What I Do At Work: Part XX

What I Do At Work: Part XX

The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench … a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs…

– Hunter S. Thompson

I’ve had a couple extremely busy and rather annoying weeks at work. This past week, I altered somewhere close to twenty-five suits. That’s twenty-five suits while also doing a ridiculous number of fittings and a whole slew of other alterations as well. None of that is necessarily annoying on its own. What is annoying is when people aren’t good at scheduling and neglect to take into account the time it’ll take to complete an alteration.

As a TV and film tailor, I’m often the one who has a particular garment last, right before it goes off to set for an actor to wear. Which means, if someone didn’t schedule a fitting early enough or if they showed up late to a fitting, or they forgot about a fitting altogether, I’m the one who is under the gun. And I’m also the one who’ll get blamed if the clothes aren’t ready on time. Seems rather silly but that’s the way things normally work (no one ever said the film and TV business was a pretty or fair place).

As Hunter S. Thompson said, "The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason."

As Hunter S. Thompson said, “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”

Often when I tell people that I work on television shows and movies, they say something like, “Oh that must be so much fun!” I suppose it has its moments but after the couple weeks I’ve just had, none of those moments seem all that fun.

So what can be done when you find yourself in work situations that are less than ideal? Here’s a short list of the things I do, or at least try to do when things are chaotic and disorganized around me.

Ask lots and lots of questions

 If I’m in a fitting and I know the actor is scheduled to work the next day and the designers are putting multiple outfits on him, I ask things like, “So, this is what he’s wearing tomorrow?” or “For the courtroom scene, he should wear this?”

The only way you’ll be able to ask lots of questions, is if you read all the paperwork. Which leads to the next thing on the list (which perhaps should be the first thing…)

Read all the scheduling paperwork production puts out

For every episode, the assistant directors put out a schedule called a One Liner. A One Liner is organized by shoot day, starting with shoot day one. It lists every scene to be shot that day, and which actors are in that scene. Every actor in a show is assigned a cast number and that’s how they’re listed on the One Liner. At the end (or beginning) of the One liner, all the characters are listed in numerical order so you don’t have to know off the top of your head what number each actor is. It’s called a One Liner because the scene descriptions are traditionally one line.

You probably already know this but, tv shows and movies are not shot in the order of what you see as the final product. Also, remember that sometimes things change at the last minute. Double check everything. Read the daily call sheet. Check in with the Wardrobe Supervisor to make sure they have everything they need for the next day.

Some TV and film tailors rely on the Wardrobe Supervisor or Costume Designer to let them know what garments to complete when. I like to be a lot more proactive than that, mainly because I hate last minute, “Oh I forgot I needed this tomorrow. Can you alter this before you leave?”

These types of requests at the end of a ten hour day can often be avoided if you’re informed about the schedule and who works the next day and ask questions early on. People get tired and overwhelmed and forget things (I do sometimes, too!) but one thing I dislike a lot is when someone else’s forgetfulness or disorganization means I have to stay at work late. Because, believe me, most Costume Designers, after dropping a big late afternoon alteration in your lap, aren’t going to hang around at work with you while complete it.

So, I just try and stay super organized and prevent those types of situations. Also…

Know when to say no

This is always difficult for me (and likely for most people) but, if a designer puts, say,  a suit jacket on an actor that doesn’t fit him in the shoulders (and it’s a contemporary suit they just purchased in a store), the answer to, “Can you move the sleeves?” is, “I can but it’ll look a lot better if you buy a suit in the proper size. And we really don’t have time for that extensive of an alteration.”

Same goes for men’s shirts that don’t fit correctly in the neck. Buy a shirt in the proper neck size.

There are a lot of things I like about the film and television business but, one of the things I don’t, is the delusion that making TV shows is akin to something as important as curing cancer or launching rocket ships. TV is great and all but, it’s not world and peril stuff.

Which is always something worth remembering.

French Alterations and a Wee Rant

French Alterations and a Wee Rant

French Alteration: Pinning a garment with a note about something you never intend to actually do – and no one ever knows or realizes!

At this point in my tailoring and patternmaking career, I tend to work with the same five or six designers. Mainly, because I enjoy working with them and our fitting styles and fitting room etiquette mesh.

“Fitting styles and fitting room etiquette?” you might ask, “I didn’t know that was a thing.”

