Conor McMahon talked to big-budget production designer Ray Ball about why he loves being in charge.
So how did you get into production design in the first place?
I did art and model-making in Dun Laoghaire. You have to make a decision whether you want to design your own work or get other people to make it. I much prefer designing the stuff myself so I did the course. There are a few ways to make it into the art department. Traditionally it’s either as a graphic designer – so you’re good with computers – or to be a good draughtsman and then you work your way up.
So that’s what this industry is like for college leavers?
After college, you will end up working as an unpaid apprentice or something like that. You have to grovel, grovel, grovel to get onto the jobs. That’s the way I did it, anyway. It gave me confidence and also something for my portfolio. Then I started getting offered low-budget things. But you also need to learn to start saying ‘no’. Because you’ll always be popular when you’re free. I went through a year-and-a-half of working for free on everything. And then I got a lucky break. I remember going for The Coalboat kids and the Pickaroonie. I rang the producer and asked for work experience. A few weeks later I get a call saying, ‘Someone’s dropped out, can you come for an interview?’ I ended up designing it. It was my big break.
So is there enough work out there to keep you going?
Last year was a very bad year. There were lots more documentaries and art departments don’t get hired for that. It’s supposed to be a good year this year. But then The Tudors is finished. A huge mass of people who have been working on that for the last six years are all now out of a job.
Would projects like, say, the Film Board’s Signatures, keep things ticking over?
Oh yes, definitely. Signatures are a really important thing now. Because January, February, March every year, there is pretty much nothing else.
So what do you look for in a project?
If I like the script, I talk to the director or the producer and I find out what the budget is. On a short, €1000 for the art department is doable, plus vans and labour on top of that. I mean now everyone says, ‘Do a Once’ but you can’t expect that formula to happen everytime.
So where does a production design budget go, mainly?
There are two main ways you can spend your budget. You can buy and rent stuff, or you can get five or six people to sit on the internet and look at dublinwaste.com and things like that. They’ll source everything for free. I would much rather make a job rather than give the money to the shops...
The full article is printed in Film Ireland 132.