What is an art director in film? (And how to become one)

Updated 5 June 2023

Within the film industry, an art director works under the production designer and is responsible for the art department. They implement the production designer's vision and develop the film's visual feel and style. If you have an interest in the role of art director, knowing what it entails and how to enter the profession can help you decide if this is the right job for you. In this article, we explain what an art director in film is, describe what they do, list their responsibilities and discuss the requirements and skills for this position.

What is an art director in film?

An art director in film is responsible for the visual look of a production. This can involve overseeing various artists working on the set, liaising between the production designer and construction crews, designing sets and contributing to a distinct visual style for the film. They report to the production designer, who usually appoints them. An art director starts work in the pre-production stage, using the concepts of the film to develop designs and contribute to its creative vision.

An art director works closely with the production designer to develop the distinctive look and feel of the film. This involves using various design elements, such as props, scenery and lighting. It can also include getting concept art, producing models and overseeing the construction of the film set. The art director also has various administrative and budgetary duties and coordinates between the art department and others.

Related: Art director vs creative director: what's the difference?

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What does an art director do?

Below is a list of tasks and responsibilities that an art director might have:

Overseeing concept art and pre-visualisations

Concept art is useful for visualising ideas for a film. Concept artists produce this art manually, using digital illustration or a combination of both. The art director may be responsible for finding the right concept artists and overseeing their work, ensuring that the ideas they produce fit the feel and mood of the film. The concept artists and art department are often responsible for creating the designs for costumes, sets, structures, characters and locations.

A pre-visualisation, or previs, refers to artwork depicting what a scene is going to look like in a film. This is different from concept art, which is more about developing designs for use throughout the film. Previs enables the art department to create a representation of a scene's appearance, which can be useful for set creation and preparation. A previs could be an animation or illustration.

Related: 9 careers in art and design (plus duties and salaries)

Supervising model making

Many films use three-dimensional models to develop the look of various film elements. These could be characters, creatures, props or entire buildings. Model making is similar to concept art, although the model makers typically base their work on that of concept artists. Models are useful for getting a better idea of what something's going to look like and determining dimensions. Sometimes, a mock-up might even be part of the final production. Filmmakers can make miniature constructions look life-sized using specific lenses and other camera-based techniques instead of building a full-sized equivalent.

Related: What does a prop maker do? (Including duties and skills)

Managing set construction

Before and during production, the art director may be responsible for constructing and dressing film sets. These can be quite elaborate and involve a lot of detail. The scenes use concept art, models and other aspects of the art director's earlier work. This can involve supervising construction staff and preparing the location for filming.

Related: What does a set designer do and how do you become one?

Coordinating on-set

During production, an art director is often the main coordinator between the art department and others. They also lead, guide or otherwise help various production staff. This can include art department members, set construction crew, photographers and logistics personnel. The latter are responsible for transporting various items, such as costumes and props, to and from sets, which the art director is responsible for overseeing.

Related: Coordination skills: definition, examples and how to improve

How to become an art director

If you want to become an art director within the filmmaking industry, consider the steps and requirements below:

1. Finish your A-levels

A post-16 education is often necessary or at least helpful for starting a career in the filmmaking industry, so you're typically going to require some A-levels. The prerequisites vary depending on the route you choose, level and education or training provider. Two or three A-levels in relevant subjects are usually the stipulated qualifications for a bachelor's degree.

Alternatively, consider an apprenticeship. Four or five GCSEs and one or more A-levels are usually enough for many apprenticeships, although some more advanced ones may prioritise work experience. Art and design, design and technology, design and textiles, digital media and design, drama, media studies, information technology and computer science are good subjects to study for a career as an art director.

Related: What does a media studies A-level involve? (With examples)

2. Get a degree

One option for getting the necessary skills and knowledge to start in the filmmaking industry is to undertake a degree in a relevant subject. Degrees relating to art or design, usually a Bachelor of Arts qualification, are helpful. Fine art, illustration, theatre, 3D design or architecture are good subjects. Degrees relating to filmmaking or production can also be an excellent choice.

Additionally, consider postgraduate degrees or other courses that complement your degree. For example, you could undertake a filmmaking course after getting a degree in fine art. A degree usually takes around four years to complete full-time, with postgraduate courses generally lasting a year or less.

Related: What qualifications do you need to be a director in film?

3. Complete an apprenticeship (optional)

An alternative route to a degree is an apprenticeship relating to arts or filmmaking. There are multiple options to consider, usually at higher levels. The benefits of an apprenticeship include the opportunity to obtain practical experience and earn an income. You'd typically spend a fifth of your time studying with a partner institution and the remaining four-fifths getting work experience.

Options include a level 6 visual effects (VFX) artist or technical director apprenticeship or a level 7 creative industries production manager apprenticeship. These programmes typically last around 18 months, although these can become longer when you add the end-point assessment period. The creative industries production manager apprenticeship includes modules in art production and film, which is useful for an art director. Alternatively, fine art, illustration or graphic design apprenticeships can be a good starting point.

Related: What are film apprenticeships? (And how to find one)

4. Acquire experience

Art directors usually have years of experience before getting to this position. This is because it's a senior role that involves leading various people and actively contributing to the appearance of the final film. You can obtain this practical expertise within the filmmaking industry or related ones, such as theatre or television.

An entry-level role to consider is an art department assistant. You can seek greater responsibility in this role until you acquire enough experience and skills to become an art director. Other roles that might help you to become an art director include an art department coordinator, graphic designer, set designer, concept artist and assistant art director.

Related: A step-by-step guide on how to get into the film industry

5. Develop your skill set

Art directors use a variety of aptitudes to do their job and ensure the film is a success. These encompass artistic and leadership abilities and various hard and soft skills. If you want to be an art director, here are some key competencies to develop:

  • understanding of filmmaking

  • knowledge of art and design

  • design and art production

  • coordination and leadership

  • creativity and vision

  • budgeting and management

  • liaising and networking

  • confidence and presentation

  • good verbal communication

  • multitasking

  • attention to detail and thoroughness

  • organisation and time management

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