PROJECT 2: WORK EXPERIENCE PROJECT
As I had taken various intertextual references from commercials as inspiration on my short film Running the Rat Race, I felt that by gaining real industry experience on commercials, I would be able to engage critically with Contemporary performance practice and acquire new skills that would inform my film. I wished to educate myself on the differences between the independent and professional sectors of filmmaking and the cinematic techniques advertising agencies deploy to market their product to a mass audience.
Over the course of the academic year, I worked within the Art Department as Art Director, Draughtsman and assistant on a total of ten projects, including commercials, a music video and a TV series shot in the Faroe Islands.
My aims for the work experience project were to:
- Improve Technical drawing + Sketchup skills
- Improve collaboration skills
- Gain Professional industry advice and contacts
- Study the cinematic techniques to pitch a product to a mass audience
The ubiquitous presence of advertising in society has always been a great fascination of mine. Interested particularly by the novels of Hubert Selby Jr and the sociology of Theodor Adorno’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, I am both disgusted and fascinated by the American dream and consumer culture. Advertising has become a societal addiction, therefore I had to approach these projects with a nuanced outlook.
DRAUGHTING - AUTOCAD
On projects where a set build was required, I began by creating Technical drawings, following a tight brief set by the Production designer. Although I had previous experience, to benefit educationally, I began this process by researching and analysing the professional technical drawings off large film productions.
Although draughting is often an uncreative process, I was inspired by the Technical drawings of Hakan Yoruk and David McHenry’ book Drawing the Line (2018). Through choice of an Architectural font, line weight and designed title block, their drawings convey their own personal aesthetic, whilst remaining true to the Production Designer’s set brief.
With Drawing the Line as a point of reference, I was able to experiment and design two of my own unique Title blocks and a reusable layout template with Architect’s font, which will help to save time on future projects.
MY TITLE BLOCK DESIGNS
Although David McHenry’s technical drawings are hand-drawn, I anticipated that, there would be a great deal of indecision. As commercials are all fed through a hierarchy – a client, a director, producer and a creative agency (that sometimes consists of up to 16 people), any initial decision made on the Set design, would probably be changed. For this reason, I drew all of my Technical Drawings on a computer (AutoCAD software), which enabled me to manipulate any change easier.
Providing highly detailed drawings enabled the Construction Manager to calculate a budget, assessing the paint quantities and stock flats and labour required to fabricate the set.
Often working on a tight budget, as an Art director and Draughtsman, it was my responsibility to realise the Production Designer’s set sketches as Technical drawings, while finding ways to make it more cost efficient. Using techniques, such as raising the height of the walls to 10ft saved money, meaning no ceiling would be required to build, as the camera would never shoot that high. Collaborating with the Construction manager in calculating ways to save money, I was able to highlight the Designer’s attention to the detail, as the spare money was spent on higher quality props and construction finishes, such as a real Wooden floorboards, rather than Vinyl.
My Technical Drawing's of these Sets:
My drawings enabled the producers to assess the size of the Studio required to facilitate the set. Once a studio was chosen, I created a scaled studio plan, which enabled the crew to see the position and size of the set within the space. This was particularly helpful for the Cinematographer’s, as it gave them an opportunity to devise a lighting plan.
As anticipated, I was required to make many changes to each drawing. Each drawing was filtered through a set of twenty people, each with their own opinion on camera positioning, budgeting, or simple design preferences. I often found myself in a situation where the Agency and client had sporadically decided to scrap the idea and expected me to produce a brand new drawing within less than a few hours, which tested my patience, often having to work over 24 hours straight to provide results.
My biggest draughting challenge was designing a wall for a member of the England Rugby team to smash through, which left the health and safety responsibility in my hands. Speaking to both a Stunt advisor and the Construction Manager, I was able to devise a plan to make this safe, which used Drywall at a width of 10ft and a cushion layer of Foam bricks.
