Piper Hillman–Production Designer and Virtual Production Artist
Next up in our “Meet the Butcher Birds” series where we showcase our amazing crew, we’re sitting down with the ever shape-shifting Piper Hillman, a Production Designer and Virtual Production Artist who unpacks the importance of the shared creative experience and her journey from a film industry jack-of-all-trades to a focused creative.
I did a patchwork of different jobs before starting in the industry, from media services, camp counseling, tech directing for theaters, and working for a supply chain engineer.
When I first moved to Los Angeles with the intention of exploring different crafts in the film industry I very quickly assessed from job postings that if no one else was being paid on a low budget shoot….the sound guy was being paid. So I invested in a startup sound kit and became a dual mixer/boom op to get on as many sets as I could. That worked out for a while, but I eventually also started working as a set dresser and carpenter for a couple of production designers I met. Eventually I went into business with one of them and was the COO of a company that specialized in designing and construction pop-up installments and branded events. I left that in January 2020 and have been a Production Designer and Art Director ever since.
I’m a production designer with Butcher Bird Studios, which basically means I come down squarely on the line straddling concept artist and logistics engineer when it comes to creating sets for productions–virtual and corporeal. Something common with Butcher Bird shows that I don’t run into as much with other projects is the frequency of live-to-air/streaming nature of the productions, which invites a fun set of puzzles and criteria when it comes to planning a set build or props run of show.
I’m gonna have to go with Orbital Redux for sheer scope, let alone everything else. That was my first project with Butcher Bird, and I started out as an electronics specialist for the set build. In pre-production the production designer and director went to an airplane boneyard out in the desert and brought back dozens of electrical and switch panels, wire bundles, plates, pipes, jump seats, joysticks…you name it–and it was my job to fix them so that they would light up again and frankenstein them into the 360 degree space ship bridge. About a week before we started airing (live, single take episodes) I got field promoted to art director, and continued on after the PD left.
It wasn’t that it was the most starkly memorable production I’ve ever been on for Butcher Bird or anyone else, but it has the highest concentration of memories I like to keep.
In addition to being a live-to-“air” show, there were also multiple choice options in each episode (meaning that the audience could vote on events or outcomes that would occur in the episode) so we never knew for sure what was going to happen until the start of that episode, plus the scripts were constantly changing based on what had happened on the previous week’s episode. That’s all well and good if you’re changing the actor’s lines and reactions–it’s putting stress on the constraints of time and space when it’s deciding between and electrical failure and a fire in the airlock. On most occasions we had to build all possible options and wouldn’t know which would play until five minutes before. And every department had a version of that. One of my favorite parts of the weekly routine was going to the local dive after the show with a handful of people in different departments and telling big fish stories about what had gone chaotically off the rails in that week’s episode.
People. I wish I had had a couple of trustworthy and knowledgeable people to be an occasional sounding board for what is reasonable and what is not when working. The entertainment industry is somewhat lawless. I think having even one other person with the reference of experience, but no personal skin in the game say “yeah, that doesn’t sound right…” would’ve saved me a lot of avoidable trouble and abuse. On the other hand, if the trouble hurts bad enough you learn how to avoid it even better, so who’s to say.
The other thing it might’ve been nice to know sooner, is that being a jack of all trades isn’t necessary to survive in this field no matter how competitive. You can certainly choose to be, but a much better motive for being one is that you like to do a lot of different things.
This is of course just my personal experience, but even in an industry like Los Angeles that has a reputation for being very saturated in creatives, you will get a good reputation and enough work to keep you going not based on how many different things you can do, but by the enthusiasm and proficiency with which you do do them. When I have taken on any job that comes at me regardless of whether I care about that skill, it has always left me too exhausted and disheartened to do good work when the job with the skill I actually care about comes along. And the more specialized I choose to be with my skills and interests, the easier it is for people to think of me specifically when they need someone to do a job like that. I do a better job, and I build up call-back business faster that way. You don’t want your personal skill set to be a “solution looking for a problem to solve”, but if you do find a specific problem that needs to be solved it doesn’t matter how niche it is, there will be more than enough opportunities to go at it.
I know the popular answer right now is the advent of AI, but I don’t think that’s really the meat of the shift that’s going to happen as much as it’s a pivotal tool. I keep coming back to this metaphor recently, but I think we will be trending further and further toward the entertainment-equivalent of the replicator from Star Trek. Because of many different technological and social influences it’s becoming more and more possible for the individual to conjure up a pure… functionality….from nothing. In a world where the playing field of “creating” visual interest becomes ever more level, I think the economy of ideas will become the primary one, and the roster of who is participating in “content creation”, and why, will shift significantly.
After all, the economy of entertainment based on the model that a very few individuals produce most of the cinematic art and distribute it for the entire rest of the population to consume, is extremely new in terms of human history. For film, it’s been that way mostly because the financial barrier to entry was too high for individuals to take on, just as most individuals can’t bank-roll an orchestra.
But aside from that very recent past, we’ve spent millennia gathered round the proverbial parlor piano singing the ballad together and I dare to presume that’s because the shared experience of being creative is ultimately more fulfilling than the competition of having to be the best.
And we’re increasingly being handed that opportunity on a platter. With the discovery of tools that make making a movie as accessible as that living room piano vs an orchestra, more people can participate in that art form than ever could before. And naturally the importance placed on that art form by individuals will change. Their participation will be extended to that of creators instead of just consumers.
I also want to say that I don’t think it’s any one, or even any one recent tool that has done that, but rather the combined effort of resources that enable communities to form, interact, display, and construct.
I spend time with my friends and family and cats. I’m renovating a house. I like to play board games. But as far as hobbies go I’d have to say that it’s gardening. It’s the thing I derive maybe the most satisfaction out of and I spend probably too much money on. I have some vegetable beds going but my real interest is landscaping with native species.
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