Spotlight >> Building Worlds – A Profile on Production Designer Thomas A. Walsh

thomas a walsh

When you look up the word production designer in the dictionary, you’ll get the following, very sterile definition: A production designer refers to the person who is responsible for the general look of the filmed events in a television program, commercial, music video, and/or film.

I have to admit, I wasn’t very impressed with this definition. Not because it doesn’t sound good on paper, a prestigious position that justifies a big salary, because it absolutely does. And not because it sounds like something any idiot could do because it absolutely does not. I wasn’t impressed because after actually speaking with a production designer, and not just any designer, but one of Hollywood’s most noted production designers Thomas A. Walsh, it became clear that this work is anything but general. “The best designs come from emotion rather than just the physical,” Tom says. “When you can connect with the emotional solution rather than just the intellectual solution, I think you’ve crossed over to that special place because you’re doing what the story is telling you to do.”

In other words, it takes something you won’t read in any book, hear in any lecture, or assess in any interview to understand the genius of a master designer like Thomas A. Walsh; although, we’ll do our best. And with feature films, Imax, television series, documentaries, theater and musical productions, all stamped with his fine-tuned set and scenic designs, the term master designer is no exaggeration.

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What else would you call the winner of the Art Directors Guild Award for Excellence in Production Design for his work on the ABC-series Desperate Housewives, or the recipient of an Emmy Award for his work on the CBS-series Buddy Faro? He was also the designer for the Tony Award-winning Broadway production of Children of a Lesser God, along with ties to three other Tony Award wins for best production in I’m Not Rappaport, The Real Thing, and My One and Only.

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I have to admit, with all this in mind, I was expecting a little more than diva-like behavior from Mr. Walsh prior to meeting with him, but with a mellow demeanor and an inviting handshake, he puts me at ease saying, “Recognition is always great. That being said, it’s all the gravy train; anyone who invests in that is doing themselves a disservice because it’s not about that, at least not for me.” Clearly, for Tom, it’s about his love of the work, and nothing drives this point home more than his dedication to his role as President of the Art Directors Guild, a position that is voluntary and without pay. “We’ve joked in the past not to tell producers that we’d actually do this for free if we could afford to because there’s a great deal of love and fulfillment and curiosity that comes out of designing,” he confides.

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We meet in the conference room of the Art Directors Guild where Tom is finishing his third term as president at the end of this year. Nominated in 2003 by legendary art director and production designer Jan Scott, Tom was up for the position just as the guild was finishing their first proposal for merging with the 700-member Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists to form Art Directors Guild & Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists, IATSE Local 800. “Before that, for sixty years, the guild had just been production designers, art directors and assistant art directors, first just for film, and then it evolved in the 60’s to include people working in television as well,” he says. “Film was always one thing, and everybody else was something else, but we’ve gotten past all that nonsense. The industry hasn’t, but I think as working professionals, we have.”

Tom may have been slightly intimidated by the nomination, but growing up in an era where art and music programs were a staple in public schools, a vast contrast to what’s happening with such programs today, he saw an opportunity. “I am really committed to education, and there’s a big disconnect right now because you have a lot of these premier institutions that are trying to teach the way they taught thirty years ago, and that’s not how the industry is structured anymore,” he admits. “So jumping ahead to today, being guild president has given me an opportunity to reinvigorate our education because you will become irrelevant if you don’t remain connected to changing trends.” And remaining connected is something he takes very seriously, co-chairing the Art Directors Guild Film Society, which is dedicated to paying homage to designers who have made considerable advancements towards the innovation of excellence in the design of motion pictures- where he confesses, “What’s not to like about showing a movie for three hundred of your not-so-closest friends, and looking at something that’s really significant to the art of what we do? Especially when it gives me an all-access pass to master designers, and an opportunity to understand how they work, and to disseminate that information to the public.”

This sounds more like a second career than a volunteer position, as it is all in addition to the work he does in television on series’ like In Plain Sight, a show shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he’s served as production designer for the past three years. “I was literally spending six months out of each year in Albuquerque, and thank God for virtual communication because there was a lot of Skyping, and I got a lot of miles on Southwest going back and forth when I had to be here for meetings,” he says. “But in my case, I have a very forgiving family that has allowed me to be AWOL a lot of times. And that was the great thing about doing Desperate Housewives, it gave me the opportunity for the first time ever to be in residence in Los Angeles for four consecutive years.” And with such popular shows listed on his resume, it’s no wonder universities have been anxious to have him make a lasting impression on their design students. “What I recommend to all the students I meet with is to be very self-confident in those analog tools: drawing, painting, photography, whatever combination,” he says. “You need those tools because there may come a time where there’s no power and you can’t plug in, and you have to make that napkin on your tray sing.” Tom is all too familiar with the pressures of delivering with only your primitive talents to fall back on, growing up with a very successful father in the arts.

Building Blocks

A Los Angeles native, and the son to MGM- performer Arthur Walsh, Tom was introduced to the gleaming world of show business at an early age. An only child, Tom spent a lot of his time in his imagination while his father performed in everything from musicals to serious dramas for MGM. “With parents who were always off doing other things, I quickly learned how to self-entertain, so I’d create these imaginary worlds and live within them,” he says. He went on to attend Hollywood High School where he credits his drama teacher, Mr. Melton, for inspiring him to become a builder and a critical thinker, then graduated from Hollywood High in 1973 with a future at the California Institute of the Arts awaiting him…so he thought. “I was accepted into Cal Arts, but they canceled the program because, being a brand new institution at the time, they were going through growing pains,” he says.” “So instead of looking for a new school, I was lucky enough to get a permit working as a stagehand for the Local 33 Labor Union of Los Angeles. And they supplied all the carpenters for the music center and the television studios, so I got into that, and started working right in the trades.”

