Rose Lagace is a Production Designer based in Toronto, Canada. A Production Designer is the head of the art department. They are responsible for the visuals in the film.
In the following interview, Rose shares how she worked her way up to the production designer job role, a full breakdown of her work process and her advice for student filmmakers. Rose also runs an amazing blog called Art Departmental.
What Attracted You To The Art Department?
I was always a crafty kid. I enjoyed decorating and redecorating my bedroom over and over again. I used to design and build forts in our living room when I was little, and I spent more time in church staring at the ceiling wondering how it was constructed and analyzing the stained glass windows than I did actually listening to mass.
I became interested in film in my first year of high school and never looked back. I wanted to be a writer/director, but I continued to excel in my fine arts and theatre classes, which always made me truly happy. I didn’t know then that I would one day be able to merge my skills and interests by working in film and television production design.
Lo and behold years later I was able to volunteer on my very first show as a production assistant on a non-union feature film and their art department and set dec team was woefully understaffed, so I ended up working with them a lot.
I asked a lot of questions and learned quickly what the art department, set dec, and props teams do. I knew immediately during production that the art department was where I needed to be. I couldn’t believe it was a real job and I was mesmerized. Putting my innate fine arts creativity to good use while also working in the film industry felt like the most natural thing I could possibly do with my life.
Did You attend Film School?
I did not attend film school. I studied art history and philosophy with a bit of film theory in college. I thought I was going to be a writer, so I wanted to explore things I could write about and have a greater perspective on the world before I dived into filmmaking.
At eighteen, I knew I didn’t know anything, so I needed to study something else. It ended up being a good mix of disciplines for what I do as a production designer, but I still wish I had gone to school for architecture or interior design. Studying art history ultimately had the most impact on me within my career. I use concepts and principles I learned in high school and college all the time.
As long as you dedicate yourself to learning everything you can, then you can still make it without a formal education in film production. On-the-job training is invaluable in addition to learning software and theory on your own. I don’t regret not going to film school. Film production would have been great to meet people and create a bond with a group of filmmakers to take into my career but ultimately it wasn’t necessary, and I don’t feel I missed out on much.
As long as you dedicate yourself to learning everything you can then you can still make it without a formal education in film production
How Did You Get Your First Paid Job In Film?
I worked for free a lot at the beginning, which was typical at the time. Given that I didn’t go to film school I knew I was going to have to spend some time learning the ropes and that I likely wouldn’t get paid right away, so I kept some flexible part-time jobs on the side.
I don’t actually remember what my first paid job was since my early years in film have now blended together a bit. However, I do remember my first paid job in the union.
I had been working in the independent film world in the art department for about five years when one day I got a call from a production designer I had worked with on a short film I volunteered for. He told me that he was set designing a new show called Covert Affairs, and they needed an art department coordinator right away. The deal was that if I could drop everything, I could join the union and get on the show by that following Monday. So I did and never looked back.
It was on that show that I really learned a lot about the craft. I again asked every question I could when people weren’t busy and really tried to learn as much as possible. I was a sponge, and I truly appreciated the opportunity. After that, it was much easier to gain proper, paid, consistent work to further learn my craft.
I had been working in the independent film world in the art department for about five years when one day I got a call from a production designer I had worked with on a short film I volunteered for
Can You Breakdown The Work Process Of A Production Designer?
I wish I could say there is one way that it is done as it would make my job easier. It differs based on the show and the needs of the production. I think every production designer has their own unique process that gets them from A to Z.
In an ideal world, I am one of the first creatives brought on the project after the show is greenlit, which is how it is done most of the time, but I have certainly experienced exceptions. I’ve learned to adapt my workflow based on the amount of time I can sit with the script. The more time, the better.
Once I am given a script, I read it once without making a single note so I can understand the story the way the audience will and I try to make mental notes of my emotions during that first read. After that, I reread it, this time making what I call my ‘first thoughts’ notes. Then I read it again, this time I start making my set list. How many sets are there? Where are they? What year? How much time will each set be on-screen? Then I read it yet again highlighting and breaking down the script detail by detail so by the end of it, I have all of my various art department breakdowns- everything from graphics to picture vehicles. This is a lengthy process.
While the art director and various art department members are responsible for creating these breakdowns, I try to do my own when time permits so that I know the script forwards and backwards. If I take the time to know every single detail in the script, I can adapt far faster and more efficiently when the inevitable changes to production arise. It’s an essential step in my process and something I try to protect. I feel I owe it to the director, writer(s) and producer(s) to soak in their script as much as I possibly can so I’m always making the best decision for their story and the characters who inhabit them.
My goal is to be honest to the story and the characters. I aim to know their world as well as I know my own.
After my script phase (and sometimes during), I go into my research phase and begin mainlining visual imagery into my bloodstream so that I can link images with moments and feelings. My goal is to be honest to the story and the characters. I aim to know their world as well as I know my own.
During this process, I am also hiring my art department team and my set decorator. First, I employ an art director who will manage my art department and then a set decorator who will lead my set decoration department.
Together with the art director, the rest of the art department is hired which can include more art directors, a graphic designer(s), set designer(s), an art department coordinator, and an art department assistant(s).
Once I am into my research phase, I can collaborate more readily with the director, director of photography, and producers to find the look, mood, tone, and colour scheme for the project together. This often requires hours of conversation, watching of films, looking at concept art my team has created, as well as the images and references that we have collected until we land on a look that works perfectly for the project.
This is then followed by loads of meetings, location scouts, set designing- the presentation and alteration of blueprints and pre-vis models, graphic designing, and eventually a tech survey with the film crew to make sure we’re all on the same page and know what we’re about to get ourselves into.
During this process, various budgets and designs are being approved so they can be built and dressed in time to be camera ready on day one of the shoot.
Then it’s off to the races to create the project we have planned and built for the last several weeks plus a whole lot more designing, budgeting, building, and dressing. It never ends until they call wrap on that last bittersweet day.
What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in the film art department?
Devote yourself to learning as much as possible. Know that the learning never ends no matter what stage you’re at. You will never learn it all, and hopefully, that challenges and excites you.
Travel and observe. Inspiration will come to you at the strangest times, so be ready to take it in. Photograph everything. It might literally be the way the rust falls under a barn doornail which has sat outside for 137 years or the look of wallpaper from 1988 with a few bubbles under the surface which doesn’t quite line up to the pattern beside it, but somehow it inspires your next set.
Devote yourself to learning as much as possible. Know that the learning never ends no matter what stage you’re at.
The best practical advice I can give is to hire slowly and trust your gut. Every time I haven’t trusted my instincts, I have deeply regretted it. Hiring your team is one of the most important things you will do as a production designer, so you need to be able to trust their taste, skill, experience, and work ethic. Knowing they’re there for the same reasons you are, to create the best project possible, is half the battle.
If you need any further advice on production design and the art department, please visit my website, Art Departmental. I have devoted the majority of my off-time to helping people understand production design. I never want you to feel alone on your journey into the film and television industry.
I also wrote a guide about the film art department - Find Here