Interview by Indi Davies

Leo Anna Thomas on her work as a standby art director, scenic artist and advocate for good mental health in the industry

Leo Anna Thomas was only 16 when she first saw her name up on the big screen. Initially working as a runner, she’s undertaken a myriad of roles in film and broadcast, ranging from art department assistant to breakdown artist. And while the positions are all quite different by nature, most are rooted in maintaining the look of physical objects – think props and sets – and involve a fair amount of hands-on dirty work. With over ten years’ experience, she’s been able to find her niche, and now works across two main roles: as a standby art director and a scenic artist, specialising in banner and placard design. Her expertise in the latter has earned her the nickname ‘Banner’, and brought in work for features including Bourne 5, Suffragette and The Crown on Netflix. The past year has seen work on the anticipated fourth season of Black Mirror, where she learnt some of her most important lessons to date. But Leo admits that her hours can be gruelling, and has noted a distinct lack of support when it comes to matters of mental health. She shares her experiences and plans to create change where physical and emotional wellbeing are concerned.

Leo at work

Leo Anna Thomas


Job Title

Scenic Artist and Standby Art Director (2015–present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Standby Art Director (2015–present)
Projects include: Black Mirror, Little Bird, Denial

Scenic Artist and Art Director (2015–present)
Projects include: Bourne 5, King Charles III

Assistant Painter, Standby Props, Breakdown Artist, Graphics Assistant (2014–2015)
Projects include: Me Before You, Bastille Day, Legend

Assistant Art Director (2013–2016)
Projects include: Pride, Suffragette, The Mercy, The Crown

Art Department Assistant (2007–2009)
Projects include: Nowhere Boy, An Education, The Edge of love

Clients

BBC, BBC Films, ITV, Netflix, Fox, Universal, Fox Searchlight, BFI, MGM

Education

Film and Television Freelance Training Scheme (Ft2), 2005-2007

Website

leoannathomas.com

Day-to Day

How would you describe what you do?
I work in the art department for the film and television industry, covering two main roles. One sees me making hand-painted banners and placards for protest concert scenes, and the other is as standby art director, where I’ll work directly with a shooting crew on locations and on studio sets. For this, I'll be responsible for the art department, maintaining the appearance of a set and prop continuity for BBC Films, Fox, Universal, MGM, Film4. I’ll also work with smaller independent companies and on short films and commercials.

What does a typical working day look like?
My banner-painting days are completely different to when I work as a standby art director. With banners, I’ll find a space to hang fabric against a wall and spend the first day and a half getting set up, before the painting begins. A 10 to 11-hour day ensues, usually starting at 8am and wrapping at 7pm. Sometimes the research has already been done for me, via a film’s graphics department, so I just crack on, measuring material and painting. Other times I need to design original banners and check them with the production designer.

“When I work as a standby art director, I’ll work 12 to 14-hour days and nights, usually six days a week for a few months.”

When I work as a standby art director my days are planned out and scheduled weeks ahead. I’ll work 12 to 14-hour days and nights, usually six days a week for a few months. In terms of how I live and work as a freelancer, the ‘work’ doesn’t really stop at the end of the day, or at the end of a job. At times that can be very stressful.

Where does the majority of your work take place?
The majority of my banner-making role keeps me inside, in studios, or even in offices spaces not in use. I spend some time in the dark too, as I use projections to transfer designs onto fabric. I sometimes set my own hours, as long as I meet the deadlines. Working with a shooting crew, I start preparation in the office, breaking down a script and getting hold of various props and designs. Then, once filming, I work in large or small stages on studio lots, or various locations in the UK or globally.

Black Mirror season 4 trailer, 2017

How does your work usually come about?
A lot of the work comes word of mouth, through connections and friendships I’ve maintained through the years. I also attend networking events at BAFTA, as part of their Crew scheme.

I also use social media – Facebook page and LinkedIn – with specific hashtags when I’m looking for new work. And from time to time I’ll find myself cold-calling people. Keeping connected, engaged and positive has taken me years to master, and I’m still mastering it!

How collaborative is your work?
Both my roles are hugely collaborative in different ways. With banners, I work with the art, set and graphics department for the design process. Some banners will be original designs, but they still have to be run past the clearance department to check that the work is original. When recreating banners based on historical designs, permission must be given before I start. I then have to connect to the props and construction departments, and make combine materials to create the banners. I usually accompany the finished banners and placards to a set, and assist in distribution to hundreds of supporting artists.

