January 20th, 2019

How did your higher education prepare you for the world of film and tv design?

The path to production design can be a winding one, and designers' backgrounds are varied and diverse. Our colleagues write about their higher education experience and its relationship to the production design profession. 
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Jeannine Oppewall

Jeannine Oppewall has garnered four Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction in her career of over thirty

years, for “L.A. Confidential,“ “Pleasantville,“ “Seabiscuit“ and “The Good Shepherd.“ Other film credits include “The Bridges of Madison County,“ “Primal Fear,“ “Catch Me If You Can“, "Snow Falling on Cedars" and “Wonder Boys.“ 

I never had a traditional design education. 


Charles Eames pointed that out to me when I appeared in his office looking for a job, an east coast girl lost in Los Angeles. But he also said, “I can teach you how to draw. What I cannot teach you is how to think and how to see.  If you can think and you can see – you can have a job here.” 


Of course, at the time I had no idea what he was really talking about.  It took me about 8 years to figure that out.  To understand that looking and seeing are two different things. Looking can get you across a busy intersection, but it will never be enough if you need to understand what should be done to improve that intersection.  For that, you will need to be able to see.  Learning to look is only the beginning of seeing.   


In a sense, I am an accidental designer. never set out to be a designer. I was intent on being the family intellectual. I had an incurable addiction to fiction. I read every night after lights out under the covers with a flashlight. I wanted to study literature, philosophy, the natural sciences and art history. What interested me most was cultural history.  


But genes will out. My father was an industrial designer. He came home every night and studied the Boston Gear Catalogue while sitting on the sofa. My mother designed and made one of a kind doll costumes for local girls. One of my brothers went to Rhode Island School of Design, and the other ended up designing machinery to build airplane parts for Boeing Aircraft. Somehow I ended up in the family business - sort of - designing stories to be “told on film,” as we used to say. It seemed to come easy for me. I found I had a feeling for character and environment.  


In retrospect, what I realize is that what I really learned in school was how to learn. How to think and how to see, you could say.  The fact is, you never really know anything until you have learned how to learn. 

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Jim Bissell

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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Cynthia Charette

Cynthia Charette is a Production Designer working in Film and television. She is from Nashville, Tennessee and has been a native of Los Angeles, CA for thirty years. Her work includes the films "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" and "Scary Movie 2" and the TC shows "Jane The Virgin" and "I Feel Bad". 

I graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor’s degree in Theater Design and Art. My time at Syracuse and a semester abroad in London, England interning with the RSC and RADA, was not only a dream come true but truly taught me how to see, interpret design and energize me for the real world!

The conversation has arisen many times among colleagues as to what’s the best path to take for becoming a Production Designer? By way of Architecture or Theater? I can say after years in the business I’m glad I chose the way of Theater.

The difference is we studied plays written since the beginning of time. We had to read at least 10 plays a week for the entire four years I was in college. We learned how to design for the story, how to interpret the story into our own metaphor and/or symbolism. Understanding the characters and story was the most important aspect to express your design. Watching directors block a scene and how we helped them to tell a story was how you learned to design.

Our course work was intense study in architecture history, art history and learning how to draw, draft and build models. Additionally, we had to fabricate the props, be the set decorator, learn how to paint scenery, mix colors, build sets, sew a corset, design costumes and even hang lights and learn how to design for lighting and sound. A fully rounded education that transfers fluently into Film and TV design.


When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had designed only one low budget film but was thirsty to learn as much about film as possible. As the story goes with theater, see as much theater as you can…the same holds true with film. See everything. Study the masters. Watch everything since film began. One of my favorite directors that really taught me how to see was Kurosawa. I’ll never forget Ran and the beauty of that film. I watched all 26 films of Kurosawa’s at a film festival in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles in 1986. His way of storytelling and blocking the characters in relationship to the sets as if they were paintings was truly magic to me.

 The education continues and never ends, which is why we love it.

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Cabot McMullen

Cabot McMullen is an LA-based production designer of stage, television and film. He has been nominated for three EMMY nominations and three Art Director’s Guild awards. Among his projects are the TV shows "The United States of Tara", "Smash" and the film "The Hebrew Hammer" and "Red State". In his spare time he makes music, creates graphic novels and renovates midcentury houses with his lovely and talented wife Lisa.

