Working as a production designer often means embracing a freelance lifestyle, including periods of inactivity and unemployment. Our colleagues share advice and personal experience from their quiet periods between projects.
"You don’t have to start on a large enterprise to stay creative, it can be the simplest thing."
"Creativity is the open eye and the deep breath."
"Nothing is ever wasted as it can always serve as a building block for the next thing."
"After a job I find that I'm out of practice in actually making things."
September 9th, 2017
How do you keep creative between projects?
Estefanía Larraín is a production and theater designer based in Chile. Among her filmography are “NO”, “The Club”, and “A Fantastic Woman”. Notable among her recent projects is “Neruda” by Pablo Larraín, for which she received the Fénix Film Award for Best Art Design and the Coral Award in International Havana Film Festival. Her development has occurred simultaneously in cinema, theater, and advertising.
This seemed to me like a great question to ask yourself. I live in Chile where our film industry is entirely in development and the projects are further apart than we’d like, therefore this question raises itself constantly.
In making a film, I put all of my creativity at its disposition. I spend the months that the project takes thinking about it all day. Finding related topics, researching, looking around me, and seeing how to use the information I observe for the film. You share all of your time with the crew, you see them more than your own family, you know their lives, the way they work, and for a period of time, it’s like a family that functions as if they were made for one another. But what happens when the film ends?
There’s a wonderful moment, which would be the two weeks after, maybe three. At last you can rest, not only physically, but bit by bit you leave behind the images that have accompanied you for so long. You start shedding that life that you were so intensely creating, and that produces a very gratifying postpartum sensation, but it’s also nostalgic, because there’s something in that vertigo, in that exhaustion that fascinates me. It’s the most creative moment that I can have. That’s why I want to quickly return to feeling that sensation. I relate it with creating. There are people who are more creative in their free time. I feel more creative when I’m creating.
I have the luck of not only making films, but also of doing theater design, and that’s where I habitually find an ideal place to work after periods of such intense projects. With a very different method, working practically alone or with a very small crew, it’s ideal to go back to the core and keep designing.
Doing advertising is also an important part of these moments between projects. Although it’s very demanding time-wise, it’s great to maintain the rhythm. Week to week there are different projects that allow me to try new things and keep in contact with my crew.
But when none of this is happening, it’s been very good to try more personal motivations, attempting to learn other disciplines, simply for the pleasure of studying them. Thus I’ve taken piano and illustration classes, stretching my own limits and exploring new things for which I often never have time.
This work is varied in its approaches and its content. One project is never the same as the next, and in the future, you’ll always be able to use everything you’ve seen or done. Once I understood that, I really valued the times without projects. It’s a way to generate energy for the next one, and welcome it better. You don’t have to start on a large enterprise to stay creative, it can be the simplest thing; playing with your kids, working in the garden; where you least expect it, the drive is there, in something with deep intensity and passion, that makes you feel complete, the same thing that happens to me in making films.
Deirdra Govan is a New York City-based designer for film and television. She has built a 15 year plus career as a costume designer and within the past 7 years has slowly transitioned over into production design. She holds a Master of Science in Interior Architecture & Design from Pratt Institute and a BFA/BBA in Fashion Design and Design Management from Parsons School of Design. Her production design debut film, “Destined” will bow this Fall in limited release nationwide. Currently, she is gearing up for her sophomore project as production designer, which will start pre-production in this Fall.
I think we've all been there... The work slows down and the reality of a potentially long seasonal mood of despair and pending unemployment creep in. I guess it's the precious price we all pay for the creative freedom of doing what you love.
It was this very situation that drove me to leave this business not just once but twice as I searched for answers as to how to sustain myself as a creative during the lean times. It took me some time to figure it out and find a balance.
Having a career as serial freelancer/independent contractor is rarely discussed as you matriculate through College or Grad School...if ever! After many years of trying to figure out how to dance this dance and gain some clarity on what is considered to be a" normal dilemma”, I decided to take it upon myself not to be at the mercy of complacency and despair.
It was during one of my first periods of a particularly slow season (it was during the writer's strike of the late 90’s to be exact) that my unemployment angst as to how to make myself of use and invest in my own value set in. Thus, I took a risk and I went to work for a major beauty brand powerhouse, L’Oreal, as a manager of corporate branding and identity. I took a chance on trying something new to see how and what the other side of “stability” looked like. I guess I really wanted to find out if the grass really was greener. The takeaway to this experience was is always try to explore new opportunities.