Well, when it comes to TV and film fitting rooms, it is definitely a thing. I prefer to work with designers I know and respect because they, in turn, know and respect me. And, most importantly, they let me do my job. Which is to fit a garment on a specific person’s body.

Take it in

My fitting style is to survey the situation for a few minutes, to let the clothing settle on a person so I can see what it’s doing or what it wants to do. Then I go in and start pinning if I need to. Sometimes, I don’t need to, sometimes I can tell what needs to happen just by looking at it.

On the rare occasions these days when I work with someone who doesn’t know me very well, they often want me to rush right in and start pinning away before I’ve had a chance to actually look at things. Or, one of my big annoyances, they yank in the center back waist of a thing so the side seams are pulled all wonky and tell me I need to “take it in”.

Well, yes, it does need to be taken in, but not like that.

Fit preference

Sometimes they’ll even do this to a jacket without buttoning the front buttons, which means if I did take it in the amount they’ve grabbed, the jacket would never, ever, in a million years, be able to close.

I try to be as nice as possible and say, yes, I see that. Now, can you please let go so I can see what’s going on?

Costume Designers definitely have their own preferences when it comes to fit and hem lengths and stuff. I’m completely ok with that and will fit things how they like them fit but I’m not going to do something that will end up looking bad in the end (and for which, I’ll be the one who is blamed because, as in most things, people tend to blame the last person who touched a thing if something is wrong with said thing).

We tailors have this little term we use called a French Alteration. It’s when you pin something or write a note about something as if you’re going to do it but never actually do and no one ever knows or realizes.

Anyway, so back to fitting room etiquette. If there’s a designer in the room, I let them do all the talking and or schmoozing about how good something looks on someone. I just like to concentrate and do my job. Some tailors like to chat (which is perfectly cool if that’s your thing) but I like to listen to what the clothes are trying to tell me.

Brand fitting

One thing I’ve noticed about some designers is that they don’t always seem to understand that brands are cut differently and certain labels look better on certain people. Sometimes, you need to go through a whole slew of suit jackets to find the one that fits a specific body type the best. I can do pretty much any alteration but after a point its sort of foolish to spend a crazy amount of time altering a thing when you could possibly find a cut of jacket that works with minimal alterations. Like, if you need to shorten the body of a suit jacket, maybe you should buy a short (as in a 40short or something). Men’s suit jackets come in longs, regulars, and shorts for a reason. Use them.

I know I’ve mentioned this before but, one of my favorite designers to work for is Frank Fleming who, among all sorts of other things, is the Costume Designer for the show Power. Frank is the master at finding which suit brand and cut fits best on which actor. He can even usually tell which one is going to be best by just looking at an actor. I love that, ‘cause as much as I enjoy taking a suit jacket sleeve out, re-cutting the back and or shoulders and resetting the sleeve (not really), why not just start with a suit jacket that works on a specific body type and not do that?

I never went to school for costume design so I don’t know if they teach this little idea but, they should. It’s a huge time saver. And it really just makes sense.

The Problem with Over Fitting

The Problem with Over Fitting

In my almost 30 years in the film and television business, I’ve worked with a lot of different designers. Every designer has a specific way they like things to fit, at least in the film and television world. Tailors at men’s suit stores like Brooks Brothers, or department stores like Nordstroms, have standard fit and length parameters they follow.

They’ll tell you that a suit jacket hem must end at a certain point on the wrist and the proper length of the jacket is determined by whether or not you can curl your hand around the hem in a certain way. They’ll also tell you that a pant hem needs to have a specific amount of break over the front of the shoe (the amount the hem buckles in when you’re standing straight up).

In television and film, these things can vary depending on what designer you’re working with. I have five or six different designers I work with fairly regularly and they all have specific ways they want things to fit. I’ve worked with them enough to know what each of them like. One of them likes suit pant hems on the short side but lots and lots of ‘stack’ when it comes to jean hems. Another always wants a rake in the hem because they hate to see an actor’s socks showing in the back when he walks. One likes the shirt sleeves to show a ¼” below the suit jacket. Another tends to want things very slim fitted.

One size fits all

As a tailor, one of the most annoying fit attributes is when a designer wants you to, essentially, over fit something (none of the designers I work with regularly do this). By over fitting I mean, they want me to fit something so tightly that there are absolutely no wrinkles present anywhere at anytime. The main problem with this is that it’s only achievable if the actor or actress happens to be a non-moving, stationary dress form or mannequin. And, as I’m sure you know, most are not.

