In a high-energy creative environment such as the art department, at times problems arise.
What are the reasons for and resolutions to departmental conflicts?

Anne Stuhler

"Gathering with all members of the department on a regular basis helps keep un-aired concerns and misunderstandings to a minimum"

Matt Munn

"I feel it helps to reinforce the fact that we are all in this together and everyone has a contribution to make"

Scott Kuzio

"Being rash and getting personal when dealing with conflicts can be toxic to the entire department"

Katie Akana

"Immediately addressing issues helps diffuse whatever negative or agitated emotions might be festering"

January 15th, 2017

How do you resolve conflicts within your department?

Anne Stuhler

Anne Stuhler has an extensive resume in both film and television. She has been fortunate to work on Fox Television’s “Fringe,” the first 3 seasons of “Blue Bloods,”( CBS,) ABC’s “Forever” and “Mysteries of Laura.” From the film world, Anne’s credits include “Boiler Room,” with Ben Affleck, Jon Favreau’s “Made,” Alan Taylor’s “Palookaville” and “Walking and Talking”, written and directed by Nicole Holofcener. Anne is currently in Atlanta working on BET’s “Being Mary Jane.” She lives in NYC.

There are 2 main reasons for conflict in an Art department. Sometimes it’s just chemistry or different ways of working. More often it’s about lack of time and the resulting lapses in communication. Most people want to do their job well, and feel frustrated when they don’t have the time and info to do that. None of us got into this business thinking it would be easy but we liked the work and wanted to feel creative and engaged. Biggest challenge right now is finding the time and space to enjoy our work and each other.

Changes in the industry, especially high-pressure TV schedules, are causing tensions to crop up with more frequency. Crew with overloaded episodic schedules are further challenged by tandem days, inserts, 2nd units and photo shoots. As scripts and decisions from the highest level are handed down later and later, the art department must scramble to catch up. The Art directors design as fast as they can, hand the drawings to construction, giving them just enough time to fabricate. Any changes and additions from above will deliver the set to Scenic and Set dec that much later. Although we are accustomed to multiple departments on the set at the same time (along with electricians and riggers, etc.) we all know that a pile up of different departments creates a lot of tension. When Set dec gets the set with a day to dress, having expected (and needed) 2 or 3, there will be a problem. This is a situation that we all know well.

If this happens once or twice on a production, it will most likely not be a problem. Could be unusual last minute changes from above that everyone understands. If it happens every episode, resentment builds and something needs to change. So how do we deal with this?

First thing I do is make sure - as much as possible - that everyone is getting the information early and at the same time. Certainly not a new concept, but I try to have art department meetings with notes, pictures, sketches, drafting and a schedule the day before each episode starts. We don’t always have as much info as we’d like for this meeting but passing on what we DO have is essential. And when changes occur during a fast and furious schedule, info needs to be passed on at that pace, too. Finding the time to get together around the same table, familiarize everyone with the plans and give them a chance to air their concerns, is invaluable. I ask everyone to take the time needed to evaluate what our plans are and let us know if something is too ambitious. Most the time we can change course if necessarily. If the consensus is that we can’t deliver what they want in the time or budget, then I go to production to cut back in some way. Gathering with all members of the department on a regular basis, helps keep un-aired concerns and misunderstandings to a minimum.

One on one conflicts need to be handled differently. Problems can be caused by some of the above pressures or just different ways of working. We all go through an adjustment period at the beginning of each job. Every production has it’s own rhythm. When a new group is working together, it takes more time to get used to various ways of working. Sometimes a crew member is in the wrong role in his or her department ie: on set rather than off set, or in a foreman role that isn’t working. Changing that can make a big difference.

I don’t like to let things build up and will speak to someone right away if I sense a recurring problem. If 2 crew members are not getting along, I’ll sit down with them- sometimes multiple times- and try to talk it through. So often different working styles result in miscommunication.

Often a department needs more help. On one job I could see that Set Dec was seriously understaffed for our increasingly ambitious sets. Not only did I find myself at locations dressing and opening for the crew, the decorators were really frustrated and unhappy. It took a few weeks of arguing with production to add that position but they finally did. Having the necessary support on that job made all the difference.

Last thought I have is one that is most important to me. Having FUN. Not every get together needs to be about work. Without sounding too Kumbaya…shared lunches whenever possible and even an occasional Friday night gathering will allow everyone to let down a little and get to know each other in a different way. It reminds us all that we have a shared purpose. With ever tightening schedules, and pressures from a growing workload, (and the World at large,) it’s easy to forget this.

Scott Kuzio

Scott Kuzio is a New York based Production Designer. His credits include Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up Philip”, Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Think Twice” and Antonio Campos’ “Christine”. He is currently in pre-production on David Lowery’s “The Old Man and the Gun”.

Conflicts within the department can be very complicated if not taken care of immediately. I take as many pre-emptive measures as possible in order to avoid issues early on. The most important thing is to put together a cohesive and creative team from the start. If everyone is striving and excited for the same design goal, issues are resolved very quickly. I promote as much communication between keys as possible. No crew member is working in an isolated bubble. The left hand should know what the right hand is doing. I try to promote a collaborative atmosphere from the top down. Set dressers and construction will be excited about the project if their work is respected and they feel included in the creative process.

