One thing many people remember from the film “The Wizard of Oz” is the starkness of the black-and-white, back-to-reality scene where Dorothy wakes up in a rumpled bed surrounded by her family and friends. The stage production of “Showboat” features a simple waterfront scene where a cast member sings “Old Man River,” then removes and repositions props giving the audience the impression that he is doing heavy labor while he is actually changing the set. Classic commercials from a beer company feature famous Clydesdale horses and backgrounds meant to elicit feelings of comfort, patriotism, and trust. What do all these examples have in common? The answer is art direction. Art directors work in films, in theater, in print advertising and magazines, in video game production in theme park design and in many other areas where you wouldn’t expect to see them.
What is an Art Director?
An art director is an artist who is gainfully employed. That tongue-in-cheek remark means what it says: an art director is, foremost, an artist. He or she understands composition, color, texture, line, shape and space. Those are the elements of art and comprise not only fine art, but art forms like film, theater, dance, graphic art and even television advertising. Art directors use these elements to meet the expectations of the client, whether he is a movie director or a toothpaste manufacturer, by doing several things.
Art directors “mess with” our subconscious. They use images to draw out emotional responses, but they also use colors. For instance, a set that contains a lot of reds will make the viewer feel anxious while blue walls or a broad expanse of blue sky will create a sense of calm. Sets that feature small, enclosed spaces with “fussy” props make us “jittery” and uncomfortable.
Using logos or themes in backgrounds is a way of creating an emotional response. Creating the emotion and then connecting it to the logo builds a theme of trustworthiness that works in magazine ads as well as in motion advertising.
Meeting Budget Demands
The art director must work within a specified budget, so his or her understanding of psychology and artistic techniques can result in a great return-on-investment.
Setting the Tone and Context
Art directors use images and colors to set the tone for a film or play so that the audience is placed in time and in space. Often, screenplays and theater ask us to accept a different time, a fictional location or even an alternate world. Art directors make those places or times believable through their use of artistic elements to build the environment in which the action takes place.
Individuals who have an interest and art as well as leadership qualities often wonder how they can become an art director. While we tend to think of people who can draw when we hear the word “art,” many art directors do not know how to draw yet still possess an interest in different types of art. Another misconception about art directors is that they all have a specific degree. Although most art directors do possess a degree in art or a similar field, some are actually hired without a degree if they have the talent and experience in this field. Here is an overview of what art directors do and what they can expect in the career.
What it Takes to Become an Art Director
Although some art directors may be hired without a degree, a bachelor’s degree is generally the degree required for this position. The baccalaureate degree is usually in art or art design. The candidate must also have some work experience. Those who know they want to become art directors or managers often pursue a Master’s of Fine Art. Work experience is very important in this job because art directors work alongside other artists and graphic designers. In most cases, the art director has at least five years of experience working in an artistic setting before actually becoming art directors. They also have a portfolio of their creations to show to potential employers.
What Art Directors Do
Art directors have many duties as part of their job because they are the professionals responsible for how an idea or product is represented. They speak with clients to collaborate on the exact artistic style and concept required as well as determining the timelines and budget. They determine which art, pictures or design elements should be used to get the overall style or look required by the client.
Art directors may work on a television, movie or theater set, for an advertising campaign or a specific publication. Once they’ve determined what artistic media should be used, they determine the best way to present the concept. They also oversee the work of the design team, including set designers, graphic designers or similar members of the design staff.
Art Designers in Films
In the Lisa Cook blog, she discusses how art designers work in films. The first step is reading the script to understand what needs to be communicated about the characters, the setting, the historical context, and other considerations. Sometimes these things can be conveyed through dialog or through the appearance of the character himself. Still, the old adage that “ a picture is worth a thousand words” is certainly true in films.
Art designers, with the creative directors and producers, often scour the shooting location to find just the right lighting, just the right ambiance and just the right spaces upon which to build their scenes. They must keep in mind that some props will have more than aesthetic properties. That is, an actor may have to break a carefully crafted saloon window, actually open a door or fall from a platform. So, props and sets must be built to accommodate the actions of actors.
The ability to communicate an emotion or the personality of a character is important. Spencer Tracy did a great job of revealing his character in “The Old Man and the Sea,” but the art director’s efforts in designing the man’s simple cottage tells us as much in a few seconds.
Art Directors in Theater
Like art directors working in film, those in theater paint pictures and build emotions through adept use of color and set, but they have an added component to consider. Plays are performed in theaters where the space is limited. Art directors must make the best use of sets and props to define characters and themes because they have to consider how those elements will work in a limited area. They also must be mobile so that the sets can be changed in, and between, acts.
