What do you do for a living?
I am one of the owners of Cutting Edge Scenic Design. We focus on producing high impact, inventively detailed scenes, and attractions for all kinds of events—from permanent attractions, seasonal or short term events, themed booths, you name it. From concept to construction to execution, we work closely with our clients throughout the creative process to develop scenes and events that are both imaginative and functional. We draw from our team’s decades of experience in the haunt and entertainment fields to find intelligent solutions for getting our clients’ creative and production objectives across effectively and within their budget.
How would you describe what you do?
My work can range from designing and constructing the projects to consulting or even managing attractions with the entertainment industry. For years we have specialized in Halloween attractions but we can readily apply the same approach to design, construction, and management in other fields or attractions unrelated to Halloween. It’s primarily about having a clear and imaginative vision for the project and the ability to execute that vision effectively, on time, within budget, and hopefully better than the client ever dreamed it could be.
What does your work entail?
On any given project I could be responsible for designing (scenic, lighting, painting), code compliance, consulting, construction, advertising, marketing, and management. Sometimes I am the sole person responsible for that aspect or I might be supervising or consulting with a team in charge of a particular element.
What’s a typical work week like?
My work week varies significantly and seasonally. My days might be spent researching and developing new projects, reading code books, designing floor plans, scheduling jobs, meetings with clients, or marketing our company. As jobs begin to come down the pipeline, time is spent scheduling, ordering supplies, building, painting, detailing, and shipping preparation, etc. If we are traveling for a job or an installation, you could add securing housing and transportation for the team to my list.
How did you get started?
I began over twenty years ago when I was seventeen. I was always a fan of horror movies and Halloween and when I was offered a job helping to build a local haunted house attraction, I jumped at the chance. I took every opportunity to learn about the different roles and responsibilities for operating an attraction. Over the years I became more involved, attended seminars and soaked up as much knowledge as I could get my hands on. Before long, I became a member of the design team.
What do you like about what you do?
I find the people and the creative process really fascinating. I have met some truly amazing artists—many of whom are self-taught– through working in this industry. I love seeing an idea born on paper come to life before your eyes as it is being built, painted, and detailed. The best is seeing how the customers react to the events we put on.
What do you dislike?
The only thing I dislike is the time spent away from my wife. Some jobs can take me away from home for weeks at a time, but I am very lucky to have a wife who supports and loves what I do almost as much as me!
How do you make money/or how are you compensated?
Everything we do is on a per contract basis so working year round on landing new accounts is just as important as the work we do when hired.
How much money do Scenic Designers make?
This can vary greatly on many factors. People in this field might apply their skills to local or professional theatre, TV, photo shoots, or films. On average a professional Scenic Designer could make approximately $30,000 – $60,000 a year with more specialized designers (television, movie, theme park) making upwards of $100k.
How much money did/do you make starting out?
Not much! I spent many, many years strictly as a volunteer while apprenticing under a man who taught me a great deal about design. Even he probably earned very little in the job as it was more a labor of love.
What education, schooling, or skills are needed to do this?
I worked as a stagehand for many years and during that time I learned a lot of ins and outs of set design (especially mobile set design), the need for advance work, preparation, versatility of materials, the coordination and efficiency required to load-in and set up a show.
Computer skills for creating CAD drawings, construction skills, math, painting, sculpting and lighting are skills that I tend to use in my day to day routine. Our team is comprised of different designers who each excel at a different craft.
Useful avenues for learning more about scenic design could range from attending an art school or colleges that offer theatre design programs, volunteering at your local theatre company or haunted attraction, etc. It’s hard to overstate the importance of finding a way to apprentice with a scenic designer or working backstage in theatre. The more you can be exposed to the various styles and approaches to mounting a production the more you will understand how important function in design really is. Having a wonderful idea for a scene within a haunted attraction is really useless without the ability to source materials, construct, paint, detail, and complete the project within budget, safely, and on time. With the popularity of Halloween, a great route to learning your craft would be to get involved with the local haunted attraction—get a feel for how much is required and how the team must work together to pull off the event every night. Try not to limit yourself to “only” doing one type of job. Working on the wardrobe crew of a theatre production was just as useful in helping me develop my understanding of design and production as taking an attraction design seminar was. Even if you don’t fully dedicated your career to a particular department, the more you can understand what the people around you are doing and their value in the production, the better you can do your job. You will learn how inter-dependent the various technical fields are and people will enjoy working with someone who understands the unique challenges they face in their job.
What is most challenging about what you do?
Our team is somewhat specialized and we are known for the speed with which we can execute a project. Deadlines are always a challenge but also useful for keeping us focused on the job at hand.
What is most rewarding?
Seeing an idea come to life and sharing that experience with our team is very rewarding for me.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
Spend time around others who do this for a living and try to learn from their successes and mistakes. Never stop learning and never think you already know it all. This industry is continually advancing and we are always learning and inventing new techniques to further our careers and our industry.
How much time off do you get/take?
I usually take off 2 weeks a year for vacation. I average a 6 day work week most of the year but when you love what you do for a living the long hours are part of the reward!
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
That my job is seasonal, we specialize in building attractions for the Halloween industry so naturally people think we only work a few months out of the year. I work year round researching new ideas, designing the events and familiarizing myself with the different codes we encounter across the country. Often I am brainstorming new ideas and sketching designs in December only weeks after our Halloween event comes to a close.
What are your goals/dreams for the future?
To grow our company and branch out more for international work. We have made a name for ourselves in the Halloween industry and I would like to see us bring our style and expertise to different countries around the world.
What else would you like people to know about your job/career?
Working in this field gives you an opportunity to work with and meet others that share the same passions as you. The friendships I have made in this industry have helped me develop more fully while opening me up to a network of colleagues to share ideas or concerns with. If you are considering a career in this field, I would encourage you to network with and learn from others as much as possible. Keep your ears and eyes open and you would be surprised by how much you can learn and absorb from even the simplest conversations with others.