Creating a scene

Set designer Bruce Hill talks to about his new book and the challenges of a career in the film industry

Photo courtesy of Bruce Hill

Photo courtesy of Bruce Hill

Set designer and Art Director, Bruce Hill, has created sets for television, film, commercials, pop videos and has now created a book Create-A-Scene, which brings all of his knowledge together in a concise 200 pages. As the cover tells you, it’s “Everything You Need to Know About The Art Department”.

Create-A-Scene approaches set design from a practical level, a step-by-step guide to everything a set designer needs to know. Members of the industry have hailed it as the book that they’ve been waiting for. Hill is obviously ecstatic, “It was a very long process”, “but I enjoyed writing and I enjoyed the process”.

During a number of visiting lectures he was giving at his local University, Hill noticed a “big gap” in the market for a practical book on set design, rather than the theory-based books which dominate the market. For a career which is evidently so hands on, Hill’s book approaches the subject with the practicality required of any designer.

It’s deliberately “a short book and an easy read”. Hill tells me that editing the book took a long time, to make it concise and approachable, a book not just on production design, but “that would be read by all film students”. The process took five years on and off from conception to realisation of the finished piece, with Hill writing alongside a busy work schedule.

“There were some agonising, painful moments in it where I thought this is never going to happen”

“New to book writing”, creating a book was certainly a challenge for the set designer, who, with the collaboration of a number of “very good” technicians, has compiled a concise, readable approach to set design almost singlehandedly, it seems. “There were some agonising, painful moments in it where I thought this is never going to happen”.

The book comes as a result of thirty successful years in the industry for Hill. The son of two creative parents working in set design, Hill’s childhood was spent in awe of the “absolutely fabulous” film sets his memories are filled with.

His father worked at the BBC as a scenic artist, meaning “free trips up to the BBC and up to various film studios” for Hill as he grew up. “From about the age of maybe four or five I realised that something my father was doing might be unusual to the rest of them”, he tells me.

The first film set he saw was the set for ‘Oliver’ at Shepperton. It doesn’t seem to be the decorative splendour of the sets which captured Hill’s attention, but the acute technical details of each set. Vividly recalling one set: “an old cowboy scene with a wagon in there”, with a floor made entirely of crushed cork instead of gravel, to make it silent to work on, Hill was “completely gobsmacked by it”, “I was really inspired from there”. It is probably this eye for detail that has earned him such success.

Grateful for the opportunity that having two parents already in the industry provides, Hill worked his way up from assisting his father, “doing a lot of driving around for him and holding paint buckets, and eventually to spraying” to moving into the scenic arts side of things.

In a time when budgets were larger than they are today, advertisers piled money into projects with good directors. Hill’s big break came from the director Howard Guard who was renowned, Hill tells me, for being “extremely creative but so difficult to work with that he went through virtually every art director in the business”. Dealing with big money, big scenery and a big character, Hill was “slightly in the deep end”, but the pair formed an unlikely relationship and Hill ended up working as art director for Guard for “perhaps three or four years”. He was “so creative” and “so demanding”, but “he was a real character” to work with.

From working on many of the big Howard Guard commercials, Hill spread his wings to work with a stretch of big directors “like Barney Edwards and Duffy”. He tries not to work with one director consistently, but to move around and work with as many directors as possible. From the financial perspective of freelance work, Hill tells me it’s good to be able to move between directors, “I try now to keep an even spread of about four to five clients”.
Since working for the family business, Hill has turned purely to freelance work. “Nowadays you can be a lot more competitive if you are entirely freelance”.

“There is a lot of time spent working and not earning unfortunately”

Hill designs from home on the computer using CAD design. From there, he goes to one of the “ten or so stages in London” to put the plan into action. Designing, he tells me, has changed dramatically. You “used to do it all by hand, now, sadly, it’s mostly all on computer”. The computer makes costing much quicker, Hill tells me. “About fifty per cent of the job is costing as opposed to actually creating”, as directors will often propose “a lovely job” which will never fit the shrinking budgets of the modern industry.

“There is a lot of time spent working and not earning unfortunately, but that is just the nature of the business”. You also “have to be prepared to spend a lot of time on the research”, in order to maintain your position in the industry, which is competitive, Hill tells me.

“If you are consistent you will get some more work out of it”. Whilst it might not get you into the most fashionable sets with whichever designer is the “flavour of the month”, it “does tend to guarantee a bit more of a career” in the long run.

According to Hill, the biggest issues for a designer are the limits on time and money that come with any project. It’s all about creating the best possible design, for the least amount of money, all in a tight time frame. “You have to work very carefully not to lose money in this game, and I think that’s what puts a lot of people off”.

When I ask him which his most challenging job has been, he tells me that, of course, every job is challenging, and “it sounds a bit insane, but I would say that eighty per cent of the jobs I do are really really challenging”. Set design is not a monotonous job, then. Everything is different and “that’s what keeps you going”. Hill talks about a number of difficult jobs; those physically exhausting, and those which don’t turn out as expected. Perhaps the most challenging, however, were the pop videos from his early career, which involved “ridiculous filming hours” with eccentric directors, but “it was fantastic the adrenaline rush you got from their creativity”. The jobs themselves demanded a lot for little money. Hill jumped from large commercials to challenging pop promos, from the “real, professional, big budget stuff to the very low but very demanding creative stuff”.

Hill has certainly had some bizarre and challenging jobs. He talks about the Covent Garden Soup campaign, for which he transformed a South African field into the image of an actual soup carton, using only natural ingredients, which was filmed from the sky. Hill and his team of art students couldn’t see what they were creating so it wasn’t until the producers got out of the helicopter twelve days later and shook Hill’s hand, that they knew it had been a success. The visuals for the advert are stunning and Hill certainly got it more than “remotely right”, as he puts it.

One his most memorable jobs was the Kate Bush ‘Cloudbuster’ video, a “big, major part” of his career. He also created the designs for Michael Jackson’s ‘Billy Jean’ video. Hill laughs that even Michael Jackson wasn’t that big at the time and he just had no idea that the video would become such a success. Unfortunately he wasn’t designing on computers back then and doesn’t have a copy of the visuals, because “it would be probably be worth some money now!”

Hill’s career continues to flourish with the continuation of the BBC Flat No.6 Commercials that he has been working on for the last two or three years, and more lectures lined up for the new feature. If you haven’t already, you’re sure to see his work on your screens soon.

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