During another down season, I took some additional coursework in sustainability and green building design. It was something that I felt I could use in my work a designer for the built experiential environment as well as film. I felt like I had nothing to lose in building on my knowledge. The takeaway here was to always invest in me and keep learning.
With yet another slow season upon me, I began to truly transition over into art department with the end goal of production designing. It was hard for me to break catch a break, so I took up a post at a friends interior design and construction management firm as a project manager, branding, and design management consultant. Being entrepreneurs themselves, they understood the roller coaster ride that I was on and were very amiable to put me to work by allowing me to jump in to lend a hand while putting my technical skills to use and most importantly learn! This allowed me to exercise my graphic design skill sets as well as strengthen my design experience and architectural construction chops, all the while putting my masters in interior design to good use. The takeaway here was to not to forget to use what you have.
Little did I know that these intermittent times of unemployment would lead to me experiences that would only help to set me up me for future opportunities.
Like the saying goes, when opportunity and preparation meet...anyway, about a year or so ago, during yet another slow winter season. I let my tenacious entrepreneurial aspirations take hold and I went out and banged on doors and asked friends if they knew of any restaurateurs who were opening a new spot and were in need of for designer for new restaurants and bars that they might be opening. Luckily, I was smack in the middle of the new restaurant renaissance that was happening in here in Harlem. I was fortunate enough to be awarded the opportunity to redesign a 5000 sqft industrial space into a press worthy and notable spot. This helped to fuel my passion for designing experiences for start-up hospitality brands. The takeaway here is to take risks, believe in yourself without limitations of being in a box.
It sounds seamless, but these moves were not without their struggles, doubts, ups & downs. Nothing is ever wasted as it can always serve as a building block for the next thing. It is only now after several years of soul searching and grinding it out through trial and error, that I have begun fully embrace and understand how to make the best of the slow times. Instead of swimming against the current, I now understand the rhythm of what it means to be in the flow. Think of it as losing your fear in order to steer your future.
Life is a journey and so I chose to live it with my eyes, heart and mind wide open...that’s how I choose to stay creative.
Akin McKenzie is a New York based Production Designer. He grew up in San Diego and attended UCLA school of Film and Television before making New York his home. With credits ranging from commercial, music video, and feature film his most resent work includes Paul Dano's directorial debut, Wildlife, Bradford Young's, Black America Again and HBO's High Maintenance season 2.
There’s a word in German for free time stress, “Freizeistress” .... It’s a good jump off point for the whiplash of a job fading into a sea of in between and a glut of free time. A once full inbox is instantly a trickle of junk mail. The new scripts you're reading not scratching the right itch, or good, but too soon. You’ve been on a banger and the only thought is free time. And now free time you’ve got....
When Inbal asked me to put some thoughts down on how us Production Designers stay creative during our time off I knew what i wanted to share. It wasn't the amazing trip to Mexico City with the dSLR to document. The nights in Puebla, the traditional wedding I stumbled upon in Oaxaca or the winding narrow mountain road we traveled to puerto Escondido. It was the mundane. The creativity that’s always there but you need a breath to take it in.
There are many methods to creativity in freizeistress. Production Designer Brandon Tonner Connelly finished his 5 month job and was straight on a plane for 5 weeks to journey Vietnam. Miles Michael returns to his project houses in Detroit and starts renovating, piece by piece, brick by brick. Costume Designer Keri Langerman splits motherhood with volunteering at NY Cares.
For me I start with the mundane and most satisfying. I reconnect with my bodega guys Guillermo and Chino. Catch up on the block through them. Hear about the old guy down the street that’s being juiced for his retirement by his junkie grandson. How he came into the bodega and pissed himself and theres not much anyone can do to help. I catch up with Kevin next door who always has a new version of the same story of how he was playing his harp (harmonica), once upon a time in rural Jamaica with Peter Tosh and how the Jamaicans had never heard anything like it. Or Elissa, the mother of the block, Brazilian, youthful spirit who will always talk and glow and share and even sweeps in front of my building when I’m too busy with work. My Polish neighbor John who once upon of time planted the trees in front of my building, but “of course” planted the ones not condoned by the city. The most sexually active trees I’ve seen meaning their blossoms blanket the humid summer sidewalks with inches of daily dander that turn into sludge when ignored for too long. I sit on the stoop next to my concrete deer and watch the neighborhood children pet his nose and tell him that they love him.