Sometimes conflict is unavoidable. We’ve all been in situations where we hire someone who doesn’t gel or share the same ideas on how to get the job done. In the past, I’ve chosen to brush off these issues and it’s almost always blown up in my face. I highly recommend confronting any problems head on. The entire department suffers when there is an issue that goes unresolved. It’s important to stay calm and try your best to look at the problem objectively. Easier said than done since design can be such an emotional and creative process.

Being rash and getting personal when dealing with conflicts can be toxic to the entire department. People make mistakes. It’s important to assess why. A lack of support? A breakdown in communication? Or simply creative differences? If there is a practical way of fixing the problem, I always go that route first. If the problems are deeper and can’t be reconciled, inevitably you have to make the call to switch out certain crew. I’ve worked on plenty of projects where I thought it easier to ignore a problem than to make crew adjustments. It’s always ended poorly and often with hard feelings. I highly recommend being open and honest with any issues from the start with crew. Spot any pitfalls or red flags right away and address them. It makes for such a better time.

Matt Munn

After earning a degree in Architecture from the University of Tennessee, Matt began his career building and drafting for indie films. He has been designing in TV and film for the past 10 years including on the films "Compliance" and "Z for Zachariah" as well as the TV series "Girls" and the pilot for "Mr. Robot".

How do I handle conflict resolution within my department? In a way I wish I didn’t really have an answer for this because maybe that would mean that I have never experienced it. The reality is I find myself dealing with resolving conflicts quite a bit and I don’t know that I have ever found a fool-proof way of doing it. Every situation is unique and I find it is always best to stay in the moment rather than trying to refer back to a previous issue and use the same methodology.

We work in a very creative industry and it is populated with some of the most creative and talented people I have ever had the opportunity to work with. That in and of itself is a very inspiring thought and one that I always like to keep at the back of my head. At the same time, when you put a group of creative people together and give them a problem to solve you are bound to get as many solutions as there are people in the room. In some ways it seems like a formula made to create conflict. When that happens I try to remember the first sentence of this paragraph and keep in mind that this is one of the good things about working with creative people.

I find that when two people in my department have a difference of opinion it is always best to talk through the conflict. It seems like a cliché, but I find that most times people want to be heard and to know that they are contributing to the puzzle. I always try to make sure both sides have a chance to be heard and I find that meetings always help everyone to know what is going on in the department and to have a clear vision of our plan of attack in accomplishing the sets. Oftentimes it feels like there is more to do than there is time to do it and this tends to put people on edge. I feel like regular meetings help to keep everyone on the same page and to reinforce the idea that we are in this together. I also find it helpful to me as well to give everyone the breakdown together so I am not saying the same thing 5 or 6 different times.

I feel it also helps to reinforce the fact that we are all in this together and everyone has a contribution to make. Making sure everyone in the department realizes we are all on the same team and working toward the same goal is important in keeping conflicts from arising. When they do, communication is the best way to get through them. If all else fails I just remind everyone I am in charge and they have to get along because I said so.

Katie Akana

Katie Akana is a production designer based in Brooklyn, NY working in film and television. Her credits include the TV shows “Friends of the People", “Failosophy", and most recently the film unit on “Saturday Night Live”.

I feel like most conflicts occur because of poor communication.

From wall finishes to lunch orders, it’s very important to be clear about what you want. Unfortunately, no one can read my mind, so it’s up to me to be very clear with my crew about what is expected of each person. Of course, having a good coordinator can solve most of this on a day-to-day basis, but it’s up to me to establish ground rules and set the tone. Relying on the clairvoyance of my crew has never done anything but frustrate everyone involved.

In practice, I think the most efficient tool for communicating ideas with crew is Google Drive or Dropbox or any other file-sharing service that everyone can have easy access to. I try to have everything available– scripts, schedules, notes on script changes, set drawings, and most importantly, at least at the beginning, lots of reference material so that everyone gets a clear sense of the look and feel of what I’m going for. I also like to check in often with everyone to make sure we’re all on the same page. If I assume someone knows what I’m talking about without talking it through or making a sketch or showing a reference picture, it’s my fault if I’m not happy with what they’ve come up with.

But the thing about production design is that design is only part of the job - so much of it is personality management. It’s important for me to listen to my crew. If someone’s got a great idea, I want them to feel free to share it. That said, people in our department can be very sensitive and opinionated, to put it mildly, and not every idea should necessarily get thrown into the hat for the sake of a communal effort. It’s my job to take those ideas into consideration, but still keep the ship on course. Being approachable goes a long way too. If people are having creative differences either with me or with other crew members, I want them to tell me what’s on their mind. If you’re willing to listen, this kind of conflict can often actually be really productive and generate new and better solutions. Immediately addressing issues helps diffuse whatever negative or agitated emotions might be festering. Most of the time just clarifying or explaining something will solve the problem. And don’t be afraid to apologize- it’s always better to fess up when you know you’re in the wrong.

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