It doesnt get any better when your work involves letting loose your imagination, taking inspiration from anything and everything around you and unleashing your creativity to bring concepts to life.

Lets ask our next pathbreaker, Vijay Narayanan, Art Director at Star Sports India, where he works at the strategic intersection of art & technology to bring effective story-telling into sports broadcast.

Vijay talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about his work as Production and Set designer for several TVCs, Feature Films and Events before his current role at Star Sports.

Vijay, tell us about Your background?

I was born in Chennai, but all my schooling & college education happened in Mumbai. 

I studied in 2 schools – one was S.I.W.S. Matunga & Sewri, Wadala. The other was Holy Angels High School, Mulund. Right through both schools I was inclined towards art. I was among the best art students in both these schools. Right from childhood, art was an integral part of my life – from scribbling on home walls to drawing on paper and making paintings, art was an important facet of my life. I had the opportunity to learn art with good teachers which helped me hone my skills during childhood. My parents, noticing my art talent, and encouraging me to take up arts in school as well as later professionally have played a crucial role in my working as an art director & production designer today.

In my entire family, I think my inkling towards art has come from my Mom Smt. K.V. Alamelu. She is also inclined towards art & handicrafts. She is really good in making dolls using different materials & traditional rangolis as well!  She has a very good understanding of art! So, credit goes to her! Also, my father Shri K.V. Narayanan supported me through my journey. He used to take me to different schools whenever a drawing competition was scheduled to take place, distance wasn’t a matter at all! He also used to buy me different kinds of school bags for my art. My elder brother Ajay supported me too. I used to borrow his colours for my drawings and he let me do that wholeheartedly. Over the years the support system has only grown stronger and become more positive. And now even my brother’s wife Suma and their little daughter Siddhi are important pillars of this sacrosanct support system. Both also offer valuable feedback on my art & design works.

What did you study?

So, art continued in my college as well. After completing 12th in Commerce, i moved to the prestigious Sir JJ School of Art to pursue my BFA in Interior Design & Decoration. It was a 4-year degree course with the first year for art foundation & the following three years for my specialization.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Before I get into this part of the story, I would like to provide a basic understanding/ meaning of production design & art direction. Production Design is the art of designing for cinema. Through production design, we bring to life the vision of the director, the script / story writer. It is a specialist art wherein we bring together a premise on which the film’s story unfolds & the viewer is led to believe that what they see on screen is real, even though it is a make-believe world. Among all these, between the production designer & art director, the production designer envisions the final look for the project & the art director realizes the production designer’s vision/ concepts into reality. I have worked in both capacities. The same ethos is adhered to when designing for films, TV commercials, sports shows, stage shows, music videos, weddings, events, etc. So, it is a very interesting field to work in.

Studying at the Sir JJ School of Art had a positive impact on my art studies. It provided a firm grounding in the field of art, through specialization in interior design & decoration. The college ambience itself brings out the best in you, bringing out the artist in you! By the time I was in the third year, I realized that to be a good production designer & art director you need to have a good sense of space design, drawing, lighting, materials, ergonomics, anthropometrics, camera framing and many more skills, most of these being in common with Interior Design as well. So, after graduation, advancing towards production design & art direction was the next logical step for my career. Movies also inspired the creative individual in me. I used to watch a lot of movies back then, which inspired me to tread on this path, designing for cinema, which is where I am today. The fact that the work done by the production designer & art director is watched by millions of people worldwide and our work tends to stand out & the recognition that we get for our good work in the form of big film awards like the Oscars, Filmfare, etc. also led to choosing this career for myself.

Our professors from Interior Design dept at JJ laid the key groundwork and provided guidance in both Interior design as well as production design fields. Besides academic knowledge, we were also equipped with the necessary on the field practical knowledge. I used the same design principles learnt in art college in the field of production design & art direction. Some of the seniors from college who had done some freelance set design work also guided me with work methodologies of this field. Our professors used to organize sessions with ex- students who were doing good/ offbeat work in the industry. Some of them were working in the Bollywood movie industry we well. My final year thesis was also based on set design for a fashion show – I had done lot of groundwork for this project and it was well appreciated by our professors.

So, all these aspects helped me choose the career that I’m in presently in.

My Teachers who helped shape my art career were (in chronological order):

  1. Smt. Verma Madam – Veteran Art Teacher
  2. Shri. Sunil Pawar Sir – Senior Art Teacher
  3. Smt. Gurjar Madam – Veteran Art Teacher
  4. Smt. Monica Adivrekar Madam – Senior Art Professor
  5. Shri. Vishawanath Sable Sir – Senior Art Professor
  6. Shri. Kakade Sir – Senior Art Professor
  7. Shri Kulkarni Sir – Senior Art Professor
  8. Shri. Nitin Patil Sir – Senior Art Professor
  9. Shri S.N. Thakur Sir – Senior Art Professor

How did you get your first break?

