Thursday, November 10, 2005
Former Chicoan produces comprehensive, practical guide to costume design for film
By DAN BARNETT
Imagine: "It is 7:30 a.m. on an already hot summer day. I've just pulled into the parking lot of a red brick church, in the San Fernando Valley. ... Today is the big day on the set of 'The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human.' The costume designer is Kristin Burke. That's me. This is the day we shoot the Wedding Scene. ...
"Every principal actor and day player to hit celluloid on this shoot is going to be in this wedding scene, and everyone needs to look great. The greatest-looking of all, though, needs to be Carmen Electra, our leading lady. In the wedding scene, Carmen's character, Jenny Smith, is supposed to be nine months pregnant. Reading the script, I remember thinking, How charming, until the reality of the words 'Maternity Wedding Gown' sunk in. Who makes maternity wedding gowns? I knew that, in the interest of time, money and aesthetics, we would be building this gown."
The whole story is detailed in "Costuming for Film: The Art and the Craft" ($49.95 in oversized paperback from Silman-James Press) by Holly Cole and Kristin Burke. Cole teaches costume design at Ohio University and has worked as a costumer with the Muppets and the Metropolitan Opera. Burke, who spent some growing-up time in Chico, and who now lives in West Los Angeles, has worked as costume designer on dozens of TV shows, music videos and independent film projects, including "The Cooler," starring William H. Macy and Alec Baldwin.
Divided into 11 parts, "Costuming for Film" moves from basic principles of costume design to how costuming integrates into the sometimes heady, sometimes frustrating work of producing a movie: design development; breakdowns (where the costume designer uses the script to create lists of costume elements); prep (getting costumes made in the time allotted and within budget); shooting (including nude scenes and handling conflict); and final wrap (including wardrobe sales and re-shoots).
Two final parts deal with getting one's first job and tips for working in Los Angeles and New York. Appendices provide sample resumes, union guidelines and more, and the book is enhanced with interviews of working designers, dozens of photographs from film productions and a special color section illustrating creative design.
Why put up with this high pressure job? The authors have a ready answer: "It's a gas and a half. ... You cope with all the pressures of this field by getting into the Zen of the work. Most of all, you have to have passion. When faced with the fact that you have to style several hundred extras in short order, you embrace improvisational styling, creating characters in a matter of minutes, out of a stock of costume goodies."
And the money? "Union costume design salary minimums of $1,404 to $2,500 a week, even the lowly costume department production assistant rate, starting at $13.56 an hour, may seem enticing. But it can be startling ... how underpaid you can feel when you're working in this high risk business."
Burke and Cole add that "Film costuming -- whether you are interested in designing, supervising, shopping, working on set or building costumes -- is essentially a freelance job, and as such, getting work is all about who you know
"Still interested? To get into the costume groove, first check your ego at the door. If you want to work in this field, you must be really hungry to do it. The unions are tough to break into and job sources are often a jealously guarded secret. ... To be brutally honest, unless you have film contacts who will vouch for you, the film professionals doing the hiring care more about your stamina than your fabulous portfolio. Even with an MFA or two years of Broadway or fashion-industry experience, on a film, you can still find yourself ironing shirts and sorting dirty socks." An interview with Burke herself toward the end of the book shows her tenacity in getting work on a (horrors!) Roger Corman film; she ended up on nine of them.
For Burke, the costume is more than just window-dressing; it's about creating a character. "My job is to move people," she says. "If I can do that by creating characters visually, then I have done my job."
"Costuming for Film" is a captivating technical guide to reel life. Burke and Cole have done their jobs well.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to email@example.com. Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.