In 2019, the heads of the art departments in Hollywood film and television productions are still predominantly male. At San Diego Comic-Con, the Art Directors Guild sponsored a panel featuring five women who have created incredible designs for some of the biggest and most successful projects in recent years. While acknowledging the long way that remains to go to reach parity in the industry, the panelists shared inspiring experiences, advice, and wisdom with a panel room filled to capacity with attendees.
The panelists began by noting that a wide variety of paths can lead to a career in an art department. Erin Riegel, for example, went to film school and worked as a production assistant before settling in the art department; Ellen Lampl has been a graphic designer her entire career, from art school to advertising to film. On the other hand, Andrea Onorato studied architecture at Cornell and Aashrita Kamath went to graduate school in sociology before they pivoted their paths. Hannah Beachler has thrived as a single mom who has never left New Orleans, and emphasized using the resources you have to build your own career.
Next, the panelists described the nature of their respective jobs within the overall art department structure. One prominent theme was that their jobs often are as much about project management as artistic talent. As art directors, Riegel and Kamath must manage a wide variety of tasks, including design, construction, lighting, coordination with visual effects, communication among various stakeholders, and solving problems that arise before they ever get the attention of the people above them. As a set designer, Onorato’s work can range from concept art and three-dimensional models to construction drawings and visual-effects extensions of physical sets, all of which requires coordination with other artists and other departments. Though Lampl’s job as a graphic designer involves less on the management side, her work nevertheless touches all aspects of the production because visual designs are a fundamental feature of the world-building in every film or television project. And as a production designer, Beachler oversees everything: illustrators and artists, construction of sets, the paint shop, costumes, and more. On a $200 million movie like Black Panther, much of her day is spent in meetings to coordinate the work of a large staff, to whom she had to delegate significant responsibilities; on a $1.5 million movie like Moonlight, she personally would have to go shopping at stores or drive a truck of gear or supplies, because her entire department consisted of only three other people.
The panel concluded with advice for women who are entering the Hollywood art departments still dominated by men. Reigel emphasized to not be afraid, and also not to sell yourself short. Onorato remarked that the fact that women are underestimated can be a strength, because the quality of the work will speak for itself. Kamath noted the value of a positive attitude, and that women who work hard will be empowered. Lampl offered a reminder that everyone needs a support network. Beachler cautioned that you don’t have to be liked to succeed in Hollywood, and that it’s more important to be yourself. She also shared the advice that “no” can be just as powerful as “yes” in building a career, because both play a role in determining which projects will be associated with your work.
These five women are great examples of what Hollywood art departments can achieve when they open their doors to the previously untapped talent in the world. Hopefully their work will inspire more inclusion in the field in the future.
Women of the Hollywood Art Department
Hear from a panel of talented women from the Art Directors Guild whose careers span a variety of design roles within the film and TV industries. They will discuss their professional journeys in the industry, how they envision the Art Department of the future, and the unique challenges they face as visual storytellers, creating distinct and wondrous worlds for today’s most popular films and TV shows. Oscar-winning production designer Hannah Beachler (Black Panther, Moonlight), art director Aashrita Kamath (Avatar 2 and 3, Kong: Skull Island), graphic designer Ellen Lampl (Bumblebee, Jurassic World), specialist set designer Andrea Onorato (Avatar 2 and 3, Westworld), art director Erin Riegel (Birds of Prey, Captain Marvel), and moderator Kate Weddle (set designer).