If you’ve seen Tomorrowland, Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, Super 8, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Zodiac, or Mission: Impossible III, then you’ve seen Clint Schultz’s graphic design. With over 10+ years in the movie industry, Schultz has had a hand in movie after movie. He knows what it takes to work in the industry, and in this interview he talks about collaboration, industry changes, and why it’s important to finish what you’ve started.
You completed your thesis studies in May 2000, and then went to work in the movie industry shortly thereafter. Your career took off, giving you the chance to collaborate on a lot of movies. Then you went back and completed your thesis and degree in 2012, earning a Master of Fine Arts. What made you want to finish your graduate work?
I very quickly went from SDSU to working on films. I had finished a draft of my thesis in 2000, but kept putting off further revisions. My work and career got in the way, and the lack of an MFA definitely wasn’t stopping me from filmmaking. By 2008 I married Callie, and we were in the process of buying our first house. I was finishing up work on Star Trek (2009), and I got the call that my mentor at SDSU Walter Cotten had suddenly passed. A memorial at SDSU followed and I returned for the first time since graduation.
Being back at the University made me realize that I had unfinished business, but I would need to do additional work to complete my thesis. By 2011, I found out that my committee chair Richard Baker was retiring (and since passed). In addition, my wife was pregnant with our daughter Zoe. By the time I started Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), I had a newborn at home and pending thesis revisions. Not for the faint of heart, or those who value sleep.
My mom Vickie always found a way to remind me that I needed to finish that thesis in the years after I left San Diego. Once the thesis was approved and completed, I gave her a bound copy for Mother’s Day. It was very rewarding to finally complete my degree, and I only wish I had done so when Walt was still with us because he played a big part in my education and life. Walt helped me find a path with my artwork that made sense. I only recently returned to SDSU for a speaking engagement. It was the first time I returned since Walt passed. It was very emotional, but always good to be back.
Who were some of your other mentors?
I showed a very early interest in Art, and my mother and father encouraged it. Amarillo, Texas is not really know for the arts, but my mom would enroll me in youth classes at Amarillo College in addition to my school programs. I continued to learn and practice art throughout grade school and Jr. High. However, I wasn’t really challenged or pushed until I met Jo Beth Nepper at Randall High School. During that four-year stretch, I turned the corner as an artist and I credit Mrs. Nepper’s friendships and influence. Lynwood Kreneck at Texas Tech University is another person I credit as a mentor. I transitioned from a High School painter to a College photographer and neither was very gratifying. When Kreneck introduced me to printmaking, I was able to get the best of both worlds. I fell in love with the process, and it led me to my first computer graphics class. Even thought I graduated with a photography emphasis, it was Kreneck that pushed me in the right direction.
Within the film industry, I have been very lucky to be included in some amazingly talented art departments. I definitely learn something from every project, so I have a lot of teachers and influences. However, I just want to mention a few people that have helped me grow within the industry. Dan Dorrance was the first Art Director who hired me and gave me a chance. He taught me a lot about what was expected / needed, while also giving me a lot of room to grow and improvise. He brought me in at a time when I was very green and gave me a chance to succeed. It was Dan who originally introduced me to Scott Chambliss on M:i:3 whom I’ve now done five features with. My collaboration with Scott has defined who I am as an artist today. Scott has giving me opportunities to continue to hone my craft with an amazing team of filmmakers, and we share a similar vision.
When it comes to designing for movies, is it a case of many minds giving input, with one design coming out of that collaboration? Or is it more about working alone, in a solitary state of production, designing here and there, eventually sharing it with the team, and the “best” design wins?
Like everything else in this business, it just depends on the people involved. I’ve worked a lot of different ways, and flexibility is part of the process. Ultimately, I work for the Production Designer (PD), and they work for the Director. Sometimes those two superiors have spent years together as in the case of J.J. [Abrams] and Scott Chambliss. Other times, it may be their first collaboration together (and yours with them) like on Collateral with David Wasco and Michael Mann.