Art Directors in Advertising
A You-Tube video by Marcus Brown, who is a successful art designer in advertising talks about “intentional design.” He says that advertising is targeted to special audiences, but there are still age and cultural differences. Art directors must be able to create content that unifies and connects the consumers. Some experts say that within 13 milliseconds the brain sees an image and puts it in context. That means advertising images must be striking and immediately relatable. Like art directors working in film and theater, those working in advertising must understand the theme the client is trying to show. Even in advertising, it becomes a process of visual storytelling. The term for that theme is “the Big Idea,” or the “Brand Creative.”
As in the next area, video game and web design, the art must engage the user quickly. To do that, art directors use the elements of art plus typography.
Art Directors in Video Game and Web Design
On another video through “WTalks” which is similar to Ted Talks, a video game art designer talks about working with a collaborative team to create the world of the game. He says people often are surprised because they don’t consider what he does to be art design. It is, as they suppose, computer science. While it is true that these art directors do much of their conceptualizing digitally (as opposed to actually drawing out ideas on paper), they still employ the elements of art and try to convey a memorable environment for the game characters.
Another aspect of art design in this market is the size of the screen on which it is to be viewed. Art designers must understand ratios and be able to create content that is the same on all screen sizes. An example of this is an ad that features a big, beautiful house behind a gorgeous garden. In the foreground there is a dog. Whether the ad is for a real estate company or a landscape business, on a small screen like a tablet or a smart phone, the main focus will become the dog. That means the art director has to consider how to present the image in a way that the ratio remains the same in order to communicate the client’s vision.
Difference Between a Creative Director and an Art Director
Art directors are sometimes called creative directors, and on smaller projects they may be the same person. In larger projects, such as bigger movies and articles in well-placed venues, the creative director is generally a step above the art director in the hierarchy of positions. The difference between the two is that the creative director is taxed with developing not only sets and props, but costuming and other visual aspects of a project. Of course, the producer has a vision for the project as well.
The art director is responsible to the creative director, who answers to the producer. The job of the art director, then, becomes amalgamation of the two possibly different visions through the lens of the art director’s skills. The art director may use images to proclaim the same message but in a different tone of voice. A quote by Christopher Cashdollar and found on the Web Designer Depot website is: “ Art direction is a filter for making judgements: you pass every design choice through it. Start by determining the overall emotion.”
The work environment for an art director depends on if the individual works for a company or is self-employed. While some work as part of a team of designers, more than 50 percent are self-employed. Because art directors are usually working under pressure to get the job done by a specific deadline, their work is usually done in a fast-paced work environment.
Career Outlook for Art Directors
Employment of art directors working in the publishing industry is expected to decline by 10 percent during the years 2018-2028 because digital media, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), are replacing many print publications. Art directors overall are expected to see little change in employment growth but will continue to be in demand to oversee the work of graphic designers, photographers, illustrators and similar artistic workers.
The heavy use of art directors in the movie and television industry will continue to result in art directing being a competitive field. As of May 2018, art director wages ranged from $52,160 to $172,570 with the average annual wage at $104,590. The highest wages earned by art directors were in the states of California, New York, Georgia, Oregon and Washington.
Famous Names in Art Direction
Sometimes called set-direction and sometimes art direction, the Academy Award in that category went to Robert Clatworthy for “Ship of Fools” in 1965. He was also nominated in 1960 for “Psycho,” along with co-art director James Hurley. In 1967, he was nominated for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It is hard to imagine “Psycho” without its chill-bringing Bates Motel at the top of that dark hill, and Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Hepburn just couldn’t have “that talk” with Sidney Poitier’s parents anywhere but on that patio looking down on San Francisco.
In 1998, the award went to Peter Lamont for “Titanic.” The image of the lovelorn couple standing on the bow of the ship stretched into the wind is one that has been recreated dozens of times, and anyone seeing it knows immediately what film it is from.
The point is that art directors create images and emotions that stand the test of time. They become icons in themselves. Whether in film, theater, print, advertising , web or video game design or another area, the images created by art directors can be culture-changers. That is a great recommendation for a career as an art director.
Art directors typically have the potential to have an exciting career because they may work not just in educational settings but also for television and movie productions. Their talent and work determine the overall background appearance of an art-based setting. It’s also a career chosen by aspiring artists once they determine what it takes to become an art director.