Even during my course at JJ & after my graduation, I worked with architectural design companies as that related to the course that I had pursued. I gained necessary practical knowledge, and the work methodologies that I learned here helped me quite a bit in the new field. I did internships with architects between 2002 – 2006. After graduating in 2006, I worked with some more architects till early 2007. Soon I realized that production design & art direction was my real career calling. So, I decided to pursue a course in production design from the prestigious NFTS (National Film & Television School), UK. I took a break for 4 months and worked on my art portfolio, catering to the requirements of this course. I even got selected for the final interview round where I was required to travel to the UK and attend the interview & GD sessions. But due to financial constraints, I could not attend the interview and do the course. It was disheartening, but the fact that a prestigious institute like NFTS selected me for the final round instilled some positivity & self-belief in me. Subsequently, I set forth on my journey in the movie industry, our own Bollywood.

Getting to work in the movie industry was really tough. I had to contact my seniors who had worked in the industry, for possible work opportunities. I even had to share my work samples to get some work. Nothing worked out initially. I even made a list of production designers in Bollywood, the info which I generated with the help of the senior students. Getting contact numbers of the main production designer was also difficult as their numbers weren’t freely circulated among the newcomers back then. I had kept my art portfolio handy and used to carry the full-size hand-drawn portfolio of my work everytime I used to go to meet a designer. Initially, the meeting used to be with the assistants/ associates of the main designer. Only after they were convinced about my work would they let me meet the actual production designer. Even after meeting the main designer, I didn’t get selected for the job initially. So, there was a lot of back & forth during initial days…but that didn’t deter me. I kept meeting different production designers & art directors to showcase my work. 

So, after few months of hunting for a job, I got the contact number of a senior art director named Shri.Chokkas Bhardwaj through one of my college friends. As I used to do earlier, I carried my portfolio of work to his workplace in film city, Mumbai where i met him, showed all my work and luckily, he agreed to take me onboard on one of his premium tele-serial projects named Amber Dhara by Swastik Pictures (Aired on Sony Television) as an art assistant. So that’s how I landed my first job in the television industry in 2007.

Tell us about your career path

Post my first stint with Amber Dhara project, I wanted to work on a wide variety of projects. At that time, the events industry in Mumbai was expanding or I would say that there were lots of interesting  projects happening in the events industry. I wanted to experiment with these projects. So I worked with Wizcraft, who are one of the leading events & entertainment companies. My mentor here was Shri Neelabh Kapoor. We were a small but dynamic team of professionals rearing to do creative work. Here, I worked on a big fat wedding project, award shows, reality shows, movie launch projects & preparing designs for pitching for a lot of new projects. My role in all these projects was primarily design oriented, initially. But soon I stepped up & learnt set building/ production skills as well. Working in the events & entertainment industry opened up opportunities for me to do concepts, research, design & build work for bigger scale projects.

By now, i was ready to do freelancing & work on even bigger projects. After my stint with Wizcraft, I moved to TV Commercials and Feature films sector of the media field. It is here that i got the opportunity to work with one of my mentors Shri T.P. Abid & Sonal Chowdhary.  In their team, i worked on 33 Television commercials & 5 feature films, handling research, design & set builds for these projects. This phase was the heavy- duty work phase where I was working on some of the biggest projects of the TV commercials & Feature films industry. Working with Abid Sir & Sonal Madam provided me with all the knowledge and confidence required to work on such projects successfully. Some of the interesting television commercial projects worked on with Abid Sir and Sonal Madam were:

TVC for Philips where we created a working life scale dummy model of a MRI scanning machine specially for filming certain portions of the project.

TVC for Belmonte suitings brand (Production house: Red Chillies) where we built multiple designer art spaces in a rundown hotel property.

TVC for Slice Aamsutra where a make believe forest space with a boat on a water body was created.

TVC for Tigo wherein we created a yesteryear African town in N.D. Studios, Karjat.

The feature films that i worked on with Abid Sir and Sonal Madam were:

– Tasveer 8 X 10 (Percept Films)

– Rocket Singh Salesman of the Year (Yash Raj Films)

– DON 2 (Excel Entertainment)

– Band Baaja Baaraat (Yash Raj Films)

– Paani (Yash Raj Films)

The work on the above films was on a large scale with complete detail oriented work for each set build for these projects. The work involved script reading sessions, script break down sessions where details pertaining to the list of locations/ spaces that need to be created from scratch, spaces that need to be adapted from existing details, key elements that need to be designed and made were all decided. It was like decoding of the entire project. Then came the part of researching and conceptualizing for each set requirement. Based on the research, designs were created and detailed from construction & budgeting point of view. Post this phase, set build & set dressing happened followed by the film shooting & production process. All the above processes were happening with the production designers (T.P. Abid, Sonal Chowdhary), the art dept, myself, the director, director of photography, lighting designer (gaffer), sound designers, production department all working in unison achieving a common goal.

