Costume Designer

About two-and-a-half months before the film begins shooting principal photography, the costume designer is brought in to dress the characters. Well, not actually dress them, but decide what they are going to be wearing throughout the film. But according to Susan Nininger, who has designed costumes for stars such as Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, and Whitney Houston, a costume designer does more than that. It is not just one job; it has a lot of components. She describes her career as being part designer, part artist, part psychologist, and part mother.

When Susan gets the script, she reads it through, looking for elements important to her department. Key things she'll notice are the duration of the film (in film time), how many characters need to be outfitted, and any special costuming notes. If the film consists solely of two people talking during a single night in modern times, then there are only two costumes to worry about, and both of them are contemporary, probably things that can be bought off the rack. On the other hand, if the film is a period piece that follows the struggle of a young slave through fifty years of his life, surrounded by a cast of thousands, the costumes will be much more complicated.

Once the script is broken down by character and costume, Susan starts getting ideas. If the film is a period piece, there are several costume research libraries in Hollywood that can give her help in narrowing down periods to specific dates and regions. She jots down notes or creates tear sheets (copies of pictures from books or magazines that show the general idea of what she has in mind) to organize her thoughts, but she won't start designing until she has met with the director.

After meeting with the director (and probably the production designer) and discussing the original costume ideas and how they work with the director's vision, Susan begins sketching. At this point in her design schedule, Susan also tries to talk with the actors she's designing for. She says that building a rapport, a trust, with the actors makes her job much easier. It also allows the actors to contribute some of their own ideas about the costumes and characters.

When her designs are approved, Susan sends them out to be built or goes shopping herself. If the film is contemporary, Susan gets to shop for some of the pieces, then just has them tailored for the actors. On period productions, whatever can't be rented has to be constructed. If she's working on a major studio film, then the studio will have its own costume shop to translate Susan's drawings into apparel. The alternative to the studio shop, if needed, is to take the designs to an independent costumer with his or her own resources. Either way, the costumes are constructed, and the fittings take place.

At the fittings, Susan meets with the actors face-to-face, possibly for the first time. The costumes are donned, and Polaroids are taken. The pictures are a reference for the director. Susan takes notes on how the costumes fit—where things should be tightened or loosened and how the actors feel about them. After the fittings, the changes are made, and the costumes are hung until needed.

When the costumes are needed, Susan is there on the set. She makes sure she is there on the first day any particular costume works (is worn on film). She needs to be on hand in case something goes wrong. It doesn't happen often, but things change from moment to moment, and an outfit that may have worked beautifully in daylight may not look right under the shooting conditions. Susan will be able to fix any of these problems and get the costumes established. Once established—once they've been filmed—and any other time you see them, they have to be the same to ensure continuity.

Being a costume designer is not something you can start out doing. Susan has a fine arts background and has worked hard to get where she is today. Along the way, she's done all the jobs that lead up to hers and learned a lot of skills. The basics include dyeing, cutting, and sewing all sorts of fabrics. You can learn these skills at a design school, and that will help you get started, but it's all those parts (designer, artist, psychologist, and mother) that will keep you going in the career.

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Freehand Sketching An Introduction

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