With standby art direction, I have to communicate very quickly with each and every department – camera, sound, producers, hair and make-up, directors, runners, catering, locations and medics to name a few! We all pull together and combine many multilayered skills for the same outcome.

“Maintaining a healthy work-life balance both mentally and physically is a challenge. This industry, though creative and joyful, isn’t too nurturing of mental or physical health.”

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The best bit is that I often discover great stories. For example, I had never even heard of ‘LGSM’ (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) until I was given a script! I am an out and proud gay woman, yet had never heard of this. Through research, I get to watch unseen film footage from private collectors and meet some of the individuals themselves. I also get to travel and see locations the public aren’t usually allowed to access. I thrive in groups of people, so I look forward to going to work, especially when we’re on set.

The least enjoyable aspects are definitely the working hours. When shooting, I sometimes start at 6am, and we often finish after 9pm. This doesn’t leave time to eat properly, relax or socialise. So finding a healthy and manageable work-life balance is a huge challenge. The fact that there is no HR department for productions is increasingly concerning, as there is no one to speak to for issues such as bullying, over-tiredness, depression or time off for personal matters. Other industries have these services available, with understanding the need for recuperation time. There is a lot of downtime on set, but you often have to maintain alertness. The hardest part can also be the time in between jobs, which can vary from one day to six months.

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What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Working on Black Mirror (season four) was one of my most exciting, challenging and hardest experiences so far. It was my first long run as a standby art director, and I was thrown in at the deep end for three episodes, almost back to back. Each episode was directed by a different person, along with a change of crew. It was exciting and tough to continually restart and find my feet over and over again.

What skills are essential to your job?
As a standby art director I have to communicate clearly and quickly, stay calm under immense pressure, know when to speak and when to listen.

Initiative and intuition are important when on set; sometimes you’ll have little or no notice when changes to scripts, sets and schedules are made. The creative aspects, both on set and when making banners, rely on getting a message across and getting it done on time.

“Initiative and intuition are important when on set; sometimes you’ll have little or no notice when changes to scripts, sets and schedules are made.”

Denial trailer, for which Leo worked as a standby art director, 2016

What tools do you use most for your work?
I try not to spend too much time sat at a laptop; I’ve always preferred getting my hands dirty! I use paintbrushes, rollers and stencils, sometimes Photoshop to adjust designs, and Word and Excel for my prep time when doing standby art direction.

I tend to use my phone camera on set, to email images to my team, so we keep up with the ever-changing schedules and emails. I usually have a toolbox or tool belt with me, which will contain a Leatherman knife, tapes, toffee tack, small brushes, white tack and a walkie-talkie.

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As part of her training, Leo worked on the 2009 film Fred Claus, creating props, assisting scenic painting, set dressing and model making

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As part of her training, Leo worked on the 2009 film Fred Claus, creating props, assisting scenic painting, set dressing and model making

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As part of her training, Leo worked on the 2009 film Fred Claus, creating props, assisting scenic painting, set dressing and model making

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As part of her training, Leo worked on the 2009 film Fred Claus, creating props, assisting scenic painting, set dressing and model making

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As part of her training, Leo worked on the 2009 film Fred Claus, creating props, assisting scenic painting, set dressing and model making

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As part of her training, Leo worked on the 2009 film Fred Claus, creating props, assisting scenic painting, set dressing and model making

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
For as long as I can remember saying I wanted to be in the art department in film! I don’t think I even knew what that meant; I just knew I wanted to help make what I was watching on television. I remember wanting to see my name on the big screen, and was lucky enough to have this come true when I was 16, as a runner on a short film. I also knew I had to be part of a creative environment, surrounded by likeminded people.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied fine art at university, which eventually led me to the film industry. It’s a deep, cavernous, scary, exciting, uplifting, lonely, challenging, manic, peaceful and fierce world. But I think my studies taught me to keep structure, routine and meet deadlines.

What were your first jobs?
My first jobs were set up like an apprenticeship. I was accepted into Ft2’s [Film and Television Freelance Training, now defunct] in 2005. My jobs during those years were short stints within the art departments for Foyles War, Messiah 5, Fred Claus, 28 Weeks Later, Silent Witness and Love and Other Disasters, as an art department assistant. I also got to work within camera, sound, production and editing departments, which taught me a great deal about how a whole team works.

