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Designing A Universe With Costume And Production Designer Jo Briscoe

Dream Job

Have you ever noticed the posters on the bedroom wall of a character in your favourite TV show, or the way the rain falls in the final, dramatic scene of a movie? Chances are you haven’t really thought about it. This means that somewhere behind the scenes, a production designer is doing their job well!

Jo Briscoe works professionally as a production and costume designer in theatre, film and TV, and is also a lecturer and course coordinator at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), University of Melbourne, within their newly created Master of Production Design course. If anyone knows the ins and outs of working in the industry, it’s Jo!

After high school Jo didn’t really know that production design was a viable career choice. But after more than 20 years doing what she loves, she is living proof that dream jobs do come true!

6th August, 2021

Jo Briscoe sitting in the magnificent Federation Hall, a University of Melboure theatre.  Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Left: Jo sitting in the seats at Federation Hall. Right: Fixing the lighting on the green screen cyclorama at VCA. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Setting the scene on the green screen. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Set model for ‘Gaban’ by Master of Production Design student Casey Harper–Wood. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Jo and Casey lighting the set model for ‘Gaban’. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Southbank Theatre at the MTC, where the production ‘Cyrano’ rehearsals will take place. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Walking through the costume racks on campus in the Stock Shop. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

The hat wall in the Stock Shop. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Jo sorting through costumes backstage at Southbank Theatre. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Jo making adjustments on Cyrano costumes with VCA student Milo Hartill. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Making costume adjustments. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Exiting the joyful VCA Performing Arts building. Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Superstar production and costume designer Jo Briscoe! Photo – Bri Hammond for The Design Files.

Sally Tabart
Friday 6th August 2021

‘The very best design is often so complete and appropriate that it doesn’t even occur to the audience to think about it.’ Jo Briscoe.

When Jo Briscoe was younger, she wanted to be a costume designer, an environmental lawyer, or Wonder Woman. ‘I appreciate how lucky I am that one of those came true’, she laughs. As a production and costume designer in theatre, film and TV, as well as a lecturer in Design at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Jo spends her days creating physical worlds for stories to take place in. But what exactly is production design?

‘The production designer creates the worlds for stories to take place in. We are responsible for every physical thing you see on screen, other than the cast’s appearance’, Jo explains. That includes architecture, interiors, landscapes, vehicles, animals, everything handled by the actors and any physical effects – production designers are literally in charge of creating the weather! All these tiny and major design decisions enrich the characters, and provide greater context for the plot, action and themes of the story.

Jo got her first taste of the industry back in high school by designing costumes for school plays, and later at university. ‘[Production design] seemed like an impossible career choice – too much fun to be actual work!’ she says. After studying overseas, she discovered that it was, in fact, a plausible career, and that she had the chops to give it a go.

These days, budding production designers don’t need to leave the country for top notch industry training. The Master of Production Design course at VCA, where Jo is a lecturer and course coordinator, provides expert industry training for those looking to crack the biz. ‘The course is very practical and moves quickly from theory to practice to embed and embody the learning’, says Jo. From learning the ins and outs of digital design, including Photoshop and Illustrator to computer drafting and 3D modelling software, to collaborating with peers in film and theatre, Jo and her colleagues in the Master of Production Design course thoroughly prepare students for work in the ‘real world’.

The variety of work and the opportunity to collaborate are what Jo counts as the great joys of her career. ‘There’s very few fields that require such a mix of skills, a balance of the creative with the practical, and genuine creative problem solving on the go’, she says.

Here, Jo shares more about what it’s really like to work in the industry!

The most important verb in the get-your-dream-job lexicon is…

Collaborate. One of the best aspects of the job is working with a whole group of other creative folks, striving together to realise a project that is greater than the sum of their respective parts. When those relationships work, there’s nothing better. It’s like a perfect orchestra playing a great symphony.

The way I explain my work to others is…

That I help the audience to understand the story by building the world around it, and empathising with the characters to build a backstory through their surroundings and the way they relate to the space they are in. Sometimes, also, I do explain that it’s my job to choose everything you see!

A typical day for me involves…

When in pre-production, a typical day will involve meeting with the art department staff, checking out location options with the director, chatting budget and logistics with my art director, briefing a graphic designer and approving choices the team has found. Once we start shooting, I will usually start my day on set, making sure everything is looking as intended and chatting with the Standby Props about what the rest of the day holds, then back to the production office to catch up on what I’ve missed in the morning or perhaps on to the next location to sign off on the dressing the team is doing in preparation for the main unit to arrive.

The biggest misconception about my job is…

That good design is the kind of design that people notice, whether that’s period or flashy or OTT. The very best design is often so complete and appropriate that it doesn’t even occur to the audience to think about it. That’s a true challenge and shows that the designer has really built a world that the story belongs in. That being said, sometimes the big flashy design is just what’s called for!

The most rewarding part of my job is…

Seeing it all come together on camera once the cinematographer has lit it and watching the culmination of all the hard work – it’s magical. Having a cast member, writer or director come onto set for the first time and love it is a very close second!

The most challenging part of my job is…

The volume of things you need to be across and make decisions on at any given time. It’s exhilarating but that can easily become overwhelming or stressful if too many things go awry! Great planning and preparation and a wonderful team are the best tools to ensure that you stay on the right side of that balance beam. A sense of humour also definitely helps.

The best piece of advice I’ve received is…

To only work on stories that I have a connection to. Design requires physical, intellectual and emotional commitment, so it’s important that investment is in projects you believe in and feel passionate about.

The Master of Production Design at the University of Melbourne’s VCA offers the skills, knowledge and hands-on experience necessary to successfully take on design roles for both stage and screen. Find our more here!

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net