The unpredictability of set designing

Victoria J GoodwinSet designer Victoria J Goodwin, whose credits include Emmerdale, It's a Knockout and Nitrate - the Movie, talks to The Knowledge about inspiration and the importance of networking.

The early years

I have had a love for art and design since childhood, when I helped out backstage in am-dram theatre groups. Then in the mid 1990s, I started my career as a set painter for TV and film.

I have always had a love for the arts industry. Although I spent so many years watching and learning the roles within the industry and developing my skills as an artist, I didn't want to train solely as a set designer.

Instead, I took a degree in historic decorative crafts, which gave me a unique skillset and meant that I could develop my specialist art skills for use on stage and screen, as well as in a restoration and conservation environment.

I worked in both of these areas for many years. For me, it is essential to be in a job I enjoy and one that can present a range of different challenges - as variety is the spice of life.

The challenges

Paradoxically, the main challenge of this job is also the thing I love most about it: never knowing what will be asked of you. I am constantly learning...

The most challenging job was one I took on because it sounded practically impossible. It was a low budget project and since I was the most experienced person on the team, I was asked to oversee the production design, props and wardrobe for all three films that were being shot simultaneously over nine days.

Being in charge of three lots of sets, costumes and props meant that I was also acting as the main continuity person, which wasn't ideal as I couldn't be on set during filming at all times as I was also needed to oversee the set-up of locations.

It was the most challenging but undoubtedly the most rewarding project I have been involved in.

The most memorable jobs

There are two that stand out in my memory. Firstly, back in the late 1990s, I enjoyed working on a straight-to-video concert with Jonathan Paul Green [production designer], whom I always enjoy working with.

The huge outdoor set, which was erected in Greenwich, involved me demonstrating a wide variety of my specialist paint skills. But the best part was the camaraderie of all involved: from the joiners, sparks and other set painters, to the acts that were performing on the finished set.

The second was a project in 2010, where I was working as an assistant art director at Pinewood Studios, filming a trailer for a competition winner's film.

I ended up working with Alan Spalding [production designer] whose work I have admired for many years. I was lucky enough to meet him at the very beginning of my career in 1996, so to finally work with him was superb. I had a great time working with the whole production team at such an iconic location.

Plus I literally bumped into Johnny Depp whilst he was filming Pirates of the Caribbean.  The people I meet are always the most memorable part of my work.

The changing era

My job changed when high definition came in. Prior to HD, I found it unnecessary to work to the very high standard that I was trained to do because, before HD, it would be too blurry to see on a screen. Or in the case of the theatre, the fine detail would be too far away in the auditorium for the audience to see.

So for me personally, the advent of HD is a change for the better. I was able to bring my skills up to the same high standard I had been trained in, for my work in the stately homes.

The key skills

You must be able to visualise and see the potential of empty space. It is also important to be personable, a good communicator, creative, a problem solver, thrive on challenges, and not mind working long hours. You also have to take criticism and learn from it, and be willing to adapt to whatever is asked of you.

Advice to those wanting to become a set designer?

Being a set designer is full of fantastic experiences, but you have to be prepared for a lot of hard work and long days.

Try working with theatre companies and get experience in all the backstage roles; become a sponge for information. It is very helpful to know the basics of every job before you design your first set.

And, crucially, network, network, network. In so many jobs it is a question of who you know as much as what you know, but in this industry it is essential.

The last word

Don't set limits - try everything!  Learn, experience, enjoy and live...

Are you a set designer? Does this ring any bells with you? You can leave your comments below or get in touch via our Facebook page.