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Working in Costume – not for the faint hearted! … by Iona Smith Oliver

Iona Headshot

Iona Smith Oliver

After completing a degree in Fine Art at University of the West of England and in the same year losing my Father to cancer, I worked – any job would do, I just wanted to work and keep busy. It wasn’t until about a year later that I had a chance to reflect on the fact that I was really stressed and exhausted, splitting my time between babysitting, pub work and a variety of unpaid internships. Even though I had put in a huge amount of effort, I still had no direction and no career plan for the long term.

I have always had an interest in sewing and alterations and have been adjusting and reconstructing charity shop clothing since I was very young – and I even used to make fur coats and Spice Girl shoes out of old corks, plaster and dental floss for my Barbie dolls. However, it never occurred to me in later life that ‘Costume’ could be a possible career path for me. By sheer coincidence I started babysitting for a Costume Designer who was incredibly supportive in my quest for work and got me onto my first Costume Assistant job, helping her out on an Argos commercial. It was a great first job as I got to experience lots of different elements of filming, not only to do with Costume but also working with green screen, working with a large group of people (what seemed like five Assistant Directors!) and working with puppets and puppeteers. I remember the first time I went into her studio to pull outfits and the excitement I felt at the realisation that this job really ticked all the boxes for me.

From then on I started to be proactive in my search for work and most importantly (seems rather obvious but top tip!) when asked – I told people that I worked in Costume. You would be surprised at the amount of people that are willing to put you in touch with their niece or old school friend or housemate and it is really, really worth following these contacts up! One of the main lessons I learned very quickly was that finding work is all about connecting with people and being present in a community – you never know where any conversation or email will take you. One particular example of this was a seemingly random phone call I got from a Supervisor asking if I could assist her and the Designer on a feature film up in Leeds. I was unable to do the job at the time but we got on so well on the phone that she asked me to assist her on a low budget feature later that year. We have since become great friends and have formed a strong team with the Designer from the Leeds job and have now worked together on several features.

Carey Mulligan as Maud in 'Suffragette' - 2015

Carey Mulligan as Maud in ‘Suffragette’ – 2015

Through the first women I worked with, I was fortunate enough to get a few dailies on ‘Suffragettes’ which was a period feature. It was unlike any experience I had had before. The sheer scale of the production was over whelming. To give you an idea, on one particular day I was one of 18 dailies who were responsible for dressing and assisting 200+ extras. A whole street was shut down in Central London and transformed into a busy working Victorian street, along with horse drawn buses and a hot chestnut stall. This is something I find especially exciting about working for Costume on screen as it is all about making the illusion believable. The attention to detail and the work that goes into these productions does make me feel really proud to be a part of it.

When I’m working on say a 4/5 week shoot my life tends to be dedicated to the process for the whole of the shoot. This is purely because the working day can be anywhere from 12-16 hours and Costume is usually the first to arrive and the last to leave at the end of the day.

There are many qualities I think you need to survive in the world of Costume and I use the word ‘survive’ as it can be an incredibly tough and competitive industry. First and foremost strong people skills are a must! Working with large groups of people for long hours and often under a time constraint, people will get stressed (you may too!) and I tend to have the policy that what happens at work stays at work and doesn’t affect my personal relationships. Problem solving and efficiency is another good quality, as things do and sometimes will go wrong. You need to be able to think fast and act quickly as time is always of the essence.

'Hi-Lo Joe' 2015

‘Hi-Lo Joe’ 2015

I have been working in the industry for just under a year now and, although I have had a wide and varied amount of experience though all sorts of budgets and roles I am now concentrating on being a hard working Costume Trainee. I think you learn and grow from experience on every job you do and in many ways I’m sure this will continue throughout my career. I’m still unsure if I want to be a Costume Designer per se but am very keen to improve my making and construction skills and feel that this may be a large part of my career in the future.

I have been fortunate enough this year to become a part of the 2015 Sara Putt Trainee Scheme and especially lucky, as this is their first year of taking on Costume Trainees. It is so amazing having the support not only from the agency but also from a close network of fellow Trainees. I would really recommend getting involved with a Trainee Scheme as they can be an invaluable resource when learning how to find work and network effectively. Check out my CV (resumé) on this website and contact me via my LinkedIn page.