The films Band Baaja Baaraat & DON 2 won Best Production Design awards in Producer’s Guild Awards & Zee Cine Awards respectively. The recognition was due to the immensely hardworking Abid Sir and Sonal Madam, their creative vision for these projects and pure faith they had in their team. It was truly an honour to be working with them and being able to realise their vision in all these projects.

Working on all the above projects provided me the much required project variety and confidence to work with many other production designers as well. I got the opportunity to work with Shri Rajneesh Hedao from Acropolis Group on the film Agent Vinod for a short duration. After that, I also worked with Smt. Tanushree Sarkar & Shri Dipankar Dasgupta from Chiarascuro Artworks Pvt. Ltd. on the famed cookery show project Sanjeev Kapoor ke Kitchen Khiladi where a thematic studio space for the cooking contest was designed & built. With the support & guidance of the production designers, I was able to help them realize their vision of the project. I also worked on few TV commercials & a feature film project named Bang Bang (Fox Star Studios) for a brief duration. 

In my career, I was fortunate enough to work on some independent projects as well where i got the opportunity to work as the production designer & art director for the project. All of them provided the necessary knowledge, confidence & exposure to the wide variety of projects the industry has to offer.

– My Production design projects include:

Dewarists: season 3, episodes 1 & 4 with Enter Guerrilla Films Pvt. Ltd. & OML Entertainment Pvt. Ltd.

The challenge was to design & set up a thematic  artist collaboration space in the scenic locations of Manali.

Music Video for Star Movies ACTION channel launch: With Enter Guerrilla Films Pvt. Ltd & Star Movies.

The challenge was to design & build a dynamic, high energy space for the music band to perform the music anthem.

– Set Designs:

Thematic wedding decor, exhibition booths, beauty pageant show, special corporate event: 

Challenge was to design theme based set designs for the above projects.

– Art direction projects: 

Gold winner TVC: In collaboration with Art Director Vasudha Patni for Kanishka Films

Challenge was to design & set up spaces both interior & exterior for the film

Micromax Cup Promos for India v SriLanka series in 2012:                       In collaboration with Designer Swapnali Das & production house ALT+CTRL+DEL

Challenge was to build backdrops for the promo videos.

After all the above work experience, the next to come was the role of art director with Star Sports. It been five years at Star Sports and the challenge to design and build for various sporting properties has been fulfilling. At Star Sports i have had the opportunity to collaborate with the best minds in the sports broadcast industry. My team has designed & built studio spaces for pre, mid, post live & beyond live shows for properties of Cricket, Soccer, Kabaddi, Wimbledon, Badminton, Olympics, Khelo India Youth Games to name a few. It’s been an enriching work experience overall with the strategic integration of art & technology for effective story-telling in sports broadcast. So, it’s really been positive and looking forward to many more interesting collaborations in the future.

My industry mentors who helped shape my art career were (in chronological order):

  1. Shri Satish Adhatrao – Senior Architect
  2. Shri Umakant Jagdale – Senior Architect
  3. Shri. Chokkas Bhardwaj – Senior Production designer & Art Director
  4. Shri. Neelabh Kapoor – Senior Production Designer
  5. Shri Andre Tully – Senior Art Director
  6. Shri. T.P. Abid – Senior Production Designer & Art Director
  7. Smt. Sonal Chowdhary – Senior Production Designer & Art Director
  8. Smt. Tanushree Sarkar – Senior Production Designer
  9. Shri Dipankar Dasgupta – Senior Production Designer
  10. Shri Viraj Verma –  Our HOD at Star Sports, key member of the sports broadcast team.

What were the challenges? how did u address them?

Initial days were tough. I was working with the production team on preproduction of the teleserial project – involved in designing visuals for the project, set builds, setting up places for on-location shoots, being on standby during shoots, day in and day out literally – trying to learn as much as possible and understanding the art behind every aspect of the production. I was totally new to the system and everything seemed confusing initially – even though I was from an art background! Everything was fast paced. We had to set up multiple locations for the shoot simultaneously and I had a tough time managing these. But I guess you only learn when you are put in difficult situations!  And my mentor Chokkas Sir had immense trust with whatever skills that I had at that time. His advice of ‘tackling work head-on & not procrastinating work’ still rings strong in my mind! And I religiously follow this important piece of advice till now.

