Life & Design – A Profile on Production Designer John Shaffner

There is a significant distinction between success and leadership, yet the two often birth one another. Yes, where you find leadership, success will show up- while successful people frequently step into leadership roles by default.

And nobody drives this point home more than John Shaffner, the premier production designer leading the way in art departments on mega-hit television series’ like Friends, Two and a Half Men, and currently The Big Bang Theory. John is also the former Chairman and CEO of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences- and he’s currently serving as Chairman of the Art Directors Council, where he is accountable for the cultivation and advancement of 2,250 members, made up of production designers, art directors, illustrators and graphic artists to name a few.

“I think the most intriguing thing about our work is that there are so few of us doing it under the union banner,” Shaffner comments during our interview. “In my particular field of multi-camera production design, there are probably not but 75 of us who have essentially dedicated our careers to doing multi-camera design.”

Having been a volunteer at the union for years, in different capacities, Shaffner began his quest as a board member when it was still the 900-member Art Directors Guild (IATSE Local 876). He eventually ascended to the role of vice president until the merge in 2003 between Local 876 and the 700-member Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists (IATSE Local 816). It was at this point in which Shaffner served on the council until ultimately taking on the role of chairman. And he’s been met with adversity since the beginning with so much of the work having left California, leaving members unsettled about the future of their careers. One structure he’s put in place, however, is the initiation of the Art Directors Guild Awards, with the intention of promoting the skills and accomplishments of his members to the public.

“Our goal is to consistently do more for our members by expanding the awareness of what art directors and productions designers actually do,” he says. “And when a person goes to the movies or watches TV, it’s important for them to know how much work and how many people are engaged in bringing those sets to life and those graphics into existence.”

And for Shaffner, it’s not just about promoting and looking out for production designers, a position he currently holds, but he really has been instrumental in holding the space for every one of the disciplines represented under the banner of the Art Directors Guild- a commitment he first developed while serving as Chairman and CEO of the Television Academy. It was at the TV Academy where he first landed, serving as representative for the art and set directors, but as he moved up the leadership ladder, he made it a goal to put structures in place that recognized all 28 disciplines- including everything from hair and make-up to producing- housed within the organization. And he’s brought that same mentality to the Art Directors Guild.
“The challenge that came with serving at the TV Academy, and now here at the Guild, is that there’s sometimes conflict between groups because what’s perceived as good for one group is not always good for another group,” he confides. “And I’m committed to all of our members, even though I’m representing the art directors, but for all of our members to work positively with one another. ‘We’re all in this together’ is my mantra. None of us succeeds is one of us doesn’t succeed.”

And for Shaffner, simply having his current members succeed isn’t enough. He’s also been very committed to creating a way for non-union production designers and art directors to join the Art Directors Guild despite the exclusionary parameters currently in place. As it stands, the road to joining the Guild is a difficult one. In so many words, you can’t join the Guild until you’ve worked consistently on a job for 30 days, but you can’t get consistent work unless you’re in the union, which creates an environment where hundreds of talented individuals are living inside of a catch 22 day in and day out. And Shaffner, committed to elevating the effectiveness of his organization, is hard at work putting together a system where he and his team will have the opportunity to review the portfolios of skilled non-members who are seasoned enough to join the Guild.

“We’re looking to create a program where we can invite talented individuals to become members because the classic way to get into our union, especially into the field of production design, is for you to work on a non-union movie that then signs an agreement to be a union movie,” he says. “And because you can’t lose your job under those conditions, you automatically can join the union. But that’s just people waiting around, hoping for a lucky break. So we’re trying to be more inclusive to people who have worked hard, but just haven’t been at the right place at the right time- and I’m hopeful that we will have accomplished this by the time I finish my term.”

Yes, with all the time and energy Shaffner puts into his work at the Art Directors Guild, work that he is unpaid for, it’s almost hard to believe he has yet another huge accountability to a totally different set of people on The Big Bang Theory. But where the average person would cave under the enormous pressure, Shaffner simply goes to work. “As the production designer, I often describe my role as being the one responsible for reading the script before anyone else, and having to imagine what it’s going to look like,” he confides. “Then I take what’s imaginary, do the research and work with the producers and the director to put our ideas down on the computer and create it with our construction department and our painters.”

