Telling the story through colors and scenery: Jiyoung Lee and the art of set design


Jiyoung Lee


Ji young Lee’s 27 years of life can be described as “One road.” She was born in Incheon, South Korea on the 11th of July in 1987. She was raised by passionate and generous parents who have always supported her to follow her dream. She has a beautiful sister who has been her life mentor. She grew up with her dog for 21 years, who was always like a dear brother to her, but she had to let him go on September 2013. When she was 7 years old, her parents found that what she had a talent in and loved to do was Art. She was very interested in her mother’s beautiful and colorful fingernails, and she wanted to express them through drawing. That’s how she started to learn how to draw.

When she was 10, her mother took her to the musical “Alibaba and 40 Thieves.” She was fascinated not only by the magical set which had a flying carpet, moving cave, exotic Arabic costumes and music, but also by dynamic reactions audiences displayed. She fell in love with this strange world created through the set, and that was the day she started to dream of becoming a set designer. She was amazed by how the set design can create an environment where people can escape from their ordinary lives and mundane scenery and experience a fantasy world.

When she became 17 years old, she fell in love with the production design in Film after watching “Mouling Rouge!” Her parents decided to send her to U.S so that she could explore the endless complex interaction between various individual characteristics, attitudes, codes, cultures, and designs. She went to a boarding school called St.Andrew’s Sewanee school in Tennessee. It was in a cozy small town surrounded by beautiful nature and had an amazing art teacher, so it was a perfect school for her. She was able to focus on taking various art classes and joined theater as an activity. For the first time in her life, she was exposed to friends from all over the world, who portrayed various expressions and ideas in art.

After graduating St. Andrew’s Sewanee School, she went to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). She majored in Interior Architecture. Her undergraduate coursework in Interior Architecture Studios, Dario Fo, Light and Color, Audience and Set design studio helped her explore design principles that focused on the set design, use of space, light, and color. She also took courses that focused on audiences, and she learned the importance of relationship and communication among the audience, performers, and authors. What fascinated her the most about these courses was that she learned how to transform the literature into architecture. By learning theatrical vocabulary, she learned how to visualize designs and stages coming from the text, how to create transitions between scenes and events of scenes that would engage the audience.

While in college, she took a year off and interned at a set design firm called Art Career in Korea. She received trainings on Auto CAD, Vectorworks, Photoshop, Rhinoceros 4.0, 3d-max and V-ray and witnessed the entire set design process from conceptualizing, designing, installing to actual performances for the TV shows and huge concerts. Since set design was her passion, working 11 hours per day and helping installation for a few days with not much sleep in the freezing cold weather did not tire her out. She was excited to wake up every morning to go to work, and her heart pounded when she saw how the design become an actual stage. She loved the fact that the set was like a temporary art work in reality, but it becomes a permanent art work in audience’s memory.

After graduating from RISD, she received an internship offer at George Tsypin Opera Factory in New York. SInce she has always admired George Tsypin’s work, it was an amazing journey. She fell in love with his architectural and constructivism design style. George Tsypin is known for his work in Operas and Broadway Musicals. Recently, she worked on Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic ceremonies in Russia, and this gave her a valuable experience on classical set design. Her time was divided into researching references, model making with various materials, rendering and creating visual images by using different computer programs. As the Sochi Olympics was the biggest project for the set design company in 2012, she witnessed various meetings between George and world’s famous lighting, sound teams, directors and producers. As George worked on “Spiderman: turn off the dark” in Broadway, she was able to see his models that helped his clients imagine the sceneries of the set easily. She used to have an interest in commercial set design such as production sets, concert stages or event stages. Fortunately, since Robert Pyzocha who works with George also designed the commercial set, she also received an opportunity to work on commercial sets as well. She made rendering images, helped him prepare his presentations to designers, and installed sets for his New York fashion week shows.

While in New York, she also had a chance to see a show called “Sleep No More” created by a British Company Punchdrunk. It was a great inspiration for her, because the show created a theatrical environment that interacts with the audiences directly. She decided she wants to design sets that not only deal with the movement of stage elements, scenes, music and literature, but also create the environment that gives audiences unique experiences by exploring and interacting with the show.

After the internship, she came to UCLA and became a second year Theater and Entertainment Media MFA at UCLA. In her first year, She took the classes that covered a wide range of design studies including collaboration class of scenic, costume and lighting design, Scenic painting, Projection design, Scenic technology, Production design class in Film, Interactive storytelling and Life drawing. After her 2nd year, she got an opportunity to be a professional intern at Walt Disney Imagineering from June 2015 to December 2015. She worked on the opening show of Shanghai Disney resort and few other projects. It was once in a life time experience for her, and it made her grow and she learned how to become a better storyteller and communicate with people. She got her Scenic Design MFA degree in 2016 and got into Art Directors Guild’s apprentice program which 12 students were selected in US.

