Laura Ballinger Gardner is an Art Director for Film and Television. Her Feature work includes "The Fighter", "Garden State" and "Step Up". Her Televison credits include "Vinyl (Pilot)", "Gotham (Pilot)", "The Knick" and "The OA". She is currently the Supervising Art Director for "The Greatest Showman".
For me, the collaboration between the production designer (PD) and the art director (AD) begins the moment I am hired. Starting with the first meeting to discuss process, workflow, goals & known challenges, our work begins. The assemblage of set designers, illustrators, graphics & support staff sets the tone for the entire project. I like to call this the dinner party planning phase, and it can be feverish in the busy NYC market.
I opt to staff the art department with a mix of trusted associates and new faces, depending on the preferred platforms and styles of the PD. Once the key seats are filled, I can settle in and move forward with breaking down the script, research, and rough drawings.
Depending on the length of time the PD has been on the project, they may arrive with reference photographs, or they may have floor plans and a model built. These are unquestionably terrific tools to get us started, but my favorite collaborations are with PD’s who leave room in the concepts for the art director, set decorator and set designers to expand and build on.
I am a materials geek, with an array of material samples in my kit. I find the most successful and seamless collaborations happen with raw material samples in hand. Even if the sample is not quite right...a vintage linoleum sample or an off cut of perforated steel can serve as a jumping off point for developing the whole design.
Even something as seemingly dreary as the budget is a creative collaboration between designer, art director and construction coordinator. Great budgets are not made in a vacuum. There is an art to assembling and timing of a budget release. Yet, it cannot be done without the input of the designer, C.C. and charge scenic.
Sampling materials and finishes in the shop is key to correcting mistakes and building on our successes before we produce on a larger and potentially expensive scale.
As an art director I have many bosses. The PD is my main collaborator and focus of my attention, but I have no illusions that I only work for the Designer. My negotiations with the ecorator, Leadman, stunts, VFX, SPFX, G&E, greens, UPM, and of course construction and scenic are some of my favorite (and most frustrating) interactions on the job.
When the art director is keyed into the PD’s concepts and viewpoints, the PD is free to focus on the larger task, collaborating with the Director, DP & Locations, trusting the art director will keep the other departments moving forward. Certainly, there is a limit to how much an art director can approve without the PD present. Knowing the threshold for making a judgement call on one's own and when to bring in the Designer is an art unto itself.
Every PD uses their art director differently. I suspect this is based on their training and how they came up in the business. Some want assistance with presentations, some prefer to create them on their own. Some like to draw rough plans first and then hand off to me, and some prefer I draft the initial floor plans to begin the discussion. There is no wrong or right way. The Art Director/Production Designer collaboration is a balance of communication and trust in the process. The ultimate goal is to walk away from the project satisfied and hopefully gain a new collaborator or renew a continued relationship for future projects.