Production designers' career and skillset is often shaped by experience rather than traditional education. Therefore, many of us look to established colleagues for advice and guidance. We asked colleagues to share their thoughts on the value of mentorship as a tool to enrich and advance our community.
"Now is the time to get involved and build, together with the next generation of artists, the radiant, colorful, creative, loving and vibrant industry we want to see."
"The process of mentoring someone is not always about getting that person into an art department career. It’s about helping them figure out who they are and what they want and how they can achieve those things."
"My mentors shared with me their trust, wisdom, and kindness. The treasure of their knowledge blessed and guided my career immeasurably."
"Mentoring is a two-way street and our shared experiences can make us as production designers better problem solvers, communicators and creative collaborators."
David L. Snyder
"One of the most gratifying benefits of a successful career in the arts is discovering new talent."
September 30th, 2020
How important is production design mentoring?
Luke Cantarella has designed over one hundred productions for the theater, opera, dance, film, television and commercial design. His credits include art directing the Emmy-Award winning series "Damages", as well as work on "Julie & Julia", "The Accidental Husband", "Synecdoche, NY," "State of Play", and "Pink Panther 2". Luke joined the faculty at Pace in the fall of 2012 where he is currently the an associate Chair of Film and Screen Studies. Prior to Pace, Luke ran the M.F.A. program in Set Design at the University of California-Irvine.
Thinking back to what was important in the early parts of my career and how I learned to be a designer, it is not so much the courses I took nor the books I read. What looms large are those small moments when someone took time to explain their work to me. For me, it was the lighting designer Jim Ingalls patiently describing his magic sheet or the great director Bob Falls explaining why Eric Bogosian’s "Suburbia" is a great play. Although I never became a director or lighting designer, these conversations showed me how their minds work and how they made the choices that added up to brilliant productions. This is how I developed a love of our craft and shaped my design practice.
In fact, the tradition of production design (and stage design as well) in our country was founded on mentorships before we created the institutions of the M.F.A. and B.F.A. Consider a young William Cameron Menzies learning architectural detailing from Hans Drier at Paramount in the late twenties, or Jo Mielziner showing Ming Cho Lee how to correctly wrap a roll of drawings in the fifties. And I only know that because Ming showed me how to do this when I was working in his studio fifty years later. This was one of the innumerable small things that I never actually learned during graduate school.
I have been teaching design at the college level for twelve years and have realized that while training is important, mentoring is different because it is transformative. When done right, mentoring creates a dynamic relationship between a younger and older artist based on trust, respect, and care. Think about some of the famous mentoring duos we’ve seen in cinema: Daniel LaRusso and Mr. Miyagi, Patrick Dennis and Auntie Mame, or Harry Potter and Dumbledore. The fundamental thing about these relationships is that the experience changes both the mentee and the mentor. The younger is introduced to skills, knowledge, and experience; while the older learns perspective, energy and grows in ways they could not have imagined on their own.
As you’ve probably noticed, the examples I have given above as role models for mentoring are mostly white and mostly men. That is a reflection of the way our industry has historically created opportunities only for certain people to join the club and gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed. Mentoring initiatives today seek to break this mold by reaching out to a diverse and inclusive group of students and to build a new more equitable film and television industry. This is part of the work of social justice that we must do in order to deconstruct the systems of discrimination that we have living within. To paraphrase Teju Cole, this is how we address not just the need but also “the need for the need.”
Equity through Design Mentorship, a new program started this fall launched by production designer Jane Musky, works with high schools and universities students in the New York region to create mentorships that introduce them to design-related jobs in film, television and live entertainment. New York Diversity & Inclusion Task Force For Television & Film (NYDITF) Mentorship Program focuses on younger crew members working in the industry and building relationships for education and advancement. In addition, a collection of graphic designers led by production and graphic designer Maggie Ruder are starting a similar effort. Now is the time to get involved and build, together with the next generation of artists, the radiant, colorful, creative, loving and vibrant industry we want to see.
Annie Beauchamp works across film, television and commercials. Her credits include Jane Campion’s "Top of the Lake: China Girl", the feature film "The Yellow Birds" directed by Alexandre Moors and Julia Leigh’s "Sleeping Beauty".
She was nominated at the Art Directors Guild of America Awards for "Black Mirror Striking Vipers" Season 5.
One of the main principles in my process of production design is that I acknowledge that I don’t accomplish anything alone. Whatever happens is the result of the sewing of the individual threads into a whole tapestry, creating something bigger than its individual parts. I feel creativity is a collective or a ‘current above us’ with its own kind of life or flow and if I’m open enough and trusting enough, I can help steer its course. I work far better with my team’s full creative input and hope they feel satisfaction from this inclusion. Mentoring has then grown very naturally from these production design principles.