Actors move, clothing wrinkles. If you fit a dress too tightly, it’s going to ride up at the slightest provocation. If you fit a man’s suit jacket within an inch of its life, the actor won’t be able to lift his arms.

There are a lot of wrinkles I can fix, but I can’t get rid of them all. An over fitted garment looks just as bad on camera as one that isn’t fitted enough. Unless you start putting all kinds of extra seams into a thing, you’ll never be able to get something that isn’t spandex, completely wrinkle free all the time. Wrinkle free-ness is only completely achievable when the actor stands in one specific way and doesn’t move at all, ever.

Oxygen is overrated

I can’t tell you how many times a designer has insisted I take something in so tightly that after it’s done, the actor complains about not being able to breathe. I usually don’t take anything in as much as I pinned in a fitting if I’m working with a designer like this. I honestly find it ridiculous that there are costume designers who don’t understand that when humans move, the clothes they are wearing also move. Sometimes there are wrinkles, and this does not mean that the garment is not fitted correctly.

Stylists who dress people for print or short shoots like commercials tend to fit things more tightly because they’re not used to dressing people for realistic scenarios and situations that involve actual movement.

Stylists who dress people for print or short shoots like commercials tend to fit things more tightly because they’re not used to dressing people for realistic scenarios and situations that involve actual movement.

Stylists who dress people for print or short shoots like commercials tend to fit things more tightly because they’re not used to dressing people for realistic scenarios and situations that involve actual movement. In a photo shoot for print, there is no movement so you can over fit to your heart’s content. That’s why clothing never fits you like it does the model in the catalogue or on the website. And this is not a bad thing.

I’ve also worked with designers who do this thing where they grab a whole wad of fabric center back to demonstrate how something should be taken in. Well, first, when you do that, you’re pulling the side seams into a weird place that they shouldn’t be. Unless its men’s pants, I rarely take something in just from the center back, especially if it’s a wad-full of fabric. One reason is that I like to avoid having to reset the zipper if possible and secondly, it probably needs to come in from the side seams and the side back seams anyway. Or, if it’s four to six inches, it might make sense to purchase the garment in a smaller size. If I were building the garment from scratch, I’d want to recut it if possible.

Stress fractures & signs you are doing it wrong

I don’t know if other people notice this but when I see a dress with side seams that swing backward instead of hanging straight, I think that someone who didn’t really know what they were doing did that alteration. Costume Designers don’t necessarily need to know all the nuances of fit and balance but they should know enough to trust a good tailor when they have one.

Sadly, it normally doesn’t do any good to try and explain yourself to a designer who tends toward over fitting. They’ll just assume you don’t know what you’re talking about.

When I find myself in a situation with a center-back-wad-pulling designer, I just nod and pin it, then alter it in the way I think is best.

Because, as any tailor who’s been in the television and film business for awhile knows, “alter as pinned” is simply a suggestion (and a way to appease an over zealous fitting designer).

Sewing on Trucks, Cycling with Sewing Machines

Sewing on Trucks, Cycling with Sewing Machines

This past week, I got a call to tailor and do some fittings for my friend Matthew, who is the Costume Designer for TBS’s Search Party. I love working for Matthew. He’s sweet and fun and his design choices are quirky, a lovely mix of vintage and high end with a bit of funk blended in.

Search Party doesn’t have the budget for a full time tailor, so Matthew only calls me in for days when he’s doing a lot of fittings or he has a pile of alterations that he needs completed for the next couple weeks of filming.

Day playing

Day playing, which is what we in the film business call working for a day or two on a show when extra help is needed, can be an enjoyable experience (it can also be annoying but I try my best to avoid those types of day playing gigs). Search Party is pretty much always a positive experience, mainly because of Matthew and the people he has working for him.

So, I was happy to get the call, even though it involved going all the way to Red Hook (a neighborhood in Brooklyn sadly lacking in convenient public transportation access) and sewing on a cramped Wardrobe Truck.

The inadequate subway connection was easily solvable: I’d ride my bike just as I do most places in the city, except that I needed to bring a sewing machine and basic sewing supplies with me. Tailor day playing assignments almost always involve dragging your machine and kit through the streets, and usually not on a bicycle.

I discovered that my favorite freakishly lightweight Brother sewing machine fit perfectly into the backpack.

I discovered that my favorite freakishly lightweight Brother sewing machine fit perfectly into the backpack.

