Alan Lampert lives and works in New York, NY, believe it or not.
The first project I designed was roughly 10 or 11 years ago for a feature by the name of Stoner that was made for $20,000 in Austin, Texas during a muggy summer – all of my experience prior had been as a grip or AC on other student projects. Essentially my design process at that time was makeshift, shoddy, and completely improvised, but so were the actors, AD, craft services, locations, DP; even the animals used in the film were borrowed and unprofessional (side note: I lost my neighbors cat during a night shoot, nearly destroying our friendship, only to find the gato the next day in a nearby alley. The cat’s name was “Shitty” and lemme tell you, there are few things worse in this world than losing a friend’s pet. It’s also difficult to get the general public to take your “Lost Cat” signs seriously when you write “Responds to ‘Shitty’” across the top.).
I’ve since relocated to New York (about 7 years ago) and I’m currently designing a television show on a majors contract – a far cry from Stoner, but interestingly the same sense of dread existed / exists for me on both projects in much the same way. It’s certainly on the smaller end of the spectrum in terms of its budget and scope, but let’s be honest, it’s a big step for me, and as usual I find myself slightly out of my element, vaguely behind the curve, and in a constant, quiet state of debilitating anxiety that is probably burrowing a hole in my stomach as I type.
Much of my experience in between these jobs was initially art directing on indie films and smaller TV shows, and ultimately designing similarly sized projects. I’ve never had the opportunity to ‘learn from the best’, and perhaps I never will (I’m stubborn). I could certainly benefit from shadowing other designers and gleaning helpful tactics for conveying one’s ideas clearly, fastidiously, and effectively, but I have yet to find where this internship program exists that still allows you to pay the cost of living in New York (rent, beer and shot specials, the three kittens I inadvertently adopted after finding their dad torn apart by a raccoon in my back yard three days ago).
I’m rambling but the point is that my design process doesn’t vacillate much from project to project, or budget to budget. Certainly the parameters in which I’m forced to work will change, my day to day tasks are altered (e.g. a union shop constructs a set for me versus I’m covered in paint, crying at 3am in a warehouse in Sunset Park, nearly dismembering my hand with a chop saw from sleep deprivation as I wonder why I didn’t just become a damn veterinarian and who are these producers anyway!?), but I approach the script, the story, the characters, and the sets with a similar mindset. I’m almost certainly going to be designing in the indie film world for years to come, but a low budget doesn’t change the emotion of a scene, or the motivations of a character (which ultimately is reflected by their environment).
I would say perhaps one becomes more reliant (with a lower budget) on the locations department and should work closely with them to find spaces that arrive interesting, dynamic, and give one a good base with which to work, but that remains true on a larger scale as well (though perhaps you would construct it on a stage when more money is available).
Look, I don’t really know what I’m talking about – my experience is so limited - but I can say with certainty that TIME is affected with a smaller budget. With less money comes less resources (crew and otherwise), and with less crew comes more physical labor for me, and more physical labor means less time designing and more time injuring my back and developing a furrowed brow. In these situations I attempt to, pay or no pay, start the project as early as possible, often before my regularly scheduled prep period begins. The more research I can collect, and the more days I can spend simply ruminating on what the spaces could and should be without the relentless shooting schedule breathing down my neck, the more at ease I am the night before a shoot bleaching fabric in my bathroom without proper ventilation, building a hospital set in my basement so the production company can achieve the NY tax credit, or making the director’s brother’s shoe store into an ice skating rink because shooting at an actual ice skating rink is cost-prohibitive (and it’s summer!).
Ask me this question ten years from now (if I make it that far) and I’ll probably look back and say “I WAS EXACTLY RIGHT – Alan, how were you so clairvoyant?” but more likely I will laugh at what I once thought “designing” meant. It’s an ever-evolving process that is fraught, stilted, and often involves lying through your teeth, pretending that you’re someone that you are not until you are. How do any of us get better? Probably in much the same way.
P.S - Don’t forget to call your mothers – I believe this is being published on Mother’s Day. You wouldn’t be reading this without her, though I’m not so sure you’re going to read this anyway. Regardless, give mama a call.
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