Iona’s credits to date are: Suffragettes, Hi-Lo Joe, Writer’s Retreat, Foxes, Black Sea, Golden Years, Lady in the Van.

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Costume Department

 

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THE ART OF COSTUME DESIGN by Lindy Hemming

From a 2010 article in Network Nine News ©

Lindy Hemming with her Oscar for 'Topsy Turvy'

Lindy Hemming with her Oscar for ‘Topsy Turvy’

 

I was born in a remote country village in Wales in 1948, the eldest of 5 children. I was always bilingual, speaking Welsh at school and English at home. Both my parents were creative in a craft way and supplemented their rather overstretched income by making and selling things in our local town market at weekends. During the week my father worked at various kinds of sales jobs and at night he worked as a talented woodcarver. My mother was a teacher – she could draw, design and make clothes – mostly in my case, converting ‘hand me downs’ and sometimes, if we were really lucky, she used new fabric – although in rural Wales this usually meant something in design and fashion terms which looked about 10 years out of date, especially to my beady eye as, even from about 7 or 8 years old, I was very concerned with what people wore and how they looked (I was also very worried that the previous owners of the hand me downs would recognise them on me, in their newly converted state!)

So we spent lots of time hanging around in market places, seeing wild and wonderful people on their one day out off the mountains and later on, when I was about 8 years old, we moved into a village shop where we all took turns to serve and observe.

Anyhow, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in people – who they were, what they did, where they came from, what they thought and why did they dress like that … and what did it say about them – what are they saying with their clothes, hair, jewellery, shoes, creases, wrinkles, wear and tear –  so many clues to be gleaned but never knowing at the time that this weird obsession would one day form the basis of my work.

I didn’t ever attend art school as my father had convinced me that I must do a ‘worthwhile’ job. So I trained as an orthopaedic nurse which, though seemingly irrelevant to costume design, meant dealing closely with people and observing and listening to them, which I later found incredibly useful in my career.

The Oscar-winning 'Topsy Turvy'

The Oscar-winning ‘Topsy Turvy’

Eventually, encouraged by the example of friends, I attended The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and studied there for three years, encompassing Stage Management, Design and a notably bad attempt at acting an old woman in a Checkov play!  It was at RADA that I first encountered ‘Costume Design’ and loved it from the first moment, knowing that it encompassed everything I was interested in.    

It’s my strong opinion that before all else, a person who wants to be a costume designer needs to have an innate, inquisitive and abiding interest in human beings of every age, type and class (this justifies my nosiness!) and be strong enough to hold on to an idea and play a long game … have patience … because, in its simplest form, what designing costumes for film, television, theatre or commercials is all about, is clothing the human body in something which the designer believes will speak both to the actor – who wears the costume – and to the audience, thereby playing a part, however subtly, in creating the character ‘with’ the actor – thus providing more information to the audience and helping with their understanding and enjoyment of the play or film. This applies equally to both ‘period’ and ‘contemporary’ films.

The work is often so subtle that it is pretty subliminal. It is a good exercise to watch contemporary films and think about the garment choices that have been made and whether you think they are perfect. Often, uninitiated audiences think that in a contemporary film the actors are wearing  their own clothes.

A costume designer, like most kinds of ‘designers’ by definition is going to spend a huge portion of their life solving problems and being creative within prescribed parameters which arise, not  solely from practical and financial reasons – but from having to take into consideration and often incorporating the ideas and opinions of many other people during the design process; director, producer, studio executives, accountants, actors, et al (not to mention the egos which come with the territory!) It is agreed, I think, by most of us that contemporary costumes are much more difficult to execute, precisely because so many people feel they know what a character would/should wear – with period costume there is a barrier called ‘historical accuracy’ which quiets the suggestions of the … ‘wouldn’t it be good if ‘ … or worse …‘my wife loves shopping, maybe she could do your job’….

