Assembling the right team is an essential part of the design process, and crucial to achieving design goals. Our contributors discuss their method of hiring and putting together the best crew possible.
"For me, the interview is about seeing how we connect and how that person presents their work."
"Because film is at its heart a true collaborative process, it is paramount that there is compatibility, professionally, and a personal meeting is essential."
"In different doses and measures, my hiring process is driven by availability, references, and, finally, my own intuition."
"I find myself all too often having to turn total strangers, irregulars and rugged individualists into a well oiled, trusted and prized human resource art machine."
July 8th, 2017
How do you go about assembling your team and what do you look for when interviewing them?
Anastasia Masaro is an Italian Canadian production designer based in Toronto. Her film credits include “Mama”, “Life” and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” for which she was nominated for an Academy Award. Her most recent project is the soon to be released “Tully”, directed by Jason Reitman. She has worked in Canada, USA, and Europe.
How I assemble my team depends on the particular job and the location of that job.
I always have at least one art director, set designer, graphic designer and apprentice/pa. Every job requires one of each, at the minimum. I leave it to my art director to decide if they want a coordinator and, together we lay out how many weeks of set and graphic design we’ll need for the duration of the show. Once we figure out how many people a particular show will need, my art director approaches production with the department requirements.
Regarding the physical hiring aspect, the easiest crewing situation for me is if I’m working at home in Toronto – I have a stable of people I turn to, some that have been part of my team for over 15 years. I always read the weekly union production summaries and familiarize myself with names, taking note if I see any I haven’t heard before and what positions they’re holding. In between jobs, I meet up with other art department members and colleagues to get to know new faces and catch up with old ones.
I have worked in multiple cities and hiring in any of them is easier the second time around, being able to call upon previous coworkers and friends. If I’m working somewhere I haven’t yet, I call up colleagues and friends who have worked there for referrals. The internet has also made it very easy to assemble teams – I’ll check what movies filmed in a particular city in the past and look up the names of crew who worked on projects that have a look I like.
In every position, what I look for most is attention to detail and artistry. I want all of my crew to love art, to love film, to be inspired on a regular basis. If they create on their own time, that’s a definite plus for me. I want to be surrounded by creative people who have ideas and who are inspired. I keep a file of people whose work I like, whether I’ve seen it on the screen or because they’ve contacted me to make a new connection.
I never rely solely on a person’s resume. If I recognize a production designer on someone’s resume, I always call them and ask for a reference. I want to know how someone works, at what speed, what their work ethic is like, their style… Most of the time, I’ve decided who I want to hire before they show up for the interview. For me, the interview is about seeing how we connect and how that person presents their work.
Jefferson Sage is known for his work on such feature films as "Bridesmaids", "Knocked Up", "Paul", "Spy" and the recent "Ghostbusters", among others. He is writing from Toronto, where he is in prep on a new feature project for director and long-time collaborator Paul Feig.
For me, selecting the "perfect" team these days is an exercise between the practical and the intuitive, and it never seems to come together the same way. In different doses and measures, my hiring process is driven by availability, references, and, finally, my own intuition.
My first concern is with the Decorator and Art Director positions (who I consider my right-hand team); I then move down the list to other key positions, including the Construction Coordinator, Charge Painter, Plasterer, Graphics, Set Designers and Art Department, etc. While the Prop Master is another key position to fill, I like to share that hiring choice with the Director and Producers. On projects that demand it, an F/X Coordinator or V/FX coordinator can be another key position to fill.
I start by pondering ideas for talent that can spring from a good past experience, a handsome looking film I’ve seen recently, suggestions by colleagues, people I have considered in the past, and people that have indicated an interest in working with me.
This is obvious: you can’t hire someone who is unavailable, no matter how perfect they would be; this is the first and quickest delineator of your list. As an aside, I am careful to reach out to talent in the area I will be working in, and include artists I may not yet know, but who will be especially familiar with local assets, problems and peculiarities.
It is imperative to check in with designers (and others) that have worked with the candidate you are considering. They have been in the trenches with that person, and their view into the specific talents, quirks, mannerisms, etc. quickly inform you as to the best (and worst) of their skills and personality. This information is equal to all the other considerations combined! It is a colossal mistake to not check in with at least one person familiar with your candidate; time allowing, I like to speak to 3 different people that have experience with any candidate!
By this I mean that list of intangibles and gut instinct that can define the choice of one candidate over another after an interview of some kind. To get more specific in this regard, I have an informal list of questions I try to answer when I get serious about a candidate. Here are some of them (in no particular order) that form the gist of an interview:
- Do they like the script, and have they thought about it? Do they volunteer ideas, and discuss them? Do they listen to mine? Will they participate in the on-going discussions that let us collaborate, or do they just want to do their own thing? Or worse, do they just want to be told what to do.
- What is their level of experience and what have they worked on? Do I like the look of those films? I consider it essential that a candidate carry pictures of their work into an interview; looking at that work together, and discussing specifics, tells me a lot about how they view their job and how they get results.
- How do they like to work? How do they share their ideas? Do they do their own research, and how would they blend it with mine? Do they use it to open conversations, or close them?
- Will their skills and temperament complement my own, and those of the rest of the team?
- Do they bring an experienced crew with them?
- Is there something in their background that would really help you do this job? It can help to hire someone that has done a Western if that is your world; but this is a smaller issue for me. A talented art director, for example, will figure it out.
And, finally, I do look for ways to build a gender-balanced group, and offer positions to as many minority candidates as possible. Besides the “fair practice” aspect of this effort, I think the workplace culture is more representative, more interesting, more productive, and ultimately, more fun for all.
