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Oscar-nominated costume designers share experiences at TFT panel

(Photo Illustration by Kanishka Mehra/Photo editor and Emily Dembinski/Illustrations director)

By Ashley Kim

April 27, 2021 4:38 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled Alexandra Byrne's name.

This post was updated April 27 at 8:26 p.m.

Birthed by pencil on page, the costumes that permeate every frame of a film are made with utmost care.

The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television presented its first virtual and 11th annual Sketch to Screen Costume Design Panel and Celebration last Saturday. Moderated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the founding director and chair of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA, four of the five Academy Award nominees this year – Alexandra Byrne, Bina Daigeler, Massimo Cantini Parrini and Trish Summerville – spoke about the meticulous work that goes into creating costumes and the collaborative nature of the craft. In an exciting development made possible by the online format, Landis said the designers joined the call from four different cities in Europe and the United States.

“We’ve had an opportunity to talk to people who are actually Zooming in and being with us in different time zones,” Landis said. “If you think about that level of commitment to sharing what they know with students and faculty at UCLA and beyond, I think that’s really incredible.”

MFA costume design student Benjamin Nabinger, who attended the virtual event, said the insights divulged about the inner workings of the industry were constructive. Getting exposure to more practical concerns and the rich assortment of ideas from renowned costume designers have allowed him to better visualize his place in the field.

“It’s really inspiring to humanize (costume designers) in a way and see the way that we might fit into this puzzle later in our career,” Nabinger said. “People are taking inspiration from a hundred different sources. They’re talking about a hundred different approaches to the way that we work, so just hearing all of those different approaches (and) all of those different resources is always invaluable.”

[Related: Oscars 2021]

The event began with an introductory statement from Brian Kite, the interim dean at TFT, and was followed by a three-minute clip montage of all the nominated costume designers’ work. Featuring designs from “Emma,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Mulan,” “Pinocchio” and “Mank,” the costumes ranged from candy-colored Regency era dresses to toned pieces of the 1940s.

Research is critical to a costume designer’s process, allowing them to create costumes that reflect a certain time period and tell a story, Parrini said through interpreter Marina Spagnuolo. In order to create the desired effect, the “Pinocchio” costume designer said a deep understanding of the text and background is required.

“(Our job) has to do with achieving a lot of high-range visual culture to approach subject matter,” Parrini said. “You are only able to approach knowledge and overcome the knowledge that is the status quo by understanding it and deeply knowing it.”

Costume design can appear to be primarily a visual craft – designers work with fabrics that they see, and audiences watch them in action on screen – but Landis said it is also a literary art form that starts with the screenplay. Finding and conveying captivating stories with directors comes first and interesting costumes second, said Summerville, the costume designer for “Mank.”

“A script is good if I’m reading it and I can see all the characters and sets in my head,” Summerville said. “The thing I think that’s beautiful about our jobs is that we all read something differently and take from it and its imagination. What I read on the page can translate totally different to (what) someone else reads on the page.”

Byrne, who worked on “Emma,” said having both the novel and the screenplay to draw from provided not only an abundance of words to translate to the screen, but also many extensive meetings with the director to establish a unified visual language from both written works. But words on the page can only become fully visualized and coherent with collaboration across departments, Byrne said.

[Related: Panel to showcase Oscar-nominated costume designers and their fashions of the past]

But coordinating costume design has been challenging throughout the pandemic, which has taken away the collective experience and hindered the hands-on tendencies of the art form said Daigeler, who designed for “Mulan.” As someone who relies a lot on intuition and freestyles her way through the costume process, she said it was difficult for her to manage without that freedom.

Byrne expressed similar sentiments, comparing the experience to being put on a diet of dry biscuits that sucked out the warmth and fun of the process. Filmmaking is an art form based on synergy, and despite carrying out all the tasks required of her, Byrne said the COVID-19 safety measures take out some of the joy of working with others on set.

“It takes out the serendipity, the collaboration, the laughter,” Byrne said. “Yes, we are all very experienced, and we make it work, but ultimately, at a cost, it is compromised. You can’t get the fabrics. You can’t get the thing you want. You can’t get the actors for the fittings. Nobody goes on naked, but it’s hard work.”

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