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'Develop a marketable skill' Castle Rock production designer Steve Arnold shares his success story

Steve Arnold is a three-time Emmy-nominated production designer known for hit TV shows Castle Rock, House of Cards (for which he won an Art Directors Guild award) and Mindhunter. Here he tells Mandy News how he started out, share details of his process and reveals what aspiring production designers can do to better themselves.

16th July 2018
/ By James Collins

Castle Rock production designer Steve Arnold STEVEARNOLD

How did you get into production design and how did that take you into the film and television industry?
I was studying set design for theatre and was fortunate enough to be asked by one of my professors to assist him on a small film he was doing while I was still in grad school. After I graduated, I started getting calls to do small films and commercials so I decided to transition from theatre to film and television. I started at the bottom in the art department, working my way up from set designer and assistant art director to art director and finally production designer.

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How did you get involved with Castle Rock?
I had finished the first season of the Netflix series Mindhunter and was waiting to start prepping the second season when I heard that they were going to push the start date by eight to nine months. So I called my agent and told her I was available if something else came up. She put me in touch with the producer of Castle Rock and, after an interview, I was hired.

What was your process for working on the show, after receiving the script?

After reading the scripts, I began pulling together research and imagery that I felt appropriate for the look and feel of the show. I had worked on a film in Maine quite a few years before and it had actually featured stories by Stephen King, so it was familiar territory. We then began scouting various locations trying to sort out which sets, or portions of sets, we could shoot practically and which ones we would need to build on stage. 

Working with the writers, producer and director, we narrowed down locations and decided how best to approach telling the story. I will sometimes build models to help visualise a design and get it across to the director or producer. In this instance, I had a model-maker build quite a few variations of sets before things were finalised and approved.

You have also worked as art director on many productions, like Spiderman and Face Off – could you tell what the main differences are between the roles and the challenges you face in each?
An art director’s main job is handling all the nuts and bolts of bringing the production designer’s vision to the screen. This involves overseeing the drafting that is being done by the set designers and verifying that the construction department is properly translating these drawings into actual, full-size built environments. They make sure the correct materials are used and generally oversee all the work the construction department does, whether on stage or at a location. They are also instrumental in scheduling all work from the various departments – locations, construction, paint, plaster and set decoration – so that the process is coordinated and runs smoothly. They are also involved in the budgeting process and making sure costs are properly accounted for and that the work stays on budget.

The production designer works with the director to give the entire project a cohesive overall visual image that aids in telling the story. This involves selecting locations, designing various built stage and location sets, choosing colours, patterns, materials and textures, working closely with the set decorator, costume designer, prop master and picture coordinator to give unity and focus to all visual aspects of the work.

Although similar, there are marked differences between film and television. In film, directors are king and generally you are working with just one script. In TV producers/showrunners are in charge of many creative decisions and you have to navigate many scripts and directors. There is generally less money and even less time in TV.

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You are currently working on the new series of Mindhunter. How long is the production time on a show like this and what plans do you have after you finish season two?

On the current season of Mindhunter I was given 16 weeks of prep and we will shoot 'til the middle of December for a total of 11 months of production time. Not quite sure what my next project will be yet. Will have to wait and see.

What advice would you give to people wanting to join the Art Department and become a successful production designer or art director like yourself?

My advice is to develop a marketable skill such as architectural drafting, graphic design, drawing and painting or sculpting. These are all sought-after skills that can get you through the door – there never are, or most likely never will be, enough truly qualified draftspersons out there. 

Also, if you are young and in school, study art, art history, architecture, architecture history, film, music. Anything in the fine arts helps and finally if you get a chance to travel, do it, especially anywhere in Europe.

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