Tom also worked as a prop man on ratings-giant Let’s Make a Deal, and used the two years he spent in the trade to obtain entry into the Local 816 Labor Union, which represented Scenic, Title and Graphic Artists in film, television and theater. He entered into the local as a scenic artist, and, shortly after, went back to Cal Arts where he received his MFA as a stage designer. The subsequent graduate school he attended, however, was slightly unorthodox. “I did a 5-year apprenticeship in the early 80’s with Tony Walton,” he says, “and it’s the best graduate school you can hope for because you’re no longer in a laboratory situation. You’ve got a little bit of a net, and the stakes are real, but you’re not the person directly in the cross hairs.”

Class Dismissed

Having settled in New York, Tom spent thirteen years working in the theater scene on Broadway hits Cabaret, Children of a Lesser God and Zoot Suit– which he credits with getting him into the New York union- to name a few. “I had sort of ‘ah-ha’ moments with each one of those where I knew what I was doing was really interesting and really worked,” he says, “but I would say with Children of a Lesser God, the ‘ah-ha’ moment came in relation to the concept, and from creating a space for a story about the deaf world communicating with people in the hearing world; that was a wonderful journey.” But being a Los Angeles-native with a father who spent years in the film business, it was only a matter of time before he extended his journey into the world of motion pictures- and in the late 80s- worked as a production designer on a string of films including Gathering of Old Men and Flipper, which got him into the Art Directors Guild on the West Coast in 1994. “A lot of my transition from theater to film and television came from networking,” he confides. “Success in the performing arts is really based on the network that you create for yourself, and even though a lot of us have agents, they can’t make somebody interested in you if that person doesn’t see something already, so you have to be responsive in nurturing your network.”

Noticeably, Tom excelled at nurturing his network, landing one job after another designing television pilots, feature films and documentaries like MGM: When the Lion’s Roar, which won an Emmy for Best Informational Special. He was moving consistently throughout the industry, his star rising fast and furious as a freelancer, but in 1998- traded in the instability of freelance for a consistent paycheck designing the pilot and twelve episodes of the critically-acclaimed CBS-series Buddy Faro. Then, in 2004, signed on to design the pilot for a little show called Desperate Housewives, where he made the fine details of Wisteria Lane beam with perfection for four seasons. But as enticing as stability may sound in an industry built on the backs of freelancers, it does come at a price. “When you work in episodic television, you often have to stay in that doing-pilots mode so you can keep renewing your relationships with producers and directors,” he says, “and when you get into a long-standing series, those relationships tend to become calcified. And when the series ends, you have to reintroduce yourself to a new generation of practitioners all over again. However, episodic television is the only venue that still gives you the opportunity to constantly hone your skills because you’re doing so much story telling.” Tom moved on from Desperate Housewives in 2008 and joined the USA-series In Plain Sight in 2010, where he remained until the shows series finale this past May. And with his name in the credits of so many successful plays, television shows and films, most people in his position would consider themselves a success- but Tom, a master designer- is not most people.

“For me, I don’t know if I am successful yet,” he admits. “I’ve done some things I’m proud of, but it’s ironic because I really have to stop and think about what is special that I can share with others. What is it that comes together to make it a significant life experience as well as a significant professional experience because you often don’t get both? Desperate Housewives aired in two hundred countries, and that saturation is the amazing thing about TV- and I was happy to be a part of the process, but I don’t regard it as my best work.”

Bridging the Gap

One thing Tom is extremely proud of is his involvement on the founding board of 5D: The Future of Immersive Design., a world-wide community of multi-disciplinary artists who search for new, innovative ways to tell narrative stories through the creation of fictional worlds. “5D is meant to be a bridge between a variety of disciplines, whether it’s the sciences or performance and visual arts,” he says. “And it’s meant to say, ‘We’re all doing the same kinds of things. You’re using unique tools; we’re using unique tools. What do we have in common and how can we share those tools better?’ And now, with one set of tools that everybody has at their work stations, they can invade what was in previous times a purview of different unique groups. So we have to get past this ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, and embrace the fact that we’re all in this together.”

Yes, as President of the Art Directors Guild, a Co-Founder of 5D: The Future of Immersive Design, Tom is determined to one day change the perception of what craft unions represent permanently, but for now, he’s taking his unique tools and applying them as scenic designer for the up-coming, anticipated production of Irish Curse, written by Martin Cassella, and premiering July 7th through August 26th at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble in West Los Angeles. “It’s a simple one-set play that takes place in the basement of a church in Brooklyn Heights in New York, which is where I used to live, so I know the neighborhood well,” he says. “And I honestly love doing theater, but you cannot pay for a child’s tuition on a theater career, so the theater is something you do for the soul. It’s like, ‘I need my vegetables today, so I’ll go do a play.’”

So, as it turns out, the definition was wrong. A production designer is not just a person who is responsible for the general look of the filmed events in a television program, commercial, music video, and/or film. Or maybe this is the definition for the average production designer; whereas, a master designer encompasses so much more. Thomas A. Walsh has designed for some of the most successful television series’, critically-acclaimed documentaries and films, and sold-out Broadway shows in history. He’s the President of the Art Directors Guild, committed to strengthening the education distributed throughout the union, and holds several awards for his work on several popular television series; yet, he’s never fallen into the trap of complacency, staying true to his overall intention.

“It’s about the opportunity to do it again, and to me, that’s ultimately the sign of success- someone trusting you to do the thing that you love doing,” Tom says. “And, ultimately, designing is a combination of anthropology, architecture, noise and mud; it’s all the things that go into telling stories. ”

Now, that’s a definition I’m impressed with.


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