Then theres the nights with friends. I’ve been M.I.A. so theres no shortage of the activities and peeps I’ve been “meaning to link with,” or “need to catch up with,” or “haven't seen in too damn long”. A good hangover can burn through a couple days and there’s something really satisfying about waking up at 11a and going straight into 4 hours of Film Struck. Calling it “research” or “reeducation” feels better than admitting you're more than happy wasting a day in glow and flow. If you can make it to the gym by 5 on a day like that you get to really feel accomplished. Filled a whole damn day with not much and didn't even have time to do the dishes.
Once I’m caught up with friends, know who, how, and what about the block, tired completely of Apple TV anything, I dust off the camera. It’s descent and humble, capable, but wont make everything look pretty like some of those “coulda bought a car for the same money” Leica’s. A camera inspires you to look up, to peer through things. It’s a constant reminder swinging around your neck that with a little effort you might surprise yourself with what's around you. Or maybe you see the same thing again for the first time with one eye open and a lens as a buffer.
You can do a day trip to little anything in NY with the will and a bike. Coney, Jackson Heights, Harlem are brimming with things to share. The new faces on each and every subway are enough to inspire. Free of rush, my camera by my side and me as my only obligation, the only where and when I need to be, that is my happy place. Whether it’s at home in New York or in an ancient Aztec city on a mountaintop in Oaxaca there are always secrets waiting discovery and creativity is the open eye and the deep breath.
Alexander (Alec) Hammond is a film production designer and theater/opera set and costume designer. He has designed filmed work that runs the gamut from small independent projects, Donnie Darko and the Contender, to large studio features, Flightplan, Red, and Insurgent and television, Sleepy Hollow, Dynasty, and Krypton. He has been fortunate enough to be able to design for amazing theater directors Joanne Akaliatis, Bartlet Sher, and James Bundy, to name a few, on works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Susan Lori Parks.
The first thing I do after I finish a job is get sick. Creativity takes a backseat to biology for the first chunk of unemployment. I've only missed one half of one day of work in 22 years (5:30 AM, Art Dept: I mistook my morning coffee from one of a couple of days earlier, yes still on the desk and for some reason still full, it could have been there for a week for all I know. I downed a good portion of the large drip, with milk, without coming up for air before realizing my mistake. The choice was then to attempt to self induce vomiting or get in the scout van and risk it; and what's life without risk? I'm still not sure of the answer to that but life with risk looks like vomit, vomit on the roadside, vomit in the van, lots of vomit with a side dish of deserved ridicule.)
When I finish a job my body knows it and starts to relax. Insta-cold. On the whole it was worse when my kids were younger, their immune systems may have been able to deal with the toddler slobber and runny noses of all their playmates but force feeding me the same bacterial concoction -- disaster. Never seemed to bother me when I was working but when the guard was let down....
After the cold, or perhaps because of it, I catch up on sleep. Sleep deprivation also trumps creativity. I usually have to train myself to sleep again; I get pretty good at limiting sleep when working and I need to reset my body clock, usually takes a couple of weeks. Which is also the period of time where my infinitely more intelligent wife finally agrees to have meaningful discussions with me. Prior to that we are still strangers in many ways, my guilt over working too much has lessened, and we are reacquainted enough to actually make real decisions again. It was rocky learning this but having a post-job cooling off period for important stuff is very helpful.
For me the end of films tends to be a mad rush to completion, primarily of logistical exercises, budgets, and the management side of designing. It often has been a long time since I felt I was visually creative. I usually end up having a terrible need to make things. I walk around all day with my sketchpad, I make political cartoons, I draw, paint, sculpt, find new artists I didn't know before and revisit ones I love, read, and draw some more. After my last film I saw Jenny Saville's new drawings, Toba Khedoori at LACMA and the Kerry James Marshall retrospective at MOCA in Los Angeles, all amazing and inspiring. (KJM is a national treasure and anyone who isn't familiar with him is in for a breathtaking body of work, both intellectual, personal and visual.)
After a job I find that I'm out of practice in actually making things. Hopefully before the depression at not having another job sets in, I get to work. I find that the best way to get myself to actually work is to throw stuff away. I clean my studio, get rid of all the useless things that I have kept from past shows that seemed important at the time, and make space. It is fascinating how just a little clear area will allow me to breath and start. I go to figure drawing sessions, buy sculpting clay, and usually just when I'm back in the practice and discipline of making things that have substance....I get another job and the process starts again. But at least I know I won't be sick for the next six months.