Film jobs in art, costume, visual effects and cinematography

Film cameraperson at work
If you’re a film lover who delights in all things visual, consider a career in costume, the art department, visual effects, camera work or lighting.

Want to make movies and find that the way a film looks is what most excites you? If you love art and design, consider the following film careers – not all of them require you to be a skilled artist yourself. They each work towards creating the overall visual impact that a film has, but in a variety of different ways. For example, production designers and costume designers use their artistic vision to bring ideas into being, while camera operators and lighting team members use their technical skills to create the look specified by the cinematographer.

Film careers in the art department, construction and painting

The top role in a film art department is production designer – this job involves developing ideas for the overall visual concept (look, feel and style) in conjunction with the director and producer. Design elements include sets, locations, props, costumes, hair and make-up, use of visual effects, lighting, camera angles and use of colour.

Once the designer has developed the overall concept, many people are involved in putting together the detail and then creating or sourcing what’s needed. For example, a draughtsperson will put together technical drawings of the sets, which will be used by the construction team to actually build them. Construction team members can include carpenters, painters (who typically take on ‘painter-and-decorator’ type tasks) and scenic artists (who take on artistically skilled painting work such as creating artworks or backdrops), among others.

To work in the art department, a typical route would be to take a relevant degree (either in production design or an art-related subject), build experience, then try to get a job as an art department runner. Production design degrees sometimes cover TV or theatre as well as film and are available either as a first (undergraduate) degree or as a masters degree after studying a related subject. Other relevant degree subjects include art, architecture, interior design, graphic design, 3D design and theatre. Our guide to design degrees covers a number of these areas. However, you don’t always need a degree if you can get relevant skills and experience and develop your portfolio in other ways. For construction roles such as painter or carpenter, look into relevant vocational qualifications and experience. If you’re interested in scenic art, consider art degrees or specialist scenic art courses.

Film careers in costume design, making and assisting

Costume designers work closely with the director, production designer, cinematographer and hair and make-up artists to design costumes that fit with the overall vision for the film. They are assisted by a team to bring these into being, ensure they fit the actors and extras, have the right costumes available during filming in the right state of repair (be this pristine or torn to shreds), and keep track of which outfits have been used in which shots for continuity. Costumes can be made from scratch, hired, bought, adapted or a combination of these. Many members of the costume department will have practical skills (eg dressmaking, tailoring or something specialist) to make and alter garments, though there are also roles such as costume buyer.

A typical route into costume design would be to take a relevant degree (either as a first degree or as a masters), get plenty of relevant experience and build your portfolio, then look for entry-level positions such as costume assistant or trainee from which you can work your way up. There are some specific costume design degrees available. There are also degrees in performance design that include costume as one element – but check carefully how much time and support there would be available for this. Or you could study fashion design (make sure that there is plenty of time devoted to practical skills).

However, you could choose to develop relevant practical skills and experience without going to university. There are vocational qualifications such as City & Guilds and BTECs in subjects such as fashion that will help you develop your skills in pattern cutting, using a sewing machine and garment construction, and a few fashion-based apprenticeships. You could then look to get work using these skills outside the film industry – for example, if you’re lucky you could find work in a costume hire company. This sort of experience will also be very useful even if you do go to university.

Film careers in cinematography and the camera crew

The cinematographer – aka director of photography – heads up the camera crew. They work closely with the director and production designer to discuss the overall style for the film, then plan elements such as camera angles and movements and use of lighting that will help achieve this. They’ll be on set each day to make decisions about the detail and to give instruction, and get involved in post-production, for example to ensure that the colour balance is right. Cinematographers also oversee the work of the lighting department – see below.

Your route into the camera crew is likely to be as a trainee or as a runner. To get your first paid job you’ll need knowledge and experience, which you can acquire in a variety of ways. Consider doing several of the following:

  • shooting your own short films, friends’ films or student/amateur films
  • taking short courses in filmmaking (such as those run by the BFI Film Academy for 16–19 year olds)
  • taking a filmmaking degree that includes practical camera-operating experience
  • taking a photography degree
  • working for a camera equipment hire company
  • getting experience outside the film industry (for example making corporate videos)
  • finding an apprenticeship that includes an element of camera operating (such as those offered by the BBC).

Film careers in lighting

Lighting plays a big part in the visual impact of a film. It also gives viewers a useful feel for where and when a scene is taking place, which aren’t always the circumstances it was actually shot in.

Lighting is under the artistic supervision of the cinematographer/director of photography (who in turn works within the production designer’s vision). However, it’s the gaffer, as head of the lighting (aka electrical) department, who takes charge of the practicalities of making the lighting happen. This can include working out what lighting effects are required for each scene and how to achieve them, deciding what equipment needs to be hired, doing reccies (exploratory trips) to locations that will be used to assess what facilities are available and what challenges need to be overcome, and ensuring that everything stays within budget.

The gaffer is assisted by their second-in-command, known as the best boy (but who doesn’t have to be male!). Other roles can include lighting console operators (who set up the lighting console and use it to control and alter fixed lights during filming), moving light operators (who set up and control moving lights), lighting technicians (aka sparks, who have a variety of jobs including setting up equipment, keeping it clean and working properly, and overseeing supplies such as bulbs) and sometimes trainees and/or runners. If the production needs its own electricity supply, there will also be a genny operator, who is in charge of looking after the generator (and may need an HGV licence to drive it around).

To work in film lighting an electrical qualification is helpful. For example, you could qualify as an electrician through vocational qualifications such as those offered by City & Guilds or EAL. Or you could take a degree in electrical engineering – going to university isn’t essential, but could help you keep your options open and give you the opportunity to work on student films or theatre productions. Either way, some lighting experience on student or amateur shows or films is a good first step. First jobs in a film company’s lighting department tend to be trainee or runner, but to get these positions you might find it helps to work for a related organisation, such as an equipment hire company that supplies the film industry, or in lighting on corporate videos, commercials or in TV.

Film careers in visual effects (VFX)

The term visual effects (VFX) describes any aspects of a film that are created via computer (typically in post-production) – as opposed to special effects, which are created ‘for real’ during filming, for example through use of pyrotechnics, prosthetics or make-up. It can cover anything from creating an entire new world or character to getting rid of inconvenient telephone wires in a period drama.

There are production roles, such as visual effects producer and visual effects coordinator, which involve keeping visual effects work on time and to budget and coordinating between VFX teams at different organisations, and many technical roles. These include:

  • rotoscope artists (who trace round objects on film, eg actors, that need to be extracted from the background they were filmed against)
  • matte painters (who create detailed backgrounds as an alternative to building these as sets or filming on location)
  • character artists, modellers, riggers, animators and texture artists (who design characters not played by actors and get them moving – most of these roles can also involve working with moving objects that aren’t characters)
  • compositors, who combine all the visual effects and live action elements together.

There are a number of different ways to get into a career in visual effects. Having a go yourself at home is always a good start, then working on small-scale projects with friends.

There are apprenticeships available that combine working for a visual effects company with formal learning – take a look at what’s on offer via the NextGen Skills Academy. Or you could go to university or film school, either to study visual effects or something different – for example, depending on the job you want, art, design or computer science may be relevant to you. There are also short courses available in different aspects of visual effects, which might suit you if you want to gain relevant skills but not spend three years at university. Visual effects runner is a common first job.

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