Early on in my career I was lucky to be mentored by the South African-Australian production designer Michael Philips, who is now a close friend. He gave me my first job as an art director on a film after he saw how I worked as the director’s assistant on a feature film we where both employed on. Michael showed me how important the stage before filming is, especially the scaffolds for solidifying the needs of a movie. He also reinforced the importance of clear communication, so when it came to filming there were no surprises. Michael always said that the technical aspects are part of everything, even looking at the smallest detail. Thanks to him I gained confidence and was able to develop my own personal design approach. I recognized my desire to remain open to change, to nurture my natural curiosity and to support the director’s vision in every way.
I still value Michael’s insights, especially at times when I’m too emotionally involved and I don’t see the full picture. I can turn to him and he might offer a wise word of counsel that will turn the problem around for me. I trust his principles and value his support as I feel we share a similar world view
At the moment I am mentoring the young Greek-Australian production designer Laura Lucas. I met Laura while I was the industry panelist marking the masters students' portfolios at the Australian Film Television and Radio school in 2018. I really adore Laura’s design work and can see how talented and thoughtful she is. Laura is currently designing her first feature, so my wish is to help her trust her instincts and taste so that she can reach her full creative potential. We have found a natural flow and rhythm in our talks and I hope this relationship can eventually grow into what Michael and I now have.
Mentoring is a two-way street and our shared experiences can make us as production designers better problem solvers, communicators and creative collaborators.
Jeannine Opperwall started her career in the Office of Charles and Ray Eames, where she worked for about 8 years. Eventually she found a place in the art department of the film business, working for production designer Paul Sylbert.
Jeannine has received Academy Award nominations for "L.A. Confidential", "Pleasantville", "Seabiscuit" and "The Good Shepherd". Other films for which she is known for are "Catch Me if You Can", "The Bridges of Madison County" and "The Music Box". She served on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for nine years, and is currently on the Foreign Language Film Executive Committee.
I am trying to remember how it began, and I think it was with my ex brother in law, Len Schrader, the screenwriter for "Kiss of the Spider Woman". Len had started teaching screenwriting at Chapman University in Orange County, CA, and one day he called me. “I have a girl in my class who ends up designing all the other students’ film projects. She seems to think she should be studying film production design. But there are no classes here for that. Can you help me out?”
I told him to send her to talk with me. In the meantime, I asked around about how you were supposed to handle having an unpaid person working on a film in the art department. It seemed that the best thing to do was to get Len to write an official letter stating that his student was going to be doing this for credit at the school. he was not really doing free work. She was paying the university to learn on the hoof, so to speak.
When she arrived, I laid out her obligations: she was to spend a day following each of the key people in the art department around – the set decorator, the art dept. coordinator, the construction coordinator, the scenic charge person, the graphic designer, etc. And she was to write up a short paper detailing exactly what she had learned from each of them. She was told to ask any kind of “dumb question” she felt she needed to ask in order to understand what was going on.
She was also to follow me around for a few days, writing that up as well. In the end, she was to submit an essay to Len’s class stating what she had learned for her art dept experiences. And I remember reminding her that the essay had to be well-written, with everything spelled and punctuated correctly. She looked puzzled, so I explained that one of the important things that members of the art department all had to do was communicate correctly and clearly with each other and with the director and the producers. It wasn’t just about drawing pictures, taking photos, and drafting. It was about clear communication of every kind.
I don’t think she ended up in production design as a career. But the process of mentoring someone is not always about getting that person into an art department career. It’s about helping them figure out who they are and what they want and how they can achieve those things.
I once mentored the daughter of a friend who decided not to go into film design, telling me, "Jeannine, your job is too hard. Too many hours, too many conflicts, too much stress. I think I’d rather make my own art.” Fair enough. She learned. But she did tell me that she figured she learned a lot more hanging around me for 6 months on a film project than she would have learned in two years at Yale. A few weeks later, her Dad called me and thanked me for saving him a lot of money!
I have always felt it was my job to help other women. I had been lucky, I had been pig-headed enough to succeed in the film business, and I figured that maybe I had a few breadcrumbs to scatter on the path for them to follow. And I have really enjoyed the friendships with these women that the time I spent engendered. You see, I got a lot out of it as well. Maybe even more than I gave them.
David L. Snyder
After stumbling through life as a rock 'n' roll drummer, architectural designer, graphic designer, and theatrical stage designer David L. Snyder began his Hollywood career as the assistant art director in 1978 on the 50th Annual Academy Awards. In 1983 he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction for "Blade Runner" shared with Lawrence G. Paull and Linda DeScenna.
One of the most gratifying benefits of a successful career in the arts is discovering new talent and offering the benefits of becoming ones protégé. I’ve had the great privilege of being mentored in my days in the music industry, the architectural profession and finally in the theatre, motion picture and Television industry. At the age of 18 years, I decided that music was going to be my career choice. Previous to that I had the good fortune of attending one of New York State’s finest public prep schools where my major was in Architecture.