Early on, you need to establish a rhythm with the PD. There is usually an early task like creating a production logo to help everyone get to know each other. Sometimes the director will have specific ideas. Brad Bird for example is really good about sketching. Sometimes inspiring notes, sketches or images are given to you by the PD as a starting point. A large majority of the time, I’m given freedom to create multiple options. Along the way, I might enlist the opinions of some of my colleagues, but it depends on the task. Once I have a group of ideas that I’m comfortable with, I will submit it to the PD. Sometimes they will have notes, edits, subtractions, additions, etc. Again, this just depends on whom you are working with.
Once we are on the same page with our options, the PD will present the work to the director for approval or revisions. Along the way you can pick up a lot of ideas about style and the design aesthetic for the project. I’ve worked in art departments where more than one person had a say in what was ultimately presented to the director. I’ve also worked in situations where I simply presented to the director, without any additional input. I find the more people are involved, the more complicated things get. I try to limit the input to the PD and director unless I seek out other opinions.
To say that the “best” design ultimately wins in any scenario is somewhat subjective. You always try and put your best foot forward, but you are also trying to show a range of options. Some of those options are stronger than others, and you might be surprised when something isn’t selected. You also may be sent down a path that you don’t agree with, but you have to make the best of it. In the end, you do you’re best to please everyone and get it right. Ultimately, the director or production designer will make a majority of the graphic decisions, but the studio may also get involved on items that have merchandising or marketing potential.
Your job requires you to be a journeyman, knowing how to do anything and everything, or find somebody who can help do the job for you, or teach you the skills you need. This requires you to always stay curious, to always be learning. How do you stay on top of it all?
Every show is different, but we are rarely at a shortage for research. I feel by going to art school, and focusing on so many different disciplines, I have a well-rounded education. However, I feel like I take away something new from each experience. Sometimes that is print technology. I’ve mentioned Angels & Demons, and the miles of custom wall covering. I received a crash course on direct to substrate printing. That is a process that I have used on nearly every show since. At the same time, you may wind up on a period show that requires a crash course in older technology or styles. That could be anything from screen-printing or hand lettering to vacuform signs. So much of what I need to know, or learn, is based on the type of film and the look we are trying to achieve.
As a freelancer/contractor, you’re able to pick and choose the projects you work on. Why do you take on some jobs, but turn down others?
Technically, you can pick and choose. However there are ebbs and flows in this business. As a freelance artist you must remain very conscious of that. Turning down a show today may mean a long layoff or better opportunity. There is definitely some risk and gambling involved. Many of the jobs I take are based on relationships that I have made throughout my career. I’ve been lucky to have some wonderful collaborations, and I enjoy the opportunity to work with those colleagues again. There are also a lot of people I would still like to work with, and I’m hopeful that I will someday. If I turn something down, it usually has more to do with location, timing or compensation.
What jobs did you take on, but regret taking on, and why?
Anytime someone says, “You could do this show in your sleep,” you will end up regretting it. But seriously, I don’t think I regret any of them. Some of the films are definitely more difficult than others, but that is part of the learning process. It’s easy to look back at things you would have handled differently, and you try to learn from those situations. There are some situations I would rather not be in again. I know that now, and I try to make more informed decisions.
What kinds of tips would you offer somebody, who’s looking to move to LA, when it comes to networking and making a name for yourself?
Being in L.A. was a big part of working here. I tried to get jobs in L.A. while I was still living in San Diego, and it was impossible. Once I was here, I was able to begin friendships and understand the infrastructure of the city and the film community. I would reach out to anyone I could find a number for. There are still some great resources like Production Weekly that I used religiously. I would send resumes and call just trying to get more information, or even a portfolio review. Anything I could do to introduce myself and get a foot in the door. Eventually, I was able to string together a few jobs and build a resume.
Also important to those early assistant jobs was going the extra mile. I don’t think I would have received much of a shot had I not worked extremely hard with my early opportunities. I wanted to work in this business, and I needed to show I was beyond capable.
I just tried to remain flexible. If the entire art department was focused on a model that was being pitched to the director, I helped out in any way possible. If you needed to stay at work until midnight cranking out prints for a camera test, you didn’t blink. At the same time you are building relationships with vendors that you know can deliver your work, especially in a pinch.
There’s definitely a lot of cliché early on about paying your dues, and working hard. It absolutely pays off, and people that will hire you on the next film will take notice.
How important is it to meet deadlines, or come in early on deadlines, and how does that make or break your career?
