March 8, 2015

What are the challenges facing a young designer in the industry today?

The entertainment industry can be a daunting world to an emerging artist. Often learning on the go, with no manual and in the face of an ever-changing playing field, the young designer is constantly challenged. We asked four industry members to discuss what they considered the biggest challenges facing a young designer today.
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Brandon Tonner-Connolly

Brandon Tonner-Connolly is the production designer of two 2015 Sundance Dramatic Competition films - “I Smile Back“ and “Unexpected“ - as well as “Drinking Buddies,“ “About Sunny,“ and “Sticky Notes.“

The fear of doing something the wrong way and what it will expose.


The challenge is that, on the one hand, you can’t be held back by the possibility of making a mistake, because then you’re always living in the land of the possible, and nobody does great things there.


But, when you get to a certain level of production, there is indisputably a “Right Way” to go about any process, even something as personal as designing.


You have to learn how to combine the individual ideas and techniques that you have accumulated coming up in the indie world with the accepted practices of the tradition of film making (because they‘ve been accepted for a reason). The trick is knowing when and how hard to push those practical boundaries to get what you want creatively.

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Beverly Miller

Beverly Miller is the president of United Scenic Artists, Local USA 829 - a labor union and professional association of Designers, Artists and Craftspeople. She is a Business Rep for film and TV, as well as a scenic artist.

The industry is more ruled by the bottom line than ever before. The time and amount of work necessary for the young designer to put into a project is frequently not in keeping with the compensation received by the designer - the challenge is to get paid for the level of the job you are doing and keep the budget in mind.  


A LOW BUDGET job means that your time, the materials, and crew have to be kept to that budget. No one, including the designer, should be working for free. You have to negotiate for staffing and adequate time and materials to produce the job that you are hoping to get. If you can keep this in mind,  you are off to a good start. 


The technological advances have to be kept up with: many jobs come in and expect people to be versed in a new software that is the flavor of the month. Keeping up your skills and/or finding someone who knows these programs is a task. Try convincing production that hiring a person to deal with the digital assets, produce illustrations, 3D graphics etc. is something that can help your department.


The disconnect between the expectations and the reality can be overwhelming. One thing we are good at is performing miracles, and when we do, production just wants a bigger miracle next time. I would suggest that the costs and time associated with the demands are honestly assessed and explained to production. An open conversation and clear communication is key to building trust and collaboration.

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Mira Yong

Mira Yong is the co-head of NY Literary at the Gersh Agency, specializing in the Production and Literary departments.

Talent, intelligence, personality – these three intangibles haven’t changed in regards to really being able to succeed in this business.


I see a lot of young designers that have so much anxiety about what to do and what not to do that they are standing still. Being a designer is an active pursuit. You have to actually design to be able to call yourself and have others call you a designer.


As a young designer, it’s really important to take chances on material. It’s obvious that the films that you work on in the beginning will have no money – so it’s been really interesting to see how big of a part intelligence and personality have on how a young designer succeeds in accomplishing the huge feat of designing a movie with a will and a dream. Can you convince others to lend major elements or buy at much reduced rates or find things off the street? Can you convince people to help you no matter what you throw at them? Can you take care of your team so that they will come back and work with you again and again?


Then you are a designer. Take pride in that and keep your inspiration stoked for the next gig in what will be a long and beautiful career.

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Thomas Walsh

Thomas Walsh is an award-winning production designer who is currently designing the series Longmire. 

He served as President of the Art Directors Guild from 2003 to 2013 and is a founding co-chair of the its Research Library, Designer Apprenticeship program, and highly regarded Film Society.

I would like to share with you a short essay, a hypothetical job want ad really, which I created a while back to try and encapsulate much of the knowledge, experiences and abilities that one who is desirous of being a Production Designer for media design might attain over time. As silly as it reads it serves to remind us of the unique work that we pursue and the bits of knowledge that we acquire along the way in the practicing of our unique profession.


“Wanted, an individual with a Type-A personality and the centered calm of a devote Buddhist. They must be capable of channeling the life experiences, talents and knowledge of an artist, painter, color consultant, writer, forensic researcher, historian, military strategist, digital artist, photographer, sculptor, dramaturge, thespian, humorist, architect, urban-planner, engineer, general contractor, interior designer, draper, furniture mover-fabricator-restorer, blacksmith, armorer, quartermaster, master of business administration, accountant, producer, director, cinematographer, logistics manager, naval 

architect, teamster, navigator, physicist, anthropologist, archaeologist, biologist, 

herpetologist, meteorologist, psychologist, sociologist, theologist, zoologist, alchemist, botanist, forester, shaman, wizard (black & white magic), mind reader, master of the Ouija board, raconteur, snake oil salesmen, fisherman, gourmet, baker, bartender, disc jockey, party planner, camp counselor, long-distance-runner and sprinter, diplomat, train conductor, air-traffic controller, choreographer, hotel concierge, code breaker, soldier-sailor-tinker-spy, world builder and most importantly… Survivor!"

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