On Feb. 5, 2011 in a star-studded ceremony at the Beverly Hills Hilton, UC Davis alumna Claire Bennett was part of the team who took home the prestigious Art Director’s Guild Award for her work on the hit television show “Modern Family.” Bennett, who received an MFA from the theatre & dance department in 2006, talked to the Aggie about her career as an art director, and her recent work and experiences on “Modern Family.”
MUSE: What made you decide you wanted to be an art director?
Claire Bennett: At a pretty early age, I was always interested in theatre design. That sort of evolved into being excited when I went to see films and watch T.V shows and seeing how the sets and environments help tell a story. While attending UC Davis, I had the opportunity to meet Professor John Iacovelli, who, as a working production designer and theatre designer, inspired me. I got to see his experiences and what a fun and interesting job [he had], and it was an exciting lead-in to this career.
What does the career of “art director” entail? What’s an average day like on the set?
The role of the art director is to implement the production designer’s vision. The production designer is responsible for the look of the show and determines what will be the visual environment. It’s the art director’s job to implement that vision by collaborating with the construction, set decoration, prop and location departments, to practically create the world that the camera will see. On [an average day on the set of] “Modern Family,” we have three main sets on our sound stage, and wherever we’re shooting I’ll go on a walk-thru of each before the camera gets there and make sure it’s ready for filming. We typically shoot on a practical location for two days a week also.
How does one become an art director in the first place?
I think that aside from having an interest in design and the study that goes along with that, a lot of time is spent networking and making connections in the design world. I’ve worked before with Richard Berg on “Miami Medical” and “Trust Me,” so you rely on those relationships to carry on as your career progresses. In the film industry it’s always a little bit about who you know, lucky timing, and making sure that you always maintain strong relationships.
So what were the steps you took in reaching your position today?
My first two jobs were shadowing and assisting designers. I then worked as an art department coordinator for [the ABC Family drama] “Lincoln Heights,” a position John Iacovelli, who was the production designer, offered me. An art coordinator manages the office and makes sure that all the separate departments (set decoration, prop, construction) are up to date with the schedules. That [job] was a great opportunity for me to see how a television show is run and how its design is implemented. You can’t know [what the job is like] until you’ve really worked on a show and seen how a production runs.
What has your experience been like on Modern Family?
I’ve been with “Modern Family” almost from the beginning and it’s been a great experience to see the show develop. We weren’t sure how it was going to go; you never do at the beginning of a project, and it’s been a delight to see how well the show has been received. It’s a highlight of my job to be able to read the scripts every week, and we sit in the office and laugh to ourselves at the jokes, and then it’s even more delightful when it’s brought to life with our actors. It’s a great show to work on in that it’s funny and we have light-hearted story lines.
I’m sure people always ask you this, but, have you met any of the cast members?
I do know all of the actors, just from being on the show now for almost two seasons, and I normally see them in the mornings when we’re getting the set camera-ready. I might also prep the set while they’re [about to shoot] and they’re great. Julie Bowen, who plays Claire Dunphy, is very funny, and Ty Burrell, who plays Phil, is always lighthearted. The whole cast is great on the set and very pleasant to work with!
How did you feel after winning the award from the Art Director’s Guild?
It was big. We were really surprised, and I was very happy for [Production Designer Richard Berg]! As the production designer, he is the one nominated, and he is the one who accepts the award, and I was very proud to be a part of his team. We were nominated last year and didn’t win. It’s great to have your work recognized by your peers, that was the nicest thing, and I was really glad I didn’t trip up the steps going up the stage! The episode we won for was our Halloween-themed episode, and on top of receiving the award, it was such a fun episode to work on. It was such a well-written and directed episode.
What do you love most about your job?
On a television show we get a new script every week and there’s always something new and challenging. The set is a vehicle to help tell these stories and support the characters, and it’s certainly not a boring job!
It’s also exciting to be an art director within the world of film and TV as the art department and role of the art director adapts to include expanding technologies in design.
ANNETA KONSTANTINIDES can be reached at email@example.com.