TAKE 1 WALL SMASH
TAKE 2 WALL SMASH
When on set, I was extremely proud of the outcome. Although initially nervous of the responsibility, I learnt that through a process of thorough planning and careful design, I was able to facilitate an incredible stunt.
ART DIRECTION & SKETCHUP MODELS
Once all draughting was completed, I created scaled models of the sets in SketchUp based off the dimensions of my Technical drawings. These digital models gave the Director, client, agency and Production Designer an opportunity to visualise the sets before construction, which helped aid creative decisions of construction finishes, choice of props and a colour palette.
Through this process, I was able to first hand witness the Agency and Client’s use of cinematic devices to sell their product to a mass market. Through my SketchUp models, all Art direction and Design choices were strategically planned to work on the audience’s psychology. Written in Dialect of Enlightenment (Adorno, Horkheimer, 1944)
For example, on the L’Or coffee commercial, the choice to design set as if it were a Parisian Apartment, works on the buyer’s mind. The buyer sees a beautiful, luxury penthouse apartment and aspires to this lifestyle. Although the set had a construction budget of £25,000, which seems expensive for a rather standard set, this is the price it costs to deceive the audience into thinking they are tasting luxury.
To achieve this, the Production Designer and I both pulled a series of reference of modern Parisian apartments and analysed their design finishes and colour palette.
As L’Or uses the colours Black and Gold in its branding, the Agency and client wanted to reflect these colours in the Set, to further work on the consumer’s psychology. However, after changing the SketchUp model to fit this colour scheme, I found that the choice of gold looked rather tacky.
As I knew that as a young member of the crew working under an experienced Production Designer, Director and Producer, any personal creative decision I made would not be taken seriously. As every decision is fed through a hierarchical system, commercials leave no space for individualism nor creativity. However, I decided I would use my initiative and create a separate model, with my own colour scheme, out of work hours. This gave me an opportunity to experiment with colour, choice of props and design features.
- As I felt that the choice of black walls would absorb all light, making it difficult to light, I picked a brighter, fresher neutral colour
I experimented using Blue and Cream, but found Green was the most suitable choice to make the environment feel fresh.
- Instead of tacky Gold, I experimented using Copper finishes, which in small quantity, would work as a design feature to capture the spectator’s attention.
- Keeping with the new Black and copper colour palette, I included luxury props (many with the same colour palette) into the SketchUp Model. Here are many of the selected props I chose to include:
- From a previous shoot, I learnt that a simple cinematic technique to build the sense of luxury was through the choice of mouldings, i.e. Skirting board, Cornicing and Architrave.
Emailing the designer, I sent over both versions as options. Although my design went against the Creative agency’s colour palette, to my complete surprise, the Production Designer, director and agency ended up preferring my option and chose it. To my complete disbelief, I was proud of my initiative, feeling like I had challenged the archaic Commercial system. However, this was an extremely rare case, as on all the other projects, the decisions were made by the Director and Producer.
Another technique to make a more universally appealing commercial, left me painting out the Eifel Tower in Photoshop, which made the cityscape look generically European, rather than specifically Parisian.
Here are Further SketchUp’s I did, and their Sets:
PROP SOURCING + SET DRESSING
As a few of the Commercials I worked on did not require set builds, my initial involvement began sourcing props. On the Carlsberg job, I had the challenge of working on a shoe-string budget, where all prop-houses were closed due to Covid Lockdown. To acquire props such as this model train set, I had to find intuitive ways to source props, including posting out on Facebook groups, contacting recycling communities and Gumtree ads.
When the prop houses finally re-opened, prop sourcing returned back to normal. On a Walls ice cream commercial, the brief was to design a Japanese Daifuku inspired set. As the commercial was tailored to suit a Teenage demographic, I felt that a maximalist approach to the colour palette, including pastel pinks, greens, purples and blues would engage a young audience. As a reference point, I looked at the highly colourful designs of Japanese Chirashi posters, including the Taxidermia (2006) poster, where I felt the choice of colours and design of the poster would appeal to a youthful audience.
