketed draftsperson. Everyone was self taught. I was 'too good' visually, and 'too fast'. I was a threat.
4 years into my career, I finally had the chance to save the day. It was on a show with one of the best Art Directors in town. He was sold! Next show he had I was the new star Set Designer, overnight. That was great, but here I was, gone from zero to being raved about as one of the best Set Designers in town. There was alot of animosity resulting in my sudden fame. I felt it.
It reared its ugly head in the form of repression. The Art Department in my town was governed by its own members (not a good idea). They had the power to say if you can have a category or not. I was denied my Set Designer category for almost 10 years by my peers. I would only get a Set Designer gig from my loyal Art Director, who only worked once a year. I wasn't on the list.
Lesson #2: Don't outshine the competition when you're just a pup.
I finally started to get accepted after 5 years , and was starting to get new Art Directors offer me work. I started having trouble physically though. The on-off set designing over the years had given me repetitive stress injuries in my arms. I decided to be a better Set Designer, so that I could get steadier work to prevent more injury (I still haddn't understood my overeducation problem). I took a VFX course, because I noticed a void in communication and understanding between the two departments. That was great, I thought. Now I can save the day more often. I can be the linchpin Set Designer!
It fell really flat. No one wanted to hear my know-it-all pitches. It was icing on my know-it-all, too fancy, over anal drafting. Not only that, but i made enemies by speaking out, being shot down and ending up being right ater costly rebuilds. (Why my best references come from the Construction Dept)
Lesson #3: Be sneaky about your knowledge. Suggesting issues pops questions. Stating issues pops challenges.
Filmmakers today coming out of school know all about VFX. However, it is still a relatively misunderstood process in the Art Department. I was just an unfortunate Gen-X, caught in the tide of the old and new.
The lesson? Its not about how good you are, its how you play the game. I was too keen to be too good. I thought I wasn't good enough, when I was plenty good enough all along.
My Set Designer career is over. My injuries are permanent. It was over before I finally got my category. It was over at 36. It is not all going to waste, though.
Ironically all I can do now is be the Production Designer. If you don't follow your dreams, life may do it for you, but not the way you wanted it.