Yes, on The Big Bang Theory, where they film a new show every week, Shaffner goes to work creating the sets the minute he gets the script. And the actors spend the first three days rehearsing with the sets that Shaffner and his team have built until the fourth day when the cameras are brought in and all the necessary blocking is done. And depending on what the story calls for, sets and scenery can be revamped and used again, or entirely new sets can be built- which usually requires Shaffner to sketch out some new ideas and get them approved by the producers before going to work on the actual building with his set designer and art director.

“The moment of reckoning occurs when the producers and performers walk in and you wait for their responses, and they often times will say, ‘Oh, this is great,’” he comments. “And then there are those situations where we haven’t quite seen the same thing. I had a recent situation where we had set up what was supposed to be a convention center to look like a hotel ball room, and the producers came in and said, ‘We know we saw the research, but now that we see it, we think it would be better for the story if it was set up as more of a convention center,’ which is plain walls. So we had to take that set down, and put up different walls that were just concrete block. And we had to use a green screen to do a process shot so that in postproduction, they could add on a lot more convention as apposed to what we originally had. But the more we communicate and share ideas as we go, the less likely we are to run into those things.”

This kind of workability on set is essential. And it’s a great example of no matter how masterful an artist is, there is always room for discovery. And it’s this constant discovery that keeps brilliant professionals like Shaffner in the game, year after year, despite the occasional instability and long hours because this isn’t just a job, it truly is a calling. And those who choose to engage in the business of theater, production design, art direction and the like are usually called to do so at a young age, which is exactly how it happened for Shaffner.

A native of Missoula, Montana, it was Shaffner’s high-school drama teacher who really sent him down the path to artist. He volunteered to work for her back stage, running lights during the high school’s stage production of The Sound of Music. And from there, Shaffner continued to stay very closely involved with the theater, developing a deep appreciation for acting, lighting, wardrobe and scenery, all throughout high school.

After high school, Shaffner went on to study theater at the University of Montana, earning his B.F.A. And with no time to spare, he quickly applied and got accepted into the graduate program at Carnegie Mellon University, where he received his M.F.A. in stage design. And with only a few hundred dollars to his name, Shaffer ascended on the city of Manhattan, along with his partner Joe Stewart, launching his legendary career at the New York Shakespeare Festival, where he designed props.

“I did start out working in the theater when I first landed in New York, but I was very intrigued by the work in media as well,” he says. “It was almost through happenstance that I ended up in the multi-camera business because one of the first people I applied for a job from was a designer in sitcoms, and I did a lot of decorating for him. And the last thing I decorated was the pilot for The Golden Girls in 1984, so I always tell people the couch was my fault.”

The man who gave Shaffner one of his earliest big breaks in multi-camera television was the late Edward Stephenson, who had originally hired Shaffner to work with him on the 80’s sitcom Benson before attaching him to The Golden Girls pilot. But Shaffner’s very first gig as an art director was on the ground breaking mega hit series Star Search.

“Doing Star Search was amazing in that it was the last of the great vaudeville shows because we had all of the different categories: female and male vocalist, dance and comedy. And that really doesn’t exist anymore,” he shares. “Star Search was really magical, and watching an episode where you see Sinbad or Dennis Miller, the people who sang or Rosie O’Donnell who did comedy… I was there for every one of those tapings, and it’s been amazing to see how many of those people over the years have made such great successes of their careers.”

And over the years, Shaffner’s career has also exploded. In addition to his work on scripted series like Friends, The Drew Carey Show, and Dharma and Greg, Shaffner and his partner Joe Stewart’s design work can be seen on numerous award shows, special events, game shows, talk shows, music and variety series and specials as well. And together, they have received three Primetime Emmy Awards for their design work on The David Copperfield Special and one for The George Lopez Show. They’ve received two Daytime Emmy Awards for The Ellen DeGeneres Show and one Los Angeles Area Emmy Award. And they also received the Art Director’s Guild Award for their design work on the 2006 Primetime Emmy Awards.

But even with all of the success and accolades under his belt, John Shaffner has never let it go to his head, maintaining his role as empowering, bold leader above all else at both the Art Directors Guild and on the set of The Big Bang Theory.

“On The Big Bang Theory, for example, it’s my goal to remind everybody that we are one big family,” he says. “So I go out of my way to make the painters, the craftsmen and the carpenters feel good about their days work. And then we deliver the set and put it up on stage, and it’s important to acknowledge and say, ‘Thank you.’ And there’s just such a great satisfaction in knowing I’ve helped everyone there do the best job that they can.”

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