Following graduation,I joined a band and went on the road for four years. During that time, I became a protégé of renowned New York based composer, arranger and record producer Garry Sherman. I had decided that being a member of a band was not as gratifying as record producing and Garry showed me the way.
After leaving the record business, I took a job at a major midwestern architectural firm. It was here where I revisited my years in architecture in prep school. I had many mentors in the firm’s design department. One of the first things they taught me was “Erasing pays the same wages as drawing” so don’t object when you are obliged to do your work over, and over again. That advice came in very handy in the motion picture business.
By this time, I was 30 years old and hadn’t yet had the success I hoped for in music and or architecture. I landed in Los Angeles and learned there was a job known as art director, sort of a motion picture architect. I managed to join the IATSE and found a job at MCA Universal Studios.
There I met production designer, Lawrence G. ‘Larry’ Paull who was looking for a new assistant. I was hired. We did one feature and via his generosity he recommended me to design a 1960s period music business film for United Artists. It was like an epiphany. There it was, all the things I believed I had failed at. Architecture and music bound together in a film paralleling my own life: Taylor Hackford’s “The Idolmaker".
I began looking for talent to work with me. Since that time, I have mentored many talented artists who have gone on to win Emmy nominations and awards, Art Directors Guild Awards, and Academy Award nominations. I have sponsored a dozen protégés into the IATSE ADG, promoted two to set decorator, and co-sponsored one who was accepted as a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Designers Branch. For the record, ten out of the 15 I have mentored are women.
My last entry is in memory of Larry Paull. I turned down the art director position on “Blade Runner” three times because I wanted to be like him, my mentor designing my own films. He called me and said, “David, I’m not looking for an assistant, I’m looking for a partner. I need help.” That was it. Life changing.
An Emmy Award winning designer, Tom’s career spans feature films, IMAX documentaries, episodic series, and Broadway. Tom was the creative partner in the creation of the publications, Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction (Harper Collins) and The Art of the Hollywood Backdrop (ReganArts). He is the co-founder of the Backdrop Recovery Project, The Michelson Cinema Research Library, and the ADG Production Apprentice Initiative.
Not wishing to be too didactic, but based on my experience the profession of Art Direction for the moving image is a trade and a craft; one best learned through a number of different on-the-job apprenticeship experiences in the company of road-tested practitioner/survivors.
I refer to our profession as Art Direction rather than Production Design, because the first title is original to our origins, while the latter though formally embraced represents an aspirational ideal, one that too few designers at this moment are allowed to live up to. My favorite mentors did not care about titles, but they were singularly committed to and passionate about their work as well as the growth and welfare of their assistants and the collaborators who shared and contributed to the realization of that work.
A young designer’s self entitlement and belief in their potential is like the wind in a ship’s sails, but hubris alone cannot be a substitute for experience and the honesty and unvarnished constructive criticism that mentors can provide to help chart the right course. A mentor’s most important gift is that of knowledge and workplace experience; while allowing an ample measure of failure recovery protection, hard learned lessons that are invaluable and essential to the mentee’s growth and transformation into a working professional.
My mentors shared with me their trust, wisdom, and kindness. The treasure of their knowledge blessed and guided my career immeasurably. My middle and high school teachers, my first mentors, were those who introduced and encouraged me to discover the infinite possibilities of a creative life, a career path that has combined literature, anthropology, and sociology with the performing arts. There have been many professional craft-workers, artisans, and accomplished working designers, all of whom cared and recognized a potential in me before I found the confidence to believe that I could succeed and sustain a career in this wacky business of motion picture sickness, a malady with no vaccine. They endowed me with a level of confidence sufficient enough that I could survive and occasionally excel.
One eternal truth about our profession is that a solid knowledge and command of fundamental tools, both intellectual and tactile, remains essential. A liberal arts education if focused towards design is a privilege but the true education for a career in Art Direction only begins once one is fully immersed within a working art department. A knowledge and command of both analog and digital tools remains a prerequisite to entry into today’s professional art department. One need not spend four to six years in pursuit of degrees in order to achieve an entry-level position. Even two years at a city college or trade school could suffice; essentially wherever one can acquire knowledge and proficiency of the fundamental creative tools that are regarded as invaluable in a working art department.
As to soliciting us old geezers that continue to slog along in this profession, know that the best way to reach out to a potential mentor is to be tenacious in your pursuit but respectfully so. The best mentors, those who are most willing and deserving of your potential support, will respond to you in a timely way. We have all made your journey and understand your concerns and aspirations. These deserving veteran designers will be the ones most willing to pass along the gift that was shared with them so that in time you may do the same for another.
Mentorship is gift, a joyful obligation that must be shared and passed along.