It’s a must. The camera does not wait, and the last thing you ever want is to be the person holding it up. You know the shooting schedule going in. Art directors will keep up with your progress, and hopefully there is never a situation where you miss a deadline. However, people depend on you to deliver the graphics for the given application. You might get buried or get behind, but the goal is always to stay ahead of the camera. If you are able to do that with confidence and consistency, you will get hired again. At the end of the day we all hope we are delivering a good product, but it needs to be done on schedule. I spoke some about this in my Tomorrowland Perspective article. My wife was sick with pneumonia, and I had a deadline pending on that pin. There is a paragraph called WORK AND HOME: THE BALANCING ACT.
You’ve talked about the “mass exodus” from L.A., when production moved to other parts of the US, as well as Canada. To your recollection, when did that happen, and how did you cope with that dry spell of work?
There is so much out there about “runaway production” it even has a wiki page. I’ve been very fortunate to have steady local work for a lot of years. There always seemed to be a few movies happening locally that kept my contemporaries and me busy. It wasn’t that long ago that you might have Batman, Spider-Man, Star Trek and Transformers all shooting in L.A. In addition, there would be a number of prominent comedies and dramas filming around L.A. The tax incentives in other countries and states became very appealing to the studios, and very few large budget films have been made here in recent years.
Georgia, Louisiana and New York seem to be locations for many more of the US films than Hollywood these days. For the past few years, while L.A. filming has been at its lowest point, I’ve taken on more outside projects. I’ve worked as a full time designer with Astek Wallcovering, whom I met while making Angels & Demons
More recently, I took on a 2-year project with Cloud Imperuim Games designing all of their logos for Star Citizen (the largest crowd funded project of all time). That connection was made through an illustrator named Ryan Church whom I worked with on Star Trek(s) and Tomorrowland.
How is working on Star Citizen, a video game, different from working on movie productions?
Chris Roberts has some film credits of his own, so it’s been a fairly natural transition. The biggest difference is that we are not physically building sets, props, wardrobe, etc. Therefore, I spend a lot more time designing and a lot less time fabricating, budgeting and coordinating. Because of the futuristic theme of the game, my work on Star Trek is probably the most comparable. However, I’ve mostly done logos (for the game itself and in-fiction). On a film I would handle all the graphics in the environments and on the ships. Chris has a team of artists working on this project around the world, so my work in those areas has been limited.
When do you recall the work picking up in L.A., and what do you think fueled it?
California finally has some tax incentives in place that will help bring back work to L.A. I think that combined with the need for programing has led to the current up swing. With Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, etc. all looking for original programming, the town seems to be very busy with various series. It remains to be seen what films will be made with the new incentives, but we are all hopeful. For the immediate future, I think most of the larger scale tentpole films are probably going out of county or state. However, it would mean a lot to California if they ever come back.
Some people aren’t willing or able to move to California, but they want to get involved with designing for motion pictures. Are we at a point where you don’t have to move to California to work in movies?
Atlanta has a lot of work right now, and so does Louisiana and New York (and London and Canada for that matter). People interested in working in outside of California should check with the unions that preside over those states. California has always been the hub of filmmaking, and many of us started here. With the tax incentives being offered in other countries and states, there are definitely filmmaking opportunities outside California.
What’s the next step for you in terms of design, film, or something else?
Of course, you’ve saved the hardest question for last. I’ve had an exciting career, and I definitely want to continue with filmmaking. I enjoy what I do, but I also look forward to other opportunities within the business.
When we were working on Tomorrowland (and everyone was still in L.A.), I learned so much about the filmmaking process. I started on the show to help with the pitch to the studio, so I saw much of the evolution from day one. We were a very close unit, and I could see all the wheels turning. That was a very unique film in that it had ties to Disney Studios, Disney Parks, Disney Archives and the D23 Expo. I was able to interact with groups of people I don’t normally cross paths with on a given film. I was even working with the marketing team who eventually featured my pin design as the face of the campaign. The whole experience exposed me to many of the moving parts within our industry, and I would like to have more input on creative decisions. I’m not sure where I will go with that, but I am more interested in the overall filming experience, not just what happens in the art department.
Edited from a series of interviews with Clint Schultz.
Check out Big Screen Design, Part 1, to read more about the movies Clint Schultz has designed for over the years.