Dominic (Nico) Guidote is a California-based art director and production designer whose projects have included music videos, short films, feature films, commercials, and web productions. He’s worked for Fox and Nickelodeon, and designed videos for artists including Toro y Moi, Halsey, Mike Posner, Steve Aoki, and Wolfmother.
I met Nico when we’d both just moved to Los Angeles and were toiling in reality-TV production, and have always been inspired by his imagination, creativity, sense of humor, and generosity — all traits that have led him to become successful in his craft. I recently caught up with Nico to talk about his career and what it takes to succeed in production design.
Discovering the craft
Nico was born in Manila, Philippines, then lived for a short time in Los Angeles before returning to Manila for high school, where he was a cartoonist for the school newspaper. “I’ve been making art in some form or another all of my life,” he explains. “As a child, I loved comic books and cartoons, so I drew a lot and even created my own little comic universe with my friends. I was pretty certain that I would grow up to work for Marvel or DC.”
At college in Manila, Nico got into a marketing and advertising, but wasn’t very happy with it — until one of his friends turned him on to two courses: a music-video class and a filmmaking class. His friend needed a set designed, so Nico built it. That’s when he first became aware of production design and the art department.
“I did production design for the rest of college,” he says. “I’d never been so happy at school. I was one of only two production designers there, so it was busy — lots of experimentation with set decorations, micro-budgets, low-tech solutions for practical effects. I mixed up my first batch of movie blood for my directorial debut. Those were good times.”
Nico at work on a set
Production design, defined
“Production designers are part of the ‘trinity’ on set: director, DP, and designer,” Nico explains. “I guess that’s the best way I can describe it. The director is the lead — she or he calls the shots. The DP and the designer make sure that the vision presented by the director is realized.
“Production Designers are in charge of the art department. We see the big picture and rely on our crew to help us get everything done. The art department crew consists of the art director, set dressers, props people, and sometimes transport, scenics, armorers, special FX, pyrotechnics — it really depends on what’s needed.”
“Here’s the thing, though,” Nico adds. “The camera department and the art department are at two different ends of the spectrum. The camera department is technical, and most of its work occurs during filming. The art department creates the environment of the production. We design sets. We design props. We work with special FX. We work before and after each shot.
“The art director is second in command in the art department. They make sure work gets done while the PD is off dealing with bigger-picture stuff. Set decorators dress the set (furniture, fixtures, paintings). Props people deal with hand props (cell phones, gadgets, ball pens). Transport picks up and delivers our stuff. Scenics paint our scenery and backgrounds. There are so many jobs. It all depends on the needs of a production.”
Chroma key test
It’s all about pre-production
One of the biggest challenges of working in production design is making sure you’re building the right things before you start building them. “There’s always a lot of research and footwork to do,” says Nico. “I love that about my job. No job is ever the same as another; there’s no formula. The art department lives in pre-production. Not a lot of people, even in our industry, think about that.
“The ability to improvise is important,” he continues. “If something doesn’t exist, the art department still has to make it happen. If there’s a problem with the price of a certain element, then you need to be honest with the director and producer to figure out a way to work around it or change it up. Another important thing is the ability to recognize talent and delegate tasks. Production is collaborative; I’ll always need help. Many people I work with have skills of their own that I draw upon to get the job done. If you can’t play people to their strengths, or manage your time properly, then you’re going into major overtime in pre-production — or worse yet, holding up the whole production during filming.”
Spaceship or guitar?
One of Nico’s favorite projects was working on the music video for Wolfmother’s “Victorious,” which provided him with the opportunity to build something close to his heart. “When I was building the Wolfmother guitar, I was dead set on making a guitar out of a Star Destroyer,” he reveals. “We searched everywhere for a large Star Destroyer model kit. I guess it wasn’t very popular, because we couldn’t find any — not even a small one. Isn’t that weird? Not even a Millennium Falcon. This was in November, a month before The Force Awakens came out. So I ended up building it out of a WWII battleship, a Star Wars Blaster, a couple of NASA rocket models, and some generic Japanese sci-fi toys!”
“I had to gut the guitar — all the internal wiring, the pickups. The different pieces were dry-fitted, then shaved down with a Dremel, then stuck on with crazy glue. I taped up the wooden neck on the fret side and gave the whole thing about five coats of silver spray paint. After it dried, I went over some parts of it with a brush that had a little bit of black paint on it. It’s a process called ‘dry brushing’ that’s used on armor or metal weaponry to make it look worn or used.”
On set for the Wolfmother “Victorious” video
“(Wolfmother frontman) Andrew Stockdale was going to try to bring it with him on tour. I did warn him that it was made as a prop and not a working guitar. All the pickups theoretically worked, though, so I suggested that he upgrade them to whatever he liked. I also told him to make sure everything was glued down harder, or maybe to give the whole thing a resin coating. I’m pretty stoked about the idea of it being played live,” he says, then laughs, “but part of me wishes that I could take it home like most of my other props.”
Collaboration is key
One great piece of advice Nico has to offer for anyone in the biz is to find people they can really rely on for collaboration. “I’ve had a partner in crime for about four years,” he says. “Her name is Jill Bencsits. Before that, my assistants varied from project to project. Most of the time, people would work with me for a few gigs, then do their own thing. Some come back from time to time. That’s how it goes with freelancers.”
Nico and Jill
“Jill was the one who got me back into doing my own art,” says Nico. “I’d hit a lull, a dry spell — anyone who does this kind of work has had a run of bad luck. She was always keeping busy; sketching, painting, selling her creations online. I mostly passed the time playing video games. She started participating in themed art shows, and I got inspired to make some lamps. I made a Sandworm (from Beetlejuice) lamp and a Big Lebowski lamp.”
Beyond that inspiration, the collaborative aspect of Nico’s work with Jill gives them both a significant advantage. “We usually share credit as production designers,” he concludes. “We’re able to separate the duties, and that allows us to work faster and more efficiently. It also allows us to handle more work at a time than other designers can!”