James Bolenbaugh may not have known it at the time, but growing up in Billings would prove to be an instrumental factor in determining his career choice.
“Billings was a great community to grow up in because there was so much beautiful scenery to grow up around,” Bolenbaugh said. “I think that was one of the things that led me to design scenery for a living.”
Bolenbaugh is now in the midst of one of the biggest jobs of his seven-year career: being the art director for the upcoming fourth season of Netflix’s Emmy-nominated series “Orange Is the New Black.”
He’s quick to acknowledge that his successful career was influenced by the many people he knew while growing up in Billings, most notably his grandfather Ted Beringer, a local guitar designer and electrician.
“My grandfather was a very big influence on me and a lot of my design essentials came from him,” Bolenbaugh said. “He got me thinking about design in a way that was very essential and humble. … He taught me a very important outlook on design: Never try to do too much. Just try to think of what you need and do your best to meet that need. Don’t try to make something into something it isn’t.”
After graduating from Senior High School in 2001, Bolenbaugh attended Bennington College in Vermont. There he met another individual who would put him on the path to being who he is today.
“In college, I was a bit aimless and I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I was bad about finishing things that I started,” Bolenbaugh said. “A good friend of mine named Elissa Sullivan really kind of kicked me in the pants and told me, ‘You need to finish things. You need to figure your stuff out.’ … After she said that to me, I started to analyze what I was doing and started finding a path.”
That path has been winding at times—including a brief foray into stop-motion animation—but Bolenbaugh eventually found his sweet spot working on the production design teams of various TV shows, including “Mad Men,” “Royal Pains,” “Elementary,” “Gotham,” “Halt and Catch Fire” and “Orange Is the New Black.”
In order to explain his roles and responsibilities on those shows, Bolenbaugh said it’s necessary to discuss the responsibilities of the other members of a production design team, since each member of the team depends on the others.
The head of the department is known as the production designer and is “responsible for the visual look of the film or series,” according to Bolenbaugh. Serving under the production designer are the art director and set decorator, who are tasked with bringing the production designer’s vision to life.
“I worked for a guy who described it best,” Bolenbaugh said. “If you turned the set upside down, everything that would fall out would be under the set decorator’s purview and everything that stayed would be under the art director’s purview.”
Thus, Bolenbaugh’s current job on “Orange” involves making sure that the sets—such as the series’ Litchfield Prison—meet the production designer’s expectations. He also takes care of things like budgeting and hiring so that the production designer can focus exclusively on the creative side of the process.
“There are a lot of moving pieces related to the production design of a film or show,” he said. “The art director’s really got his finger on the pulse of all of that—he knows what everybody’s doing. … Production designers frankly don’t have the time to know that, and they shouldn’t have to. They don’t need the extra stress. … So the art director is a very important person because he just takes the ball and rolls with it. He’s the one who makes it all happen.”
Prior to his current job on the fourth season of “Orange,” Bolenbaugh worked as an assistant art director during the show’s first three seasons. In that role he spent the majority of his time sketching what pieces of the set would look like.
When the show’s previous art director, Jordan Jacobs, had to take a month of leave during the production of the third season, Bolenbaugh stepped in for three episodes. This temporary job proved to be permanent when Jacobs left at the end of season three.
Bolenbaugh is midway through production on “Orange’s” fourth season and should wrap up work in December. The season will likely premiere on Netflix next summer.
In between seasons of “Orange,” Bolenbaugh pursues other projects that continue to stretch his abilities. For example, between the show’s second and third seasons, he worked as an assistant art director on the now-Emmy-nominated production design team for the pilot episode of Fox’s Batman-themed series “Gotham.”
“Working on ‘Gotham’ was really a breath of fresh air for me because there were three other assistant art directors and all I really had to do was focus in on the details,” he said. “I went from working on a really massive scale with ‘Orange’ to focusing on little things like the railings in the police station or a clock window in one of the apartments. It was really fun to do that kind of fantastical detail when I had been working on a bunch of cinderblock prison walls for months on end.”
In addition to his television work, Bolenbaugh has worked on occasional independent films including the Harrison Ford film “Paranoia” and the horror comedy “Ava’s Possessions” starring Carol Kane. However, he says that, unlike many of his colleagues, he prefers to work on television.
“I think your design work gets a lot more presence on television because you see it so much more and it becomes much more integral to the plot lines,” Bolenbaugh said. “For example, in ‘Orange is the New Black,’ Litchfield Prison is as much a character as any other character on that show. You can even see that phenomenon going back to something like ‘Cheers.’ The bar on ‘Cheers’ is an integral part of that show while a bar in a movie is usually just a bar. It’s there for five minutes and then you’ll never see it again.”
In the end, Bolenbaugh says he’s proud of all the work he’s produced during his short but productive career. He’s also grateful that he’s played a role in what many critics are calling television’s “Golden Age.”
“Traditionally, television has been seen as a lesser medium by the people who work in it, but I just think that is so untrue,” Bolenbaugh said. “Especially in the last 15 years, TV has gotten to this really high-quality place. It often has a really beautiful cinematic look to it. It’s no longer your laugh-track-driven sitcom of yesteryear—it’s really become a high art and I’m so glad to be a part of it.”