The following are questions to a personal interview conducted with Jiyoung Lee herself.


In your own words, what do you do as an art director?

Art Director is an artist who helps Production designer to create the film’s unique visual identity. As an Art Director, I’m leading the art department with production designer in designing, creating the set of film and realizing the Production Designer and Director’s creative visions. After I get the script, I analyze the script to identify the props and understand the script – what the story is about; the themes; the story points; the characters, and Production designer and I start brainstorming how we are going to tell the story visually. Art Director communicates with the teams and work across departments. I oversee the construction, dressing and striking the sets.


What made you want to be an art director?

I want to be an art director because I want to create a world that affects people who are watching the film. I thought it was fascinating that I could make the background world that helps people to believe the story either it is real or fantasy. There are few films that show how much the art department pays attention to details. In the film “Room,” the art department team studied the sun’s movement and bleached the part of the wall where the sunlight comes through the shed’s skylight and hits. They believed most of the objects inside the room should have some sort of stories because the main character 5 years old Jack personifies every object. For example, there is an egg snake made of egg shells because Jack didn’t have real toys. In “Danish girl,” the set starts with the gloomy grey bedroom in Copenhagen where the main character couldn’t find his real identity, and then it shifts to a colorful room with beautiful floral pattern wall and Art Nouveau style architecture in Paris where he finds his real identity as a woman and starts blooming. I love that Art director is a storyteller who transfers the words into imagery by cconceptualizing, using my imagination and creating the mood like emotion, style, feeling.


How would you describe your style of art direction? What makes you different than other art directors?

I love telling the story through the colors. I have proficiency in the required body of skills sketching, drafting, 3d programs and research, and I have a special affinity for color. I’m able to see a narrative through palette, expressing the story – its tone, ideas and emotions – almost solely through color. Color affects the audience the most and communicates time and place, define characters, and establish emotion, mood, atmosphere, and a psychological sensibility. My work often expresses deep connection with the characters and heart of the story through delicate color sensibility that often captures the complexity of characters and tone of the project.


What do you like about art direction?

Art Direction helps me to have strong leadership skill and learn how to motivate and direct a team. It makes me to learn about interior design and architecture and the history of both and a practical understanding of building and construction. Film is a collaboration work, and I enjoy understanding the work of other departments and communicate with them because my set designs affect their work. I like that I have to be able to see and think the narrative visually.


What are the challenges and how do you overcome them?

Budget is always the challenging part of the work. Everyone wants the film set to be visually stunning and everything Director wants in his vision to be realized. But it’s always impossible to transfer everything in the script into the set. So it’s important for the art director to figure out how to design the set cleverly with the limited budget and give the director the different set design options- cheaper but acceptable. Other challenge is the physical and mental challenge. The art department works long and irregular hours, and it takes lots of laboring and strength. Also, film is a collaboration work, so I have to communicate with other department people and also take care of the team. It’s a very mentally and physically tiring job, but I overcome those challenges when I get to see the set comes to life and the final edited version of the film. It’s very rewarding.


What are your plans for the future? (goals, upcoming projects, etc.)

I’m going to continuously work on film. I’d love to experience working on different types of films and creating sets that work for those films like Birdman that was one-shot film (so the designer had to build the continuous set), Danish girl, Revenant or fantasy films.




  • Directed by Raphael Sbarge (won Audience choice, Best Director, Best drama and Best Ensemble Cast for Asians on Film Festival 2017, won Best Short Film : Diamond Award in NYC Indie Film Awards, won Best Short, Best Ensemble in First Glance Film Fest Los Angeles 17, won Best Short Narrative film in DisOrient Asian American Film Festival of Oregon, The Newport Beach Film Festival’s Asians on Film Festival)

ART DIRECTOR DELUSION: LIES WITHIN Virtual Reality feature film 2017 • Produced by SKYBOUND Entertainment

  • Directed by John Braver


  • Directed by Ryan Betschart (Portland Underground Film Festival, Mammoth Lakes Film Festival, Winnipeg underground film festival)



  • Directed by James Wan
  • Production Designer: Bill Brzeski, Art Director: Desma Murphy


Glendale, CA, JUNE-DEC, 2015

  • Working on Art Production for Shanghai Disney Resort Opening show


  • Working on Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Opening Ceremony (Emmy Nominee)

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