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Making The Cut: Career Advice from Production Designer Mark Geraghty
23 Nov 2012 : By Dylan Newe
Mark Geraghty (centre) on the set of 'Ripper Street' with Jerome Flynn & Matthew Macfadyen
From the cobbles of Dublin city to Hollywood movie sets, Mark Geraghty’s career as a production designer has taken him all over the world.

He has transformed Irish countrysides into French islands for ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, army barracks to 19th century crime havens for the BBC’s ‘Ripper Street’, and used a Wicklow-based studio for the backdrop of New York-set ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’.

Geraghty picked up an IFTA Award for his efforts on the 50 Cent biopic in 2007, and has since gone on to be one of Ireland’s most in-demand production designers. His most recent project was John Michael McDonagh's ‘Calvary’, which was shot in Sligo and Rush. Today, Geraghty shares his tips on how to get into the industry, how to sustain a career, and tells us why his job is more of a “vocation” than anything else.

Generally my day begins… Generally, as a production designer there are two types of days. There’s pre-production, setting everything up, and there’s the shooting period, and they can be quite different. With the pre-production day, what we usually do is look at the first week of schedule and concentrate on getting those sets ready. There’s a possibility that in one day you could have three different sets and two locations, depending on the schedule.

So the priority for me at the start of the picture is to work with the location manager and find locations. We could spend a full day looking for particular locations for a particular scene. Normally what happens is the location manager has been out before me so I look at photographs, narrow it down and say for example ‘Let’s look at these two’. Then I finalise it to one or two, photograph it and present it to the director, bring him along to see if he’s happy with it. And that’s very typical of a pre-production day; you like to have all the locations before you start.

I always say [the directors] are a bit like Pacman behind you trying to catch up. But you really just keep ahead "

I’d also have a team in the art department first, making sure that if there’s something like handcut graphics, that it’s all in the works. I’d talk to my art director who primarily runs the art department, dealing with construction, set decoration etc. That means going back to the drawing board designs and making sure we’re remaining on budget. There are all these things. The days can vary and it always gets more intense closer to the shoot. Then you’re physically dressing sets and getting sets ready with the prop people. That’s a typical day in pre-production.

Normally on the shoot day, my first thing is to walk the director on set. I like for them to work out the set, the best angles, make sure everyone’s happy. Once the director’s happy, they rehearse the first scene and shoot the first master, I’ll move on and get the next set ready. And it’s kind of a leapfrog thing. Anytime we change location I’m back to bring the director to the set or location. And I’m constantly working ahead of them. I always say they’re a bit like Pacman, behind you trying to catch up. But you really just keep ahead.

The most common misconception people have about my job is… that it’s not hard work and that it’s glamorous. I mean, it’s hard graft, it’s not something you learn overnight. I’ve been in the business 30 years and I’m still learning every day, and once you stop learning you get out of the game. It’s a lot of pressure but it’s very fulfilling, very satisfying. If you don’t get the satisfaction out of it, forget it, you won’t be going into it for the money.

The two practical tips I would give to somebody trying to break in the industry are… Spend four years in college studying to become a production designer and more importantly, just do as much work experience as you can. There’s an argument for college and I don’t think you can come out at the end of those four years and walk in and design a movie. I think it’s probably halfway between, but I think you need a lot of work experience too.

You need to start young because you need to work your way through the department on a factory level. I’d rather see people get more of an all-round feel for things, do a year of architecture "

You need to start young because when you leave you need to start low and work your way through the department on a factory level within the business. I took two people from college and one of them has been my trainee for three years. I’d rather see people get more of an all-round feel for things, do a year of architecture. I also think fine art is very important. I studied architectural studies, I see a lot of the kids coming through these days don’t have that. You do need an architectural background to build a set. But I think the way into the business is in the business, that’s where you learn most. At a certain level I would say getting an agent is essential as well. They send you scripts, they do protect you but they also take 10 per cent!.

The people who helped me get where I am today are… Brilliant designers. I was lucky enough to be born into the business. My father was a location manager and a production manager. I was born on a film set so I ended up here whether I liked it or not. But the people that helped me in my department to learn were just great designers. You’d listen, write everything down and just listen closely to them.

The best thing about my job is… The day it wraps! No, it’s a fabulous job, I’ve got to travel the world, I’ve got to meet amazing people. I think the best part of the job is when the project is complete you get to go to the cinema, sit back and watch your work. The worst part is the waiting for the call for your next job. There are a lot of breaks between movies, once you finish you don’t know where your next one is coming from. So it’s the unknown. I’m 30 years in the business and still insecure and anyone that’s saying they aren’t is lying. And I don’t think anyone whether it be actor, director or producer, ever gets used to it.

Some avenues to explore for inspiration are… Read John Boorman’s ‘Money Into Light’, ‘Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists’ by Steven Bach. They will not only give you insights into the world of design, but the politics of what’s expected of you. Watch ‘Master and Commander: The Making Of...’ watch all the ‘Making Of’s...’ actually. I think ‘Master and Commander’ was one of the best movies ever made, technically and visually. You don’t have to sleep, eat and breathe it. I think you always know when people are going to make it in the industry. It’s like the priesthood, it’s a vocation.

Click below for previous 'Making the Cut' intervews:

Nathan Nugent: 'What Richard Did' Editor

Ronan HIll: 'Game of Thrones' Sound Designer

Cillian Murphy wins at the SAG Awards 2024
BAFTAs 2024: Cillian Murphy wins Best Actor, Element Pictures’ Poor Things wins 5 awards
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