Missy Stewart's early career was spent making independent movies with Gus van Sant. Later she worked for a variety of directors, including Brad Silberling, Chris Weitz, Taylor Hackford and Garry Marshall. She is equally drawn to comedy or drama, but prefers a script with an edge and great characters. And if she sees the story as she reads it, then she knows the design will be integral to the story on screen.
Often enough we are tasked as designers to find crew while simultaneously starting a show. In the beginning of my career, the crew base was more stable as I was working in familiar cities with crew known to me, or at least to a variety of colleagues. Now, my work is often in far-flung locations, with an unfamiliar or rather green crew base. The old studio systems with their tradition of apprenticeship within departments created a stable staffing criteria, now the job experience is more on the fly and craftspeople learn as they go. Hence, the team building can be more of a challenge.
If the schedule allows, I prefer to set up interviews for key positions, like art director, decorator, and often location manager, before I arrive at the filming location. I research resumes, triangulate references, and look at the individual’s work on film. Then we meet face to face, and determine if we can work together. Because film is at its heart a true collaborative process, it is paramount that there is compatibility, professionally, and a personal meeting is essential. And then the rather ineffable question of durability within the interview process, “Will this person be willing to work the long hours, and if new to the film world, do they comprehend the meaning of that? Is there a work ethic evident in their demeanor?” As you know we work long hours and the time spent making decisions and creating something together can be intense. So one searches for the creative spark, the joy in the work, a sense of camaraderie, and the spirit and humor to survive all the distractions. I also require that all crew be familiar with script, it is the outline for the basis of all the design work. And one never knows who will have the next inspiration?
My crew is the basis for all the stability and productivity in the art department, I rely on them, and they in turn, rely on those whom they hire. It’s an issue of trust and respect, and having a good sense of integrity toward the work. That and letting our imaginations run wild with possibility….
We are team in every sense, and as the leader my job is to inspire and guide, and ensure that the script’s full potential is realized on screen.
Tom freely migrates among feature films, Imax, episodic series, documentaries, Broadway dramas, musicals, and regional theatre. He originated the hit ABC series “Desperate Housewives.” Currently he is the designer for Netflix’s, “Longmire” and the first season of Epix’s, “Graves.” On Broadway he designed the world premiers of “Children of a Lesser God” and “Zoot Suit.” More Recently he designed the Off-Broadway productions of “Anapurna” and “Play It Cool.”
Attention: Art Department Dog Soldier candidates, only those with a high tolerance for mental pain without whining will be considered…while precious “snowflakes” need not apply!
“Wanted, an individual with a Type-A personality and the centered calm of a devote Buddhist. Must be capable of channeling the life experiences, talents and knowledge of an artist, painter, 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, business administration & accountant, logistics manager, teamster, navigator, physicist, anthropologist, archaeologist, biologist, herpetologist, meteorologist, psychologist, sociologist, theologist, zoologist, alchemist, botanist, forester, shape-changer, wizard (black & white magic), mind reader, snake oil salesmen, gourmet, bartender, party planner, camp counselor, long-distance-runner and or sprinter, diplomat, code breaker, soldier-sailor-tinker-spy, world builder and most importantly….. Survivor! “
There once was a time when the art department resided in carpeted and clean air-conditioned offices, with nice commissaries, big stages, organized mills and direct access to a veritable cornucopia of suppliers and prop houses with seemly unlimited resources – but with the advent of incentive financing and the challenges of distant location filming, those days are now tattered and faded romantic memories.
Today, you are more likely to get a phone call late on a Friday night with a commitment of employment and a directive to travel on Monday morning to a place that most likely makes no sense what-so-ever for the production you are about to design…and by the way, only if you are extremely persuasive might you be able to bring someone you have worked with before down this rabbit hole with you.
As the proverbial “White Rabbit” or “No.1 Canary” in the cage, I find myself all too often having to turn total strangers, irregulars and rugged individualists into a well oiled, trusted and prized human resource art machine. As the ultimate head of the art department – and mine being the first head that will roll if things don’t work out – the qualities that I look for in a crew as we prepare to submerge for a 6-month tour of duty under the ice caps are humor, strong work ethics, talent, resourcefulness, good campers with sensible hygiene, solid art & design skills, an ability to roll with the punches, and possessing a thick skin. If one is looking for on-camera glam and workplace adulation then the art department is not for you…it is not a petting zoo with sensible business hours. But if you have the ability to look at nothing and see everything…all the possibilities, and you are prepared metaphorically to move mountains so that others will be able to see the vision as clearly as we do, then the art department just might be the right place for you.
Glibness aside – but only momentarily as humor remains our best alternative to puddles of tears - one can come from many disciplines and make a home in the cinematic arts. I personally am a creature of the theatre where my most formative design and craft experiences were derived. So wherever work takes me I look for those like-minded souls who come from the live performance art-craft traditions. I have found that these individuals are the most adaptable, resourceful and capable at dealing with the unknown and ultimately they have proven for me to be the best cinematic citizens and co-habitants in my particular type of rabbit hole.
In reaching out to employers, one should contact the Production Designer, Art Director, or Art Department Coordinator without fear of rejection – remember what I said before about “snowflakes.” Best to be respectfully tenacious and know that all of those whom you are trying to contact are overworked, under paid, and not disinterested in you but rather just trying to cram 24-hours of work into a 12-hour window of time on any given day.
As Garrison Keillor would say, “Be well, do good work, and stay in touch!”