Reflecting the palette in both the set and choice of props, I liked the idea of sourcing props made of brightly coloured plastics, which matched many of the references I worked from. Searching across the many London prop houses, including Superhire, Granger Herzhog and Modern Props, I was able to gather a shopping trolley of props. However, unfortunately only a day later, the shoot was cancelled, due to a spike in the Covid numbers.
On a MINI car commercial with the director of Derry Girls, all of the ‘sets’ were created using props alone. As many of the locations had not been scouted, this forced me to be adaptable, sourcing a multitude of props of all shapes and sizes for dressing unexpected situations. Being thorough with our prop list paperwork and carefully organising them neatly onto tables was vital, as no prop got damaged or went missing on the shoot. Having my own standby kit, including tapes, craft knives and electric tools allowed me to swiftly handle any complex situation, often using vinyl’s to remove any named logos off props for copywrite reasons.
On one set, which was a camping scene, I found it was a helpful tool to have hand props (in this case Marshmallow’s on sticks, flasks and tennis balls) for the actors. The use of hand props gave the actors a sense of comfort, where their interaction with these props gave a naturalism to the scene and better overall performances.
“ON SET” ART DIRECTION & PROBLEM SOLVING
What seemed to be the most exciting project I had the opportunity to work on, was Draughting, SketchUp & Assisting on a Faroese TV series called TROM. Initially, I was required to actually fly out to the Faroe Islands to location scout, source props and dress all of the sets. However, due to the Covid restrictions, I was unable to even fly out, which left me working through Zoom calls and a series of emails – which was both disappointing and a complete nightmare. As the Faroe Islands has a population of approx. 49,000 people total, finding efficient members of the crew to replace the original British members who were unable to fly out there, was a near impossibility, resulting in many people who had never been involved in any of the creative arts working in the Art Dept. As I was not on the ground working out there, I had to resort to sending files of prop references, mood boards and colour palettes.
Known for its jaw-dropping landscapes, I wished to make the Faroese interiors equally beautiful, whilst remaining authentic to the culture. To aid this process, I thoroughly researched into the Faroese culture and watched Faroese films, most notably the films of Katrin Ottarsdóttir including Bye Bye Bluebird (1999) and Atlantic Rhapsody (1989). However, no matter the amount of mood boards or references I pulled, every request was denied by the inexperienced crew.
Although I wished to have a bright colour palette to accentuate the stunning landscapes, everything was shot in pale blues and greens as if it were a Scandi-noir.
The sets were all filled with props that appeared to be put together without any thought. It pained me to work on this project, as the screenplay was fantastic and certainly had potential to become an award-winning show. At least I learnt from this process, that Art directing through Zoom calls, is an impossible task.
Working closely with the propman on the commercials, I was able to pick up many on-set cinematic techniques. In order to sell a product and appeal to a mass audience, the attention to the small detail was phenomenal. All glass was handled with specialist gloves, to minimise fingerprints and all surfaces were wiped down after each take.
It was fascinating to see a perfect process. In The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deceptionfrom his book Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947),
Adorno discusses the selling of falsified images in advertising:
‘The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.’
It goes to show that there is no room for imperfection in advertising, even if this meant deceiving the audience. For example, on the Carling commercial, the propman added clear Washing up liquid to the beer, which created more aesthetically pleasing foam. On the L’Or commercial, all of the Coffees seen on camera were created using additional food colourants, none of which were actually made up of the L’Or product.
On the Green Cuisine commercial, the crew was required to replicate an older shot, replacing the ‘vegan chicken nugget’, for another that was more aesthetically pleasing, made out of polystyrene and paints. To achieve this, I learnt about the overlaying process known as ‘Onion skinning’, in which a monitor can show the feed of the camera and another image behind – A technique I ended up using to aid my Stop-motion process on Running the Rat Race. It was fascinating, yet disgusting to see the tactics and cinematic devices these corporations used to win over a mass market. Although, as I equally wished to strive for ‘perfection’ on Running the Rat Race, I employed tactics such as handling any glass surface with gloves to minimise finger prints, and aged props with ‘Dirty down’ sprays.
