Jim Bissell is still going strong despite having been honored with the ADG’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015. Of the almost 40 films he has designed, his favorites are “E.T.”, “The Falcon and the Snowman”, ”Someone to Watch Over Me”, “The Rocketeer”, “Jumanji”, "300”, all five movies made with George Clooney, “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol” and “M:I:-Rogue Nation”.
I was an only child who moved around a lot with parents who fought and drank too much, a fairly typical bio for someone in the arts. I grew up isolated, socially awkward, and took refuge in poetry, drawing and most of all, model building.
Looking back over my life now that I’m older, there almost seems to have been a consistent plan and order. These are age appropriate thoughts according to Schopenhauer. There didn’t seem to be any plan or order when I was living through my late adolescence. I didn’t want to continue with school. In the late 60’s, the world around me was in chaos, and so was I. The University of North Carolina at Chapel was inexpensive -for in state students- and I could maintain financial independence while being around people looking for answers to the same questions I was asking. So I enrolled.
Journalism was my first major. I was interested in everything and could examine the world through a wide variety of topics from different perspectives. I set my course, but despite the good intentions, was nearly derailed by a disastrous combination of drugs, political protests, and uneven academic work. I barely made it back as a sophomore. But I did, and by then I had found inspiration in theater.
Fortunately for me, the Drama department at UNC let me slide over and enter their BFA program. Over the next three years, I acted, built scenery, lit stages, studied great dramatic work, wrote plays, practiced mime, and used access to other departments to help me find what I wanted for my life and my life’s work: context. In dramatic design, I learned that context helps us understand why characters do what they do; how their environment- physical, emotional, and historical - shapes them, and how they shape their environment.
My childhood helped prepare me, to a degree, for a life in dramatic design by acquainting me with financial insecurity, transience, and learning to accommodate instability in interpersonal relationships. Higher education exposed me to the complex processes of ensemble effort used when creating dramatic art; processes I wouldn’t have learned and I doubt would have even known existed were it not for that time in university.
Academia taught me another invaluable lesson: I learned how to learn. In dramatic design, you can never know enough. To create environments that intensify experience rather than resort to mere hyperbole, to make the implausible appear plausible, to help create imagery that resonates profoundly through all of the senses, requires a dogged dedication to veracity. An audience must trust the world they are entering with the characters of the story, and that requires truth in its many forms; emotional truth, cultural truth, and accurate representation of historical or circumstantial fact.
University opened my eyes to the realities of that process, and the vigor with which it must be executed. I’m grateful for that experience.
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