Ever wondered who’s responsible for all the awesome sets you see in your favorite films and TV shows? The behind the scenes job of art directors and film art departments is truly fascinating. Every single detail, every object placed in a scene was planned and put there by these set decorators and artists to create the mood and atmosphere of our favorite characters’ worlds.
Today we speak with Mariana Silva, a Colombian-born art director who currently lives and works in LA, curating Hollywood sets. She shares some insights into the fantastic world of set design and how she got started in this field as a young Latina and worked her way up to the position of art director.
“Since I was little, movies and TV shows have been my most constant companion when I faced challenges or difficult situations growing up,” Mariana says.
This love for films soon developed into a passion for filmmaking. The initial spark came when her oldest brother gave Mariana her first video camera at age eleven. It was an old VHS camera and she took it everywhere and recorded everything.
“I got in trouble with my parents because I recorded over family memories, and also in school for not “writing” my essays but instead doing visual essays,” says Mariana.
Then when she was thirteen she saw how her favorite movie, Inception, was made. Watching the behind-the-scenes process fueled Mariana’s desire to get into filmmaking and led her to move to the U.S. to pursue studies in film production.
“It took me a while to decide which route to take in the film industry, and I changed my mind quite a bit,” she says. “Working as a production assistant (PA), the entry job for film sets, helped me decide which department I wanted to work in. I was drawn to the art department from the beginning.”
Those early years in the beginning were challenging as Mariana tried to make contacts and find jobs.
“As a freelancer, it takes a while to get busy and know people,” she says. “Paying rent and other expenses without a regular salary was frightening and nerve-racking. The film industry is based on the people you know and word of mouth. Since I didn’t know anyone at the beginning of my career, it was difficult for me to start. I didn’t even know where to go or how to find opportunities. I searched a lot online, got into many LA film clubs, and joined film groups on Facebook. Thanks to all of those groups, I got an opportunity to work as a production Assistant (PA) for a commercial for Adriana’s Insurance. That was my first job, and I had no idea what a PA did.”
Mariana remembers searching online for advice and asking people on Facebook what a good PA does and what is expected of someone doing that job. She went out and bought supplies to be prepared for any situation she would need on the job such as markers, earpieces for the walkie-talkie, a notepad and pens, multiple phone chargers, among other things.
“You never know if someone might need any of that on set. I was present all the time, asking if people needed help, or if I noticed someone needing something, I would be the one helping.”
Being present, friendly, and open to learning helped her start getting those first connections. Before she began working in the industry, most people told her that making connections was hard and people weren’t friendly in the industry, but she had the opposite experience.
“I guess my Aha moment was seeing how open and friendly people are in the industry. You do run into some rude and unfriendly people here and there, but honestly, for me it was always lovely. I have made great connections, and people have always been friendly, open, and willing to teach me.”
The thing about set design is that it’s a team effort. Everyone is working together to bring a set to life and create little worlds for characters. Mariana has always been a team player and enjoyed working with others and following the lead of the art directors she’s worked with. What she never thought was getting opportunities to be a leader herself.
As Mariana rose up to the position of art director she learned that she had the ability to lead and direct others and she soon found confidence in her role.
“The people I work with are so lovely it has become easy and comfortable to work as an art director,” she says. “One project that I remember the most was my first time as an art director in a film called In Wonderland. The project was quite complex, and we had a lot of sets and locations to dress. I was nervous when my other team members would come to me for directions or ask me what needed to be done in the set. Having to make decisions and provide information became suddenly easy.”
Mariana also thanks the great production designers who helped her by believing in her and her potential.
“Cyrum (Ramirez) and Mehdi (Bennani) were super patient and open to teaching me whenever I didn’t know how to do something as an art director. I’m incredibly thankful they gave me the opportunity.”
Today, Mariana continues to work as an art director, serving as the right hand of the production designer—the head of the department and mind behind the set design.
“Everything you see on screen in a movie is accomplished by the art department behind the scenes. As an art department, we are responsible for building and decorating the sets where the story of a film or show would take place and all the small details placed within the set. It is a lot of teamwork, which I love, especially getting that satisfaction as a team when we see the finished product,” says Mariana.
Sometimes the job of an art director can even require strange and fun requests. Such as finding the most random and expensive foods all over LA and turning them into drinks. What?
“As a set dresser, I worked on a commercial for a specialized water brand in cans. For this commercial, we had to find the most expensive food in LA. With the food, we made it into a drink and served it in a generic can to the actors in the commercial,” Mariana explains. “To give you some context, we gave them two drinks while they were blindfolded. One from the brand water and one crafted by us. The actors didn’t know what they were asked to drink. It was a whole adventure buying the most expensive beef and caviar, looking for truffle sauce and wasabi, and mixing them into drinks. We would seal the concoction in a fresh can, and the actors would open and drink it, all while blindfolded. I laughed, thinking this was not part of my job description, but it was hilarious and fun creating the different drinks.”
The life of a art director is never dull! To other Latinas and minority women thinking of pursuing a career in the film industry or chasing after any dream of theirs, Mariana says, “Go for it!”
As a Latina herself, she is eager to continue to achieve success because this is her dream. She wants to continue creating amazing stories and looks forward to future opportunities and accomplishments. And along the way she will continue to be a resilient, patient, and positive person.
“It is sad and disappointing seeing how little representation we have in the film industry and how few Latinos are allowed to work on film sets. I try not to let that discourage me, and I believe we can start to change that once we are given opportunities. I keep pushing and reaching out for jobs,” she says. “Whenever I encounter obstacles, I stay positive and patient and try to figure out what would be best for me. I have noticed that people like working with Latinos because we are very hard-working and always friendly and positive with our jobs. When people see I’m a Latina, they expect that hard-working mindset, and I deliver.”
To those Latinas going for their own dreams, Mariana reminds them to never let the opinions or remarks of others keep you from achieving what you want.
“It might be challenging, but doing it and constantly fighting for your dreams will bring a lot of satisfaction. Also, be patient. Good things take time, so enjoy the process. Keep always looking forward; one setback might be the direction to other opportunities. I remember thinking success was unachievable, but we find success every day; we are just hard to please sometimes. So be gentle with yourself and celebrate every little achievement.”
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