With the benefit of hindsight I would say my higher education was a bit of a speed bump on the road to becoming a production designer. I can also say it had value...I gained an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, architecture, and civilizations as I learned the tools, processes and endurance needed to do the work and how to build things. Most of all - how to collaborate successfully with like minded people with mutual interests. A BFA (University of New Mexico) was my first step in a long run and my ticket to where I would jump start my career - NYC.

My fascination with film began early with monster movies, the classic and evocative B&W Universal Pictures produced by old world European auteurs. At 10 years old I taught myself professional stage makeup techniques so I could create convincing versions of Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein, Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolfman and Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Needless to say my 6th grade friends were all willing subjects as we made Super 8 movies to document our creations. Later, my High School theater company invited me to join them with my greasepaint skills. I was then asked to do something I knew nothing about - designing, building and painting the sets. This was where I first learned about playwrights and how their fleeting ideas on the page could be turned into physical shapes and form. Our college guidance counselor had zero awareness of set design as a profession so my college applications were targeted towards a career in architecture. Ironically three time Oscar winning Cinematographer Robert Richardson was also my classmate there and despite wearing a Nikon around his neck for four years no faculty member thought to direct him towards a career in photography.


Sometimes luck shows us an on-ramp to the path always intended despite roadblocks. After my BFA program I did graduate studies (M-I Arch) with Dutch Architect Hans Krieks in his NYC Masterclass. My first design job after graduation was with NY architect Vladimir Kagan. Everything was going as planned but still felt like I was in the wrong place. After making friends with actors studying with Lee Strasberg - a side door to a familiar place opened and I found myself back on the stage. One thing led to another and after five years assisting some of the great Broadway set designers of the day during a time of great innovation I was on my way.

My higher education gave me the foundation needed to stand up and see a way forward. However the skillset and vocabulary I needed to actually practice in the world of stage and film production was gained quite by accident and outside of a classroom. I worked double time to catch up and learned the ropes in out the field. I paid dues observing and assisting my mentors and peers and can honestly say the school of hard knocks was more valuable to my growth and career than any formal schooling.

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John Iacovelli

John Iacovelli received the Emmy Award for his design for "Peter Pan" Starring Cathy Rigby on A&E. He was the Art Director on "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!" and Production Designer on "Ruby In Paradise", Ashley Judd’s first film. He designed the landmark Sci-Fi series "Babylon 5" and continues to work in Theatre and Film design. He is on the Council of The Art Director’s Guild and is co-director of The ADG Film Society at the American Cinematheque

For my Undergraduate work I went to study theatre at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. I grew up in Reno and I earned a full ride scholarship in Scenic Design at UNLV. I was mad about the theatre and seemed to spend every waking moment working on plays in theatre troupes. I remember my stagecraft class there, taught by Ed Swift, it was as if a door to a magical realm had opened. As a Theatre Arts major, one had to do everything: from Acting to stage management, but I also got to design many shows there. One of the Grad students was Glenn Casale (who I would later go on working with professionally: he directed the Broadway production I designed of Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby.)


I knew if I took a year off between Undergrad and grad school, that I would never go back. So, I applied to  Yale and NYU, I wasn’t interested in going anywhere else. The great theatre design teacher Ming Cho Lee asked me to wait a year and reapply to Yale, but Lloyd Burlingame took me right into NYU. That NYU, pre-Tisch, was a scrappy school in a former pipe warehouse in the East Village. We usually had to walk though blood-soaked sidewalks from the butcher shop on our way to class. The blood wasn’t always just on the sidewalks as the ethos of the school was more “Paper Chase” Than “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” It was tough and we were in a kind of boot camp for designers. We had great teachers and I owe almost everything since then in my career to those days there. We were the first students to have classes from John Conklin, the great Opera Designer. Also, at the same time we had class with the great Oliver Smith, the Broadway and Hollywood legend. What made my time there so valuable was that these two giant designers looked at the world of design, even teaching and mentoring completely differently.


The other big advantage to me was my peers. Kalina Ivanov, Howard Cummings and Jeffry Beecroft a year or so ahead and our class, the amazing George Tsypin, Anna Luizos, Dan Bishop, Jefferson Sage and Tony Kushner, among others. I had never been interested in Film and Television design as I had been taught that “theatre was the true and only path.” Yet Lloyd and the faculty embraced Production Design: not always easily, but we did have a great Art Direction class with the Production Designer Stephen Hendrickson and I had a class in the film program on the History of Film Production Design. I also took advantage of the great NYU film program and worked with their directors and was a sound stage manager for my work study. NYU Tisch was one of the earliest adopters of training for Production Design, I was very lucky.

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