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'Don't let money be the reason to enter designing'

Last updated on: November 06, 2013 15:33 IST

What it takes to become an art director in films


Vatsala Chhibber

Movie posters, film sets, print ads, theatre backdrops and game designs; the creations of art directors are ubiquitous. Here's everything you wanted to know about this visually appealing career.

We live in an age where visual communication dominates all forms of media.

It is no surprise then that art direction is prevalent across media such as television, theatre, advertising, websites and even gaming.

However, there are broadly two varieties of art directors: those that focus on graphics and visuals in the digital form and those that work with sets, props and production design.

For example, if you are an art director working on print advertisements, you will work in  collaboration with a copywriter (who is in charge of the verbal communication) and create the visuals for a print ad.

But if you are working on a film project, you will be collaborating with the production designer to create the right visual look for the film (by planning the set design, props).

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Image: On the sets of Jodhaa Akbar

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'ENJOY what you do, else you are dead even before you start!'

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Of course there is job mobility!" says Raj Khatri who works at Art Director at Marching Ants.

According to Khatri, creative vision is not restricted to a medium, and the shift from graphic design to set design is easily achievable.

"Artistic sensibilities can always be adapted to any medium as far as it fits the brief! Only the tools of the trade change and it takes a while to adapt; before you know you have a new canvas ready!"

On the other hand, freelance art director Boishali Sinha is slightly more sceptical about the suggested ease in mobility.

"I mostly do ads and movies. There is only one print campaign that I have done and those are the publicity posters for Ramaiya Vastavaiya, directed by Prabhu Deva," she explains.

"It is not easy to shuffle (between print and ad/film projects) but if you know your job, shuffling is not a problem."

Do you need to go to art school?

Raj Khatri feels the 'urge to create' overpowers a college degree in this profession.

"I am from a science background and I never went to any art school, nor do I have any formal art training. In my case, I have always been a movie poster fanatic and loved sketching since childhood. Hence the transition from science to arts came naturally to me."

Art direction, like most creative professions, allows you to be assessed on the basis of your creations rather than your college grades.

As Khatri emphasises, "Later in life, only your work and portfolio will speak for you. No one cares or remembers which college you went to!"

But before you throw out your college application, consider the merits of an arts degree.

"It becomes a little easier for an employer to gauge a designer based on his/her college work and environment and gives you a ready first step," admits Khatri.

Can you handle the challenges?

The life of an art director is not about surreptitiously playing computer games behind large iMac screens or watching fantasy films under the guise of 'referencing' (though these could be occasional perks).

"There will be times when you will want to quit everything and run away because of the pressures and client amendments," says Khatri.

"It is never a glamorous job. We are the backbenchers who do all the ‘dirty’ work to make the stars in the limelight look glorious."

So while your visual might gain nationwide popularity, you will probably remain nameless to the masses.

"Chances are no one will ever know your name among the aam junta. You have to learn to live with that and enjoy your work," advices Khatri.

To all aspiring professionals, Khatri says: "Please don't let money be the reason to enter designing /illustrations. Let it be your love for art. Enjoy it, love it, hone it, excel in it and money will surely follow. That's the main mantra -- ENJOY what you do, else you are dead even before you start!"

Image: On the sets of Jackpot
Photographs: Reuben NV/

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'This profession requires sheer involvement and dedication'

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Pursuing art in films

Boishali Sinha, who has worked on films such as Rowdy Rathore and Dabangg 2, takes you through the process of art direction for films.

Work begins months before shooting

We have to keep meeting the PD (Production Design) producer and the DOP (Director of Photography) to figure out what to do, how to proceed, talking about set, etc.

And we have to keep doing this till the first day of shoot. Most of the time things happen at the last moment. Usually, changes regarding colour, design or props are as per the DOP or Director.

Assemble a team

Mostly, the team is already assembled with art assistants, setting people, carpenters and everyone else and occasionally we have to assemble the team.

Go through the requirements for each scene

There is always a pre-breakdown, after recce (location scouting) breakdown and then another one.

Before each shot also there are a lot of breakdowns. But we do go through the requirements scene by scene and then by call sheet.

For example, for Rowdy Rathore, there were many last minute requirements such as fake equipment or anything at all. Many things happen at the last moment.

On the sets

Everyday is a challenge, every second is a challenge and that’s what I love about it.

Like recently, I was doing this shoot of Bigg Boss for ETV Bangla and suddenly there was a requirement of a long table where Mithun would play chess.

This we had to do in 30 minutes and we created a table. These are the things that keep happening, so we have to be prompt in thinking and figure something out ASAP.

In his advice for aspiring professionals who want to make in films, Boishali Sinha says: "This profession requires sheer involvement and dedication. It takes your personal life off, but when you understand its requirements and its fun, you would never complain. I love my profession that is why I don’t mind giving 24 hours of my day to it."

Image: For representational purposes only
Photographs: Reuben NV/

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Art Director: Career Facts

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Job profile

Varies according to field, but one consistent responsibility of an art director is to use visuals to tell or enhance a story.

This could mean designing the cover of a fashion magazine or deciding the look for a science fiction film.


Creative satisfaction for those with artistic ambitions; scope of the industry is constantly expanding; each project can be unique and rewarding.


Erratic timings; pressure to meet deadlines; client apporovals can be taxing.


Figures vary according to field and company you are employed with. Graduates can earn between Rs 15,000 and Rs 30,000 per month while senior art directors of repute can charge a lakh per month.

Study Route

A degree in art direction/production design is offered in most leading film schools. Another route is to pursue a degree in graphic design from a design/art school.

Top institutes

  • Film and Television Institute of India, Pune
  • Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata
  • National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad
  • Whistling Woods International, Mumbai
  • National School of Drama, New Delhi
  • Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad

Skills required

  • Strong aesthetic sense
  • Technical knowledge of design software
  • Ability to work under pressure and meet deadlines
  • Leadership skills to head the art/design team

Image: On the sets of Dabanng2
Photographs: Courtesy YouthIncMag

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