As interior designers, we create functional art. We craft experiences for hotel visitors who can interact with a physical environment. In similar respects, production designers, art directors and the like do the same, only they take audiences on a visual journey. Among the many things we have in common, we’re devoted to contrivances like mood and atmosphere which aid in storytelling.
Scan through the credits of a film or TV show, and you will see a series of nebulous departments (with terminology that isn’t exactly relative to any other profession). It’s unclear exactly what each does, but in short, everyone does a LOT. One such professional, Art Director Will Eliscu, works to develop and deliver a backdrop that enhances a particular narrative. Have you watched “This Is Us”, “GLEE”, or “Chicago P.D.”? Well, then you’ve seen Will’s work.
Earlier this year, I spoke with Will about his day-to-day as Art Director for various film and television projects. He is the grandson of legendary film producer Martin Jurow (The Pink Panther, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Fugitive Kind). Now if that name sounds familiar, that’s because our very own Erin Jurow is Martin’s daughter, and Will is her son.
Q. Will, can you break down some of your many roles and tell us what some of those titles equate to?
“What’s known as production design, now, has always been ‘art direction.’ Production designer is the head of the department of a design team. They are brought in very early in the project in pre-production, or even prior to that after reading the script. They work with a location manager and a producer on a preliminary budget to tell a said story.
In pre-production, they staff up with illustrators to get signed-off by the producers to help establish budgets. Once the story boards and illustrations are approved, the supervising art director will begin staffing up the art department and dealing with set decorators (in England, they are called a “draughts person”) and draw the architectural drawings and work with a construction coordinator to help get that scenery built.
These days, an art director in very lemans terms is a project manager for the production designer and the construction coordinator. The sole purpose is to generate enough drawings, graphics and imagery so other departments (like costume design and set decoration) can add layers to the film. The set decorator and art department work hand in hand and are equally important in getting the job done.
Q. Was this always the career path for you?
I originally wanted to focus on music, not the “family business”. Still, I eventually made my way to Hollywood after college when I thought he’d be a painter or sculptor like other family members.
Q. Like hotels, films and TV shows are so varied. Is there anything close to a “typical day”?
In film/TV circles, there is no such thing as a typical day. Even a simple plot point in the narrative can send people like myself or my team on a research assignment to become experts in how pump jacks work and about the counterbalance on an oil derrick, or produce lightweight foam that looks like concrete. On any given assignment, I end up juggling many projects within a project.
Q. Is there anything you never expected to deal with? Or tell us about something that became a bigger issue than you ever imagined.
Designing to a budget is something that’s a driving factor of what we can and can’t do. Yes, even La-La Land is sensitive to purse strings, and timeframes to say nothing about getting approval to move forward in the first place. We’re also very focused on safety in the alliance of guilds and professional craft unions. We take pride making sure no one gets hurt, whether actors (or crew) are hanging from a mountainside, or submerged in a wave pool.
Q. Was there a turning point in your career? When did things start to take off for you?
My career really turned a corner when I made the jump to art director from lead graphic designer. Working in Chicago, I was given a huge opportunity from Richard Silbert – a very famous PD. Funny enough, it wasn’t long after taking the job that I found out my grandfather (the famous Martin Jurow) gave Silbert his first job in 1959. This business is known to have many weird circles of events like that on the creative or design end simply because of how small the community was.
Q. Current or period-pieces draw from tangible and historical things. What about things that are fictitious, or completely made up? How much freedom comes with a futuristic story?
I had a lot of fun on “Real Steel” where I was brought on as a supervising art director, and Lead Graphic Designer on location. This happened right as I was finishing up the last two episodes of the TV show, “GLEE”. The film had a 15-week prep and I was tasked with creating identities for the different robots, and lots of graphics for the scenery and the location sets. There were four venues created for the WRB (World Robot Boxing) league and there were logos and corporate branding that needed to be designed.
“Real Steel” is essentially “Rocky with robots,” but the film had lots of unique and memorable elements that were innovative. It had a grounded quality even in a fictitious future. It’s a film that featured things we’ve never seen before, and credit is also extended to the fantastic – and highly paid – conceptual illustrators who work for months to help develop the palette for everyone on the film to work from.
Q. What’s a recent project you’re excited about?
I worked on ‘This Is Us’ and I came in for episodes 2-18, not the pilot that established the time frame or the design palette. Having multiple time periods is difficult on pretty much every department – set construction, wardrobe, and hair and makeup especially. You don’t see a lots of masters or wide shots and that’s a huge help to many of us because there’s less of the frame that we have to fill, not to mention the show is a very dialogue-based drama. The star of the show is definitely the words written by the writing team.”
Q. Composer Michael Giacchino told me once that TV is a non-stop grind. What are your deadlines and deliverables, and do you have any advice on dealing with both?
Schedules are what they are and you have to pivot to make things work when needed. That’s what these skilled professionals can do: turn on a dime, get the drawings out, get a night crew and night painting going and an early call, and you will see cameras rolling up to a set you were talking about two days ago. That’s very common.
Episodic TV is about keeping the show creators and show runners happy. Where designers and art directors get in trouble with TV is when they try to get too perfect and think about it like a feature film.
Q. Who inspires you the most, in the industry or out of it?
Probably PD Don Burt. I would like to work with him at some point.
Q. Parting thoughts, words of wisdom, or clever quote you like to throw around?
Design means you have to have a tough skin because there is not just a start and a finish, it’s the multiple hurdles, day by day, and task by task…and remember, you’re only as good as your last mistake.
Design comes in many forms. Whether it’s the client who has the vision and you facilitate it, or they leave it to the creatives to weave their magic, we all want the best at the end of the line. Design is difficult and evolves a lot from start to finish, but to deliver a quality product takes persistence, dedication, an ability to adapt to the design environment. Everything you (or a team) has worked on could change 100% in the span of a day. So fall in love with the design process, not just one design.