Lindy’s sketch for Elektra’s costume in the1999 film‘The World is not Enough’

Lindy’s sketch for Elektra’s costume in the1999 film
‘The World is not Enough’
© 1999 Danjaq, LLC & United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved

Sophie Marceau in costume as Elektra, Maiden’s Tower© 1999 Danjaq, LLC & United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved

Sophie Marceau in costume as Elektra, Maiden’s Tower
© 1999 Danjaq, LLC & United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first work as a costume designer was at a fringe theatre on Tottenham Court Road called The Open Space Theatre. I was the general and often only costume person and so designed, made, shopped, washed and ironed. I was then fortunate to work at The Hampstead Theatre Club as a designer for several years, simultaneously looking after and supporting a young son and daughter. It was a fantastic opportunity to really find out how theatre costume design worked at a time when there still was political and experimental writing and producing happening. I worked in Fringe Theatre for about 10 years in all and gradually was asked by directors such as Michael Rudman, Mike Leigh, Alan Ayckbourn, Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre, Howard Davies and Nancy Meckler to work on bigger and more mainstream shows, consequently working in the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as the West End of London and Broadway in New York. The magic was, at one point, having  five shows running simultaneously in London!Anyone who has worked in theatre will know that, whilst it is the most satisfying design experience there isn’t, even at that level, a decent living to be earned for a costume designer. So, for that and other reasons, after about 15 years I began to hope that I might be fortunate enough to be asked to design the odd film or two! Good fortune, in the forms of Richard Eyre and Mike Leigh, smiled at me and for the ensuing twenty-six years I have almost exclusively designed for film.

How is this different … well, initially you feel it must be, as the method of production is so different – but all the costume design basics remain exactly the same …

Firstly, there is an interview/meeting situation where you are asked to read the script and then go to meet the Director and possibly the Producer. At this time you are expected to have had some ideas and make some observations and even, if you feel an idea or two forming, you can look out some reference/research to show them, which is a useful aid to your interview and gets them reacting, thus giving you an idea of what they might be thinking. Mainly though, they will be looking to see if you have ‘suitable form’ or a CV which interests them and whether they feel they will be able to work creatively with you. Often they are also thinking of how you would get on with the actors they have in mind – whether you will ‘gel’. IF they decide to engage you, you will have more meetings with the director to discuss his/her and your vision of the film and who the characters in the story are, what their background is and how do we feel their clothing reflects their personality. You will begin to draw your ideas, not necessarily fully-blown costume drawings but sketches and details that you think of, or see, in reference material.

This part of the process is really fantastically enjoyable – a time when you can do loads of research and learn about the world that the film is portraying, whether it be historical or contemporary – it is equally challenging and equally important to come to a conclusion and be clear about what you would aim to do with each character. It could mean spending time in libraries, art galleries, magazine shops, in a hospital or a factory, or just riding on public transport. Collecting things which reflect the colours or textures you want to use and swatching for fabrics either with the intention of using them to make the clothes, or to show alongside your drawings as an aid to understanding what you mean. Often on large films, there isn’t time for lots of drawing and I often use tear sheets and collage boards to get my point across – for contemporary work they are sometimes clearer.

It’s at this time that you consolidate the LOOK and collaborate with the actors. It is important to them during their creation of the character that they know what the person they are creating will look like.

Here is also the time for you to explain your ideas to the Hair & Makeup department who ideally are working towards the same goal as you. It is important in film to lead a creative ‘team’ of people and share information – failure to do this can have horrible results.

At this time it is very important to meet with the Production Designer, who will have probably been engaged months before you and will have a broad vision of what the whole film should look like and is responsible to the director for the overall look of everything. He/she can take part in the costume design process and can help you greatly with things like the overall colour palette of the film and what colour the sets are which – don’t forget – your costumes will be standing in front of !!

Also there will be the Director of Photography to liaise with. The DoP can be ones greatest ally or downfall. Faces and fabrics change radically in different lighting situations and obviously, so do colours – I’m sure that you know, different film stock will alter the whole look of the film.

Armed with all this information, now is the time to go and meet the actors starting, most sensibly, with the principal actor/actors or STAR …. you will probably be the next person after the Director and Producer that the actors will meet and so you become the representative of the Director’s vision of the film. This is not always a welcome position to be in, especially when the actor discovers that the director’s lifelong concept may include something radical for instance like …. ‘everyone wears a shade of blue’…. and the actor …. ‘Hates blue, every time I’ve ever worn blue the film was a flop’…. ‘under no circumstances’…. etc. Now you’ve got it! You are up and running, carrying the torch (concept) and trying to negotiate the minefield of everyone else’s ideas, without letting the torch going out!

