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Making the Cut

Making the Cut... Donal Woods, Production Designer on 'Downton Abbey'
08 Sep 2014 : By Claire Murrihy
Downton Abbey

The role of Production Designer is a hugely important one on any set. It is a role that involves a vast amount of research, intensive collaboration with the director of the piece and a level of attention to detail that has to be seen to be believed. They are the visual story-tellers of all the TV series' and films that grace our screens. And yet, the greatest compliment they can receive is if no one knows they were there at all!

IFTN spoke to BAFTA-nominee, Donal Woods, Production Designer of the hit ITV drama Downton Abbey

Working on set, my day usually begins withÖWell 'usually' isnít a very common word for it really, as itís often very varied. If itís a new set or new location, then Iíll meet with the director but particularly, on Downton, it tends to be varied. There are three main bases Ė Ealing Film Studios which is where the sets are, High Clare Castle and Bampton Village. If thereís a new set or location for a new episode, then Iíll go along but having been on the set of the kitchen or the other usual stuff for ages, I tend to let them get on with it these days. So 'usually' isnít really the word for it! Itís a different animal from lots of other productions.

I got into Production Design whenÖI did a degree in Design in Leicester. I saw a job for a three-month contract with the BBC. It seems like a thousand years ago nowÖwell, it was thirty years ago. Went there on contract, stayed on in a permanent basis for a number of years and then went freelance. Sorry, itís as boring as ďI saw a job in the paperĒ! I had just done a degree but it was a very competitive area. Actually, Martin Childs, who is also nominated for Paradeís End, was there in the same summer, so there you are! The two of us have come good!

The people who helped me get to where I am today areÖ Everybody really! I mean, in the industry, you work with lots of different people. I remember Laura Mackie, who commissioned Downton Abbey, was Continuity Script Supervisor when I first worked with her. So everybody you meet is a help in lots of ways. Itís a learning process so I think, if you enjoy it enough, everybody you meet helps you get to where you are. But mostly your team as well Ė when you get to this stage itís important to pick a good team!

The most common misconceptions people have about my job areÖWhen people look at stuff they believe that itís all there, that you donít do anything! 'Isnít that somebodyís bedroom, hasnít it always been there?' Well, no, I had to create it! Itís a compliment really if people believe itís always been there. You create an atmosphere or a mood, or create an image that people just believe is real in a sense of television drama or a film or whatever youíre doing. I like the reality of things rather than being too arty. Not in a derogatory sense but I tend to believe that you should realise that the art upon the stage really is a Victorian pub or modern office block, you know what I mean? Believability is the main thing.

The best thing about being a Production Designer isÖWell, I suppose there are so many people in the world who do work that they never want to do. Iím lucky to be one of those people in the world who actually have a job I enjoy. My father worked in a factory and didnít enjoy it very much, so I think youíre lucky if you end up doing something you actually like doing.

The people in the industry I admire areÖWell whoever anybody says, youíve got to admire the writers because without them none of us have any work at all! They are everything really. I mean, you need a good director, you need good lighting and you need everything else. But none of us come together until the script is there, so if thereís no script, weíre all out of work! All the great writers, Julian Fellowes on this (Downton), John Sullivan, all those great people, youíve got to admire them.

Being nominated for and winning awards isÖA great honour! Iíve been nominated quite a lot for Downton and other things. I was in Los Angeles earlier in the year, for the Art Directors Guild nomination and 'Game of Thrones' won but there you are! Iím not bitter! But itís not just my work, itís the whole teamís work. Itís great to win and great to be nominated.

My advice for anyone hoping to do this type of work isÖ Just keep going, I think. If you want to do it, do it. Iíve been doing it long enough now and Iíve worked with young people and you can tell if they want it enough. Itís like anything. If you want to do it, whether itís being a tennis player or whatever, youíve just got to want it enough. And I think thatís the thing. You can be talented but you might have the wrong temperament or just not want to be part of a team. Itís a combination of things. Weíve got some great young people working with us now. So thatís the answer, if you want it enough, keep going.

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