Ana Miskell spends her weekdays dreaming up sets for one of New Zealand's most-loved TV shows. After dipping her toes working in the art department for a variety of shows at university, the opportunity arose at Shortland Street for a "runner" in the art department. She jumped at the chance and 11 years later, Miskell has gone from props girl to production designer (essentially the head of the arts department), and now works as the Art Manager. We catch up with Ana and find out how she got to where she is today.
As a teenager, what did you want to be when you "grew up"
I came across a journal that I made when I was 16 the other day where I wrote about what I wanted to be: What I want to do is something that involves artistic application and gives me the chance to get stuck in and create. So I guess I wanted to do what I am doing now. Architecture, painting and TV were always on the list of what I wanted work wise - visual practical stuff.
Why did you choose to be a set designer?
At school I applied for the TVA scheme at TVNZ and missed out so I stayed on to complete 7th form, then at 16 I applied and got into Elam Art School and Architecture School at Auckland University. Architecture won and I completed my honours degree. I realised a couple of years into my degree that my heart wasn't in it but I wanted to see it through.
From a very early age my mum would take me props buying as she worked in the art department on various TVCs and film. When I was at university I would spend weekends trawling second-hand shops collecting and doing the odd day working in art departments on shows like Black Beauty and City Life so it all kind of fell into place when an art department running job came up at Shortland Street. It was the dream job for me - cruising around all day in a van props buying and getting paid (not much!) to do what I loved.
From there it was on to art department, co-ordinating, production managing, studio managing and production designing.
What does your typical day entail?
A typical day involves getting up at 5.45 to get my son sorted for school, drop him off then out to work, after-school care pick-up and home to be mum until bed - then it's often time to catch up on reading scripts, which there are a lot of.
At work, every day is different - I read and break down every script and every forward planning set of storylines so in my head at any one time is the current week's worth of scripts, scripts for the next month plus forward planning storylines for the next 10 weeks. These form our brief along with additional producer and director requirements.
From here, I source and research a lot of the key props: anything from helicopters to fire engines to fake babies to furniture. I liaise with builders and painters, organise art department crew, the department budget and scheduling. I trawl the odd demo yard, help source dressing and give design input whenever it's required. It's about finding creative and within-budget solutions to the challenges we come up against.
Best and worst parts about your job?
Best: amazingly supportive and talented team of people across all departments but especially mine. We laugh a lot and we get paid to do what we are passionate about.
Worst: the hours, finding a balance is really difficult and a lot of the time I feel like I'm not able to, but I do my best.
What is your take on internships? Are they worthwhile in your field?
Internships and work experience schemes are extremely worthwhile although at times when it's extremely busy it can become a hindrance when you are having to sometimes micromanage and give explanations when it's a scramble. However, generally they are invaluable as it gives you the opportunity to properly get to know people on the job rather than solely in an interview situation when looking for new staff. They give the opportunity to test people's motivation, their ability to cope and their pace and smarts.
Is university or study worthwhile in your field?
University and other forms of tertiary study are not at all a prerequisite but it can help - it shows application and focus - but that can be gained and proven in so many ways so it's absolutely a non-essential. I suppose what I personally gained from studying was a lifelong assuredness that if I put the work in I can accomplish anything.
Is there anything you wish someone had told you when you were starting out on your career?
I wish I had been told to not send 10-page CVs and never sit around - there is always stuff to do. Absorb what you can from everyone you work with, show respect, smile and know that often things that go wrong aren't your fault but you can be part of the solution. And learn to drive a manual car and back a trailer (which I can).
Three things you couldn't live without at work?
Phone, broad shoulders, a sense of humour and a genuine smile.
Three top tips for success in your industry?
Basically, to succeed in this industry, or any industry, you need to keep on pushing, stay curious and let any initial fears become motivation.