COLLABORATION & MAKING INDUSTRY CONTACTS
I found the collaborative process on commercials extremely regimented and unpersonal, where the on-set etiquette restricted me even helping any other department.
I found that the two best collaborative on-set experiences were both when working on contemporary performance, non-professional shoots. Working in collaboration with fellow class member WenZhe Li on Crashed (2021), was an absolute pleasure. Orchestrated almost entirely by WenZhe, I aided her in finding a location, working as a camera and drone operator and Standby Art-direction.
The location I found – an abandoned greenhouse, served to be a perfect fit, as I was able to take pre-existing props, such as oil barrels, nets and computer parts and help dress the ‘stage’ for WenZhe to perform. Operating a GoPro camera, I captured many of these textures in closeups, which nicely contrasted the wides that WenZhe shot.
For Crashed (2021), I was required to learn how to operate a Drone. To my surprise, this turned out to be a fairly intuitive process, as if playing a video game. Certainly, it is a skill I wished I had learnt earlier, as I would have utilised Drone footage when shooting Running the Rat Race. Perhaps it is a shooting format that I will experiment with in the near future.
By complete coincidence, I acted and assisted on a contemporary performance Music Video directed by a PDP graduate, Tara Laure Claire. As the Set designer was a friend of mine, I helped him construct the sets made of silk fabrics and worked as a Florist, dressing the plants carefully in order to look like a Tim Walker piece.
My Work as an Actor, Art Dept Assistant, Dresser & Florist on Odina – Many Things (Tara Laure Claire (Ex PDP student), 2020)
I also acted as one of the statues, as one of the cast members pulled out last minute. It was a fascinating insight to see the progression of a PDP graduate and way in which she directed. It was evident to me that she had a strong vision and managed to find a perfect balance between being pushy and creating a relaxed on-set working environment. Through Tara, I was able to pick up the importance of thoroughly scheduling each day in order to gain the greatest creative output from the crew. Everything had been organised to a tee, which enabled us to achieve every shot, even with the limitation of the studio closing at 4pm.
I enjoyed Tara and WenZhe’s shoots the most, as the on-set environment felt more personalised and inspired.
Here are links to the Commercials that were released / I have access to:
My Role as Art Director, Sketchup & Draughtsman on L’Or Commercial (dir, Douglas, 2020)
My Role as Art Director on Carlsberg Commercial (dir, Lambert, 2020)
My Role as Art Director on Green Cuisine Commercial – Chicken Insert Shots (dir, Secouet, 2021)
My Role as Art Director on Mini Commercial (dir, Lennox, 2021)
Overall, the Work experience project was extremely informative to my own personal practice. Working on a total of ten projects, both commercial and personal, I have gained an insight into a multitude of cinematic techniques utilised by advertising agencies, whether that be to deceive their audience, or simply sell their product. The long hours on many of these projects, has taught me how to be adaptable when working under extreme conditions, while the L’Or commercial has taught me the importance of using my initiative to challenge the archaic commercial system.
As an aspiring director, I have found a world I do not want to enter. I found that advertising is incredibly wasteful, where I saw the sets simply being thrown away into Scrap heaps, rather than being saved and recycled on future projects. Analysing the Directors on each commercial project, it seems that these directors work simply for monetary gain, rather than out of love for the medium. I was disappointed in the little room for creativity and experimentation, where any decision was filtered through an agency and client.
This said, I have acquired new skills in Draughting and SketchUp, which gives me confidence to contact high-end Production Designers I admire, to work on more meaningful projects, such as films or TV series after graduation. Through Art directing, I have left with more confidence in my leadership and man-management skills, which will be vital to my practices as a Director on future projects. Many of the cinematic techniques I learnt were applicable to my own film Running the Rat Race, which shows professionalism and enables me to establish myself as a confident and experienced filmmaker.