19 April 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network

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Making the Cut

Making The Cut: Art Director of ‘Frank’ and upcoming ‘Sing Street’
22 Oct 2016 : Seán Brosnan
Conboy was responsible for the art direction in 'Frank' starring Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson
With last year’s critically acclaimed musical drama ‘Frank’ and the upcoming ‘Sing Street’ under her belt, IFTN talks to art director Tamara Conboy about her work.

With her first job in the industry a two week replacement for a receptionist in a film and animation company in Ardmore studios, Tamara Conboy explains to IFTN how she went from that to spearheading the art direction in Lenny Abrahamson’s award-winning ‘Frank’ and John Carney’s highly anticipated musical drama ‘Sing Street’ – due out later this year.

IFTN: Tell us about your work on ‘Frank’ and ‘Sing Street’?

Tamara Conboy:‘Both ‘Frank’ and ‘Sing Street’ were very exciting yet very different projects to be involved in. ‘Frank’ introduced me to an interesting world of music. It gave me the opportunity to explore the creative geniuses amongst us and their unique ways of expressing themselves musically with everyday objects. Working with Lenny and Stephen was a pleasure. Lenny is an incredibly intelligent and talented director. The art department worked hard together to create an interesting world for the characters.’

‘Sing Street’ was a walk down memory lane and a great collaboration. Having worked previously with John Carney, the director, definitely made the job easier as there was a mutual trust and understanding. Alan Mc Donald, the designer, and I had a great relationship and enjoyed a shared vision. He entrusted me to decorate the sets which I did with the very talented Riad Karim and a great props and construction crew. Alan's generosity and friendship and John's intuition made ‘Sing Street’ a joy to work on. It stands out as an example of a very happy crew, where we had both enough time and money to do what was needed. Believe me in film this is a rare combination!’

What training/education did you receive to become an art director?

‘I studied woodwork for a year and then trained in visual communications for three years. I took classes in drawing, photography, printing, graphic design and typography. One of the most valuable lessons you can learn in college is listening to a brief - really listening to what is required of you and of course time management, the importance of deadlines. This education has proved invaluable to my career.’

‘My first job after college was with a film and animation company in Ardmore and from there I began working on feature films. I trained from the ground up and worked in every role of the art department. I was extremely fortunate to work with some of the most incredible people who became role models and teachers to me. Billy Williams was the first DP I worked with and his experience and knowledge and his willingness to teach me were priceless. I have worked with many brilliant designers, directors and Cameramen and have learnt something from them all.’

What was your first job in the industry?

‘My first job in the industry was a two week replacement for a receptionist in a film and animation company in Ardmore studios. This led to my first feature film ‘Driftwood’ (starring James Spader) where I worked with a really talented and wonderful designer, Tim Hutchinson. My first lesson from him was how to make really good coffee and within a week I was drawing a boat that was turned into a scaled model. I also spent a lot of time helping to dress the sets which I loved. That was my introduction to film and it was a small Irish production. My first job on an international production was as Graphic designer on 'Space Truckers'. This had a host of well known actors such as Dennis Hopper, Charles Dance, Staphen Dorff. The art department, which was mainly English was extremely experienced with most of the people coming from epic designs films such as the Bond movies... I built up a very good relationship with both the designer and the director and was given free reign with the graphics. It was an immense job but really satisfying as I got to work across all the departments from the costume to the miniatures. It was a great experience.’

What do you enjoy most about being an art director? And what do you consider the greatest challenges?

‘I enjoy the constant learning and the collaboration of the art department across the different disciplines. I love fleshing out the characters in a script and giving them histories and identities. I love the problem solving that arises on a daily basis - be it from money or time constraints or the unusual demands of a director/actor.’

‘I love the chance to travel and see places that are normally not open to the public. Meeting so many different people to me is a great part of our job. Sometimes the greatest challenge is getting the art department recognised and respected within the industry from a financial point of view and securing adequate budgets to ensure that the job can be done and done well.’

Describe your typical working day and the equipment you use.

‘There is no such thing as a typical working day, which is probably why I am still doing what I do. There is however an overall rhythm to how I work. After hiring the crew, I would generally start with research and immerse myself in the period or emotion of the film. (this is one of my favourite parts as it is when you get to learn about new topics, eras and worlds.) As an art director it is important to see the designers' vision and to enable that vision become a reality. Constant communication with the designer and other art department personnel, props and construction is vital. A large proportion of being an art director is about organising and scheduling personnel and budgeting. Administration is an important part of the job.’

‘My tools would be my phone for my contact list and also my laptop, pencil and notebook, tape measure, camera and books. Good boots and warm clothes are vital!’

What filmmaker/art director has influenced you?

‘I have been extremely fortunate to work with many amazing designers, directors and DP's and I believe I have learnt something from each of them. I had the pleasure of working on a few projects with the designer Nathan Crowley and he undoubtedly has had the biggest influence on me. His persistence for excellence and knowing when to let go of it, his sensibility for recognising great design and his enormous sense of fun made him a joy to work with. I have also worked with a few French Designers who opened my eyes and attitude to new way of looking at design. I thank them and feel very privileged to have worked with these people.’

What Irish film or TV show would you have loved to have worked on?

‘I would have loved to have worked on ‘The Door’, a short script written and directed by Juanita Wilson. It is still to this day one of my favourite scripts.’

What films and TV shows did you enjoy growing up that may have encouraged you to work in the industry?

‘I think, growing up, I have been most influenced by European movies. The emotion in ‘Betty Blue’ really struck a chord within me. I also loved the sets in the work of Peter Greenaway, most notably ‘Prospero's Books’ and "The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover’ ...’

What’s the difference between working on an Irish production and working on an international production for you?

‘Quite honestly it depends on the scale of the production and on the country you are working in. All productions throw up their own problems and differences. An obvious difference may be the budget, as Irish productions tend to be smaller. Personally I like the challenge of working in different countries, it is exciting and inspiring. I like to see how other nationalities approach film making and what they prioritise. For example, in my opinion, the French really have a healthy respect for the creative aspect of film making in particular the set design and the art department.’

What advice would you give to anyone wishing to get into art directing?

‘An interest in and an aptitude for design and visual communication is necessary to begin with.’

‘I think it is also necessary to have a variety of skills to be in the art department but it is important to have one that sets you apart from everyone else.’

‘I really believe that college is a very good grounding as it prepares you with the basic tools necessary to start. After that it really is about getting as much experience as you can and working your way through the ranks. Organisational and communicating skills are vital - as is time management. Art directing is a rewarding job and if you feel it's for then go for it. Best of luck!’

IFTA Q&A Series: Joanne O’Brien on Costume Design
IFTA Q&A Series: Eleanor Bowman on Cinematography
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