My film work could be divided into pre-and post ‘Bond’. Before the fateful phone call asking me to come to Pinewood Studios for a meeting with Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, I had been working consistently on smaller British films, often financed by Channel 4. My previous work with Mike Leigh on ‘Abigail’s Party’ in the theatre led him to ask me to work with him on ‘Meantime’ (one of my favourite films) then ‘High Hopes’, ‘Life is Sweet’, ‘Naked’ and ultimately ‘Topsy Turvy’ for which both Christine Blundell and Trefor Proud (Hair & Makeup) and I were awarded Oscars. That was, sadly, my last film with Mike Leigh and really I have not changed my way of working from that time – which came from his unique method of improvising everything. Mike Leigh is a National Treasure!!!

Amongst many other films, I have also worked with Steven Frears on ‘My Beautiful’ Launderette’, and (another favourite film) ‘Funnybones’ directed by Peter Chelsom – I also designed the very successful ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ for director Mike Newel.

Angelina Jolie in the title role of the 2003 film ‘Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life’ Another distinctly original costume design

Angelina Jolie in 2003 as ‘Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life’

When I was told about the ‘Bond’ interview by my agent, it seemed as if someone was playing a prank so far was it outside my normal film experience. So legendary and so glam! Anyhow, it was and is, a fantastic relationship with the Broccoli family who are the dedicated and hands on custodians of their ‘Bond’ world.

What fun and what a privilege it is to travel the world and see it whilst working. Since designing the look of the two new  ‘Bonds’ and creating the look of Angelina Jolie as the ‘Tomb Raider’ (1&2), I have worked on mostly American studio films. During the past few years I was fortunate to be asked by Chris Nolan to design the new ‘Batman’ films. This has been a new departure for me involving learning lots more about different technologies of costume such as ‘Batsuit’ design and manufacture – and the new Joker was just a pure joy to create!

 

Heath Ledger as The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ - 2008 The costume is designed to reflect The Joker’s personality - twitchy, grubby, corrupt

Heath Ledger as The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ – 2008. The costume is designed to reflect The Joker’s personality – twitchy, grubby, corrupt

This past year is typical of my varied work experiences. Firstly America to work with Martin Campbell on ‘Edge of Darkness’, a dark Boston-set contemporary thriller, then quickly back to London to work with young director Louis Letterier on the new ‘Clash of the Titans’ – phewww.!!! Now a rest!

 

Sam Worthington as Perseus and Ian White as Sheikh Suleiman in ‘Clash of the Titans’ - 2010(C)2010 Warner Bros Entertainment Inc & Legendary Pictures. Photo by Jay Maidment

Sam Worthington as Perseus and Ian White as Sheikh Suleiman in ‘Clash of the Titans’ – 2010
(C)2010 Warner Bros Entertainment Inc & Legendary Pictures. Photo by Jay Maidment

I feel that I have had the most fantastic opportunities in the world of film and theatre to have worked with some really good producers, directors, actors, production designers and cinematographers – but most of all I have had the pleasure of being able to be surrounded by some of the absolute best technicians in the world in my own department. Supervisors Dan Grace and John Scott. Assistant designers Jaqueline Durran, Michael O’Connor, Guy Speranza, Andrea Cripps, Graham Churchyard, Maria Tortu and Gabriella Loria. Cutters Anne Maskerey, Jennie Alford and Alison O’Brien. Dyers/distressers Tim Shanahan, Vicky Hallam and Steve Gell – and so many makers, wardrobe men and women, sculptors, leather workers, embroiderers – all of whom are artists who are loyal and dedicated to producing the best in their own disciplines.  Thank you to everyone who has helped me in my work life and for the opportunity to write this article!   

Lindy Hemming’s film credits include: The Dark Knight Rises – 2012, Clash of the Titans – 2010, Edge of Darkness – 2010, The Dark Knight – 2008, Casino Royale – 2006, Batman Begins – 2005, Tomb Raider 1 & 2 – 2001 & 2003, Die Another Day – 2002, Harry Potter – Chamber of Secrets – 2002, The World is Not Enough – 1999, Topsy Turvy – 1999, Little Voice – 1998, Tomorrow Never Dies – 1997, Blood and Wine – 1996, GoldenEye – 1995, Funny Bones – 1995, Four Weddings & a Funeral – 1994, High Hopes – 1988, Wetherby – 1985

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in Costume Department

 

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