Other challenges I faced were how to communicate design requirements to the skilled workforce in our team. The construction techniques used and some of the materials used were different compared to what were used in interior design & architecture. The design / work terminologies also were different. It took a while for me understand the new system. I had to kind of, unlearn the previous things learnt and absorb the new system of working, but also not forget the previous things I learnt in art school. I spent a lot of time with the team trying to understand the construction process and how design visualizations on paper are translated into reality! 

Then in the coming years, when designs were developed using digital mediums, there were challenges in terms of being able to use design software effectively to produce the desired set designs that would convey the concept clearly. Moreover, the available prep time for generating designs was also less. So smarter and newer ways of using digital mediums were required. The only way out was to practice more on different design software platforms, by dedicating time for practice sessions. Gradually, things improved due to religious practice sessions and credit goes to the various teaching staff who imparted valuable working knowledge on the design software.

Another challenge that continually keeps evolving is about being innovative and budget friendly for projects. The process for finding innovative ways to convey concepts for builds, designing visuals, construction techniques, innovating on shoot, searching for different materials is a continuous learning process and the more time allocated for these the better we get.

Also, talent scouting for various projects is also an important challenge. You are only good as your team is. So, maintaining a record of good talent from your field of work is of prime importance. Same goes for skilled workforce & vendors as well.

Where do you work now? 

I presently work at a leading media conglomerate based in Mumbai.

More specifically, as an art director with Star Sports – the sports wing of this media conglomerate! It is really a matter of honour & privilege to be working here!

I’m responsible for production designing the visuals & building sets/ studios for all kinds of shows filmed in our studios, be it for sports or for any other content teams at Star Sports as part of our sports broadcast.

Designing for sports studios requires you to develop a keen interest in various sports, the rules of the game, the teams playing, key players, the latest technology, camera framing, filming processes involved for immersive/ interactive storytelling in sports. We also need to know about the various fan clubs of sportspersons and the emotions/ affinity of fans towards their favorite players. When it comes to building sets/ studios for sports shows, you must be innovative as well. You’ve got to design multi-usable spaces that will cater to the various requirements of a content/ story.

Collaboration with diverse talented teams is also an important aspect of our dynamic work at Star Sports. Great work is done by successful collaboration with diverse teams at work.

All these skills have been acquired over the years by working with professionals, technicians, skilled workforce, mentors, teachers thereby improving on my skillset with every project. And by also requesting for continuous feedback from all the important people mentioned above and making meaningful progress.

A typical day is fast paced with work on multiple projects happening simultaneously – be it designing, building or filming stage. We are always on the move! On other days, I try working on my professional skillset which will help in raising design standards in the field that I work in. The work that my team does is viewed by millions around the world and positive feedback that I get from both industry & non-industry folks is really motivating and this is the best part of my work!

How does your work benefit the society? 

I think my work/ my team’s work/ our industry helps the society at large – the kids, parents to be specific, by letting them know that art, design, technology, media & production is also a mainstream career and they can trust their kids to pursue these ‘off-beat careers’ and be part of the creative story-telling community, shape their future and the thoughts of society at large.

There is also an opportunity to generate employment for various sub-departments working with us. Many skilled craftsmen, workforce get the opportunity to work with us and keep their trades alive. 

My creative community at large, with the help of our work, shapes the thoughts of the masses in a positive way, thereby leading to positive nation-building.

Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!

It is very difficult to pinpoint any project that is close to me. All projects that I have worked on are close to me. It is because each project that I completed successfully actually helped me get my next project/ job which in turn shaped my career as a production designer & art director. And the journey still continues… still feel as fresh as a newcomer till date and treat every project as my first project.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

1. As young students, if you are interested in making a career in art, then please let your parents know about it. Tell them why you like it… I am sure just like my parents supported me, your parents will also support you!

2. Sketching & drawing is integral element of art & design – so maintain this habit regularly.

3. As art & design students, it is very important to focus on academic assignments and develop your knowledge in the chosen specialization. Also develop design software skills like Adobe Creative Suite, Autodesk series, etc. to name a few.

4. As art students & as professionals it is important to be a good learner. Keep abreast of all the latest trends in your field of work no matter how senior you are in the industry. Keep walking ahead, keep learning! 

5. Develop hobbies, outdoor sports activities outside of your career. It is equally important for one to pursue some activity outside of their careers. It helps you de-stress, develop a disciplined approach to things in life, and also keeps you in positive frame of mind. I pursue long distance running, krav maga & also play cricket with friends regularly. That keeps me fit & active and also helps me have a disciplined and positive approach to my work as well.

Future Plans?

To stay focused on my work and keep myself updated with all the latest design & technology trends from my field of work. Keep walking ahead, keep learning!