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Leo’s work with props can include historical research to recreate and handpaint labels, like these for the 2007 film Dean Spanley

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As part of her training, Leo worked on Foyles War, researching historical designs, dressing sets and creating props

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A blackboard created for Foyles war, featuring replicas of diagrams and information about the 'Bouncing Bomb', copied word for word and sketch for sketch from historical documents

Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
There were hundreds of tiny gestures, meetings and people that bought me to where I am today. All the amazing staff who ran the Ft2 scheme; a buyer called John O’Shaughnessy, who introduced me to art director Mark Raggett, who introduced to me art director Ben Smith. He took me to work with production designer Andrew McAlpine, who I've now worked with five times.

Mark then reappeared in my life and asked me to work on Pride six years later. This is what kick-started my banner-making adventure, and being hired over and over again by the amazing graphic designer Julian Nix.

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Pride certainly catapulted me down the banner-making path for film and television. I moved on to Suffragette, Bastille Day, The Mercy, a Subway commercial, Bourne 5, and currently Bohemian Rhapsody. Working on Black Mirror helped me build my confidence and an ability to remain calm under pressure.

What skills have you learnt along the way?
As a standby art director I have to be switched on mentally and creatively. Prior to my two current roles, I learnt how to issue technical drawings to huge crews, research efficiently, communicate to a great number of individuals across all departments. I have learnt how to delegate and not let stress take over, navigate Excel spreadsheets, use more digital devices on set.

“I try not to spend too much time sat at a laptop; I’ve always preferred getting my hands dirty!”

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Props for Suffragette

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Banners for Suffragette

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Banners for Suffragette

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Banners for Suffragette

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance both mentally and physically. This industry, though creative, intriguing and joyful, isn’t too nurturing of mental health, nor does it allow much of a chance to keep physically well.

I have made a number of mistakes, and felt devastated at the time (spelling mistakes on banners, cables seen on screen, tripping up when negotiating rates of pay) but I see now that I was rushing, over-tired, hadn’t eaten, or didn’t pause to think things through.

Now I take time to breathe, get at least seven to eight hours sleep a night, eat properly and communicate to directors if I spot a mistake. Repetition is key to learning these things.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
No and yes! I never imagined that working in the art department would require so much office time – it’s not all getting covered in paint and making things. There are a lot of logistics, meetings, paperwork and accounts before that stage. I also didn’t think I’d be spending days sifting through receipts to work out my taxes. Working in this industry isn’t as glamorous as it seems.

Leo assisted the art department for Nowhere Boy, 2009
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Leo’s work for Nowhere Boy included recreating John Lennon’s handmade newspaper 'The Daily Howl', replicating his drawing and sketches, and set dressing on studio stages

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Leo’s replication of John Lennon’s handmade newspaper 'The Daily Howl'

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Leo’s replication of John Lennon’s handmade newspaper 'The Daily Howl'

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Leo’s replication of John Lennon’s handmade newspaper 'The Daily Howl'

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I plan to shift my career into mental-health awareness work. Over the last two years I have been sharing stories of my own battles with mental ill health with colleagues. During these discussions I have been astounded to hear so many similar stories.

I am currently looking to setting up a place on site, in studios and on locations, for crew to step away from work, even for five minutes. It would be a space for mindfulness, meditation and to talk confidentially.

Could you do this job forever?
I would like to say yes, but mentally and physically I don’t think I could sustain a healthy balance into older age. This would also depends on your private life, whether you have support from a partner or family to help cover times when work isn’t coming through.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
I have never consciously aimed to move up the ladder, but with a lot of hard work you could work towards becoming a production designer, an art director, move into graphics or set decorating.

Leo was an assistant art director for Pride, 2014
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Banners created for Pride

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Banners created for Pride

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Banners created for Pride

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to work in similar roles?
‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’ when venturing into new jobs. Be open to new challenges and be honest about your skill set and experience – everyone starts out not knowing what the hell they were doing. Jump into the deep end and enjoy yourself – any mistake you make will shape you in ways you won’t understand at first.

Stay in touch with friends and family outside of the film industry. It’s so important to stay grounded with those people, and let them know how your industry works. At the same time, keep up with any natural connections you make through jobs; this keeps you on people’s minds. I would recommend experiencing as many different roles as possible at the start, even if you find yourself adoring the first job you do. You never know what else is out there until you try it.

Also, keep on top of your finances! It can be deceiving to see lots of money going into your account, but remember you could be out of work for months as a freelancer. And when it comes to decision-making, remember you can always step away for 10 or 15 seconds to think before you act.


You can fund Leo’s Mental Health in Film campaign here.

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