But, a few months ago, I received an unexpected gift from REI. I’d ordered a tent for some planned bike packing adventures but, instead, received a backpack (definitely not a tent). REI costumer service was very helpful when I called, said they’d send the tent straight away and would email me a pre-paid return label to ship the backpack back (back…). About twenty minutes after I hung up, they called back to say never mind, keep the backpack for free.

I don’t know what made me try it, but a couple weeks after that, I discovered that my favorite freakishly lightweight Brother sewing machine fit perfectly into the backpack. Brilliant! Here are some photos. If you’re interested in which backpack it is, it’s the Osprey Comet.

If you’re interested in which backpack it is, it’s the Osprey Comet.

If you’re interested in which backpack it is, it’s the Osprey Comet.

I packed a few other things in the backpack with the machine (there was still more space!) – shoulder pads, interfacing, and lining scraps, a bag of thread, and some other not very heavy notions. The rest of my supplies, the scissors and more threads and gallon bag of elastics and tapes, I packed into my Revelate Seat Bag that I purchased from my favorite local bike shop. And I was good to go, albeit not very quickly (cause all that gear was a bit heavy)…

The lion, the witch and the Wardrobe truck

Sewing in small spaces on a Wardrobe truck where a whole crew of other people are also trying to do their jobs presents its own set of challenges. Working on the Search Party truck even more so as they use the dreaded split Wardrobe/Hair/Makeup style of 18-wheeler film truck. Most productions have separate trucks for Wardrobe and Hair/Makeup and twice as much space but smaller productions who are trying to save money go with the split trucks. What this means is that there is even less space than normal.

I set up my machine on the front corner, the sink and washer/dryer on my right and the busy Wardrobe Supervisor and her computer on my left. A few feet away, one of the customers steamed and ironed the clothes for the next day and, in the back of the truck Matthew and his assistant did fittings with various cast members. Occasionally, the set costumer was also on the truck gathering things for the next scene, as well as the shopper dropping off or picking up items.

High chair

I had a chair that was too high for the counter. I’d have to crouch in order to sew while sitting in it. Below the counter were drawers so there was no convenient place to put the foot pedal. I ended up standing up to sew, my leg turned out to the right to operate the pedal from a side-saddle angle. The foot kept getting stuck under the lip of the bottom drawer so that the machine would continue to sew even after I’d taken my foot off. I had about two inches of empty space to the left of my machine before the supervisor’s notebooks and computer and the cord from the iron kept falling (along with a bunch of my pins) into the sink to my right. I had to shift position slightly every time someone needed to fill or empty the washer and dryer.

But, it was still a wonderfully pleasant work-day. Because we were all in good spirits and we all worked together, happily jockeying for space, seamlessly adapting to each other’s needs, laughing when we all seemed to need to occupy the same twelve inches of space at the same time, all of us just getting our jobs done.

Things don’t always work this well on a crowded wardrobe truck. Sometimes people forget that everyone’s jobs are important and necessary to the project. Sometimes people are cranky because of lack of sleep, or stress, or just because it’s their nature. But it doesn’t have to be that way and, if you ask me, it shouldn’t. Making TV does not, after all, have anything to do with curing cancer or launching rocket ships (sometimes people forget that!).

One of the most wonderful things is a group of people working together to achieve a common goal. Its also a pretty good way of getting things done! I highly recommend it. 🙂

Stunt Doubles and Magic Gloves

Stunt Doubles and Magic Gloves

Stunt Doubles and Magic Gloves

The film and television business has many safety precautions in place. Productions almost always have a Stunt Coordinator to supervise and choreograph any type of fight or daredevil action scene. Actors and actresses often have stunt doubles who will perform most of the really ‘dangerous’ bits. Big name actors usually have a regular stunt double who always works with them no matter what show or film they are on.

What this means costume-wise, is that we need to dress the double in exactly the same clothes as the actor. Many times, both the stunt and actor themselves will require multiple outfits of the same thing.

Love / hate

I have a love-hate relationship with multiples. On the one hand, it can be super boring to do the same alteration on the same pair of pants, or jacket, or whatever six to ten times. On the other hand, it can be a very zen experience: doing the same thing over and over kind of puts you into a rhythm where everything flows naturally and without much thought. I prefer to do all the multiples at one time if possible.

When I lived in Austin, TX, I worked as a set costumer on many of the films directed by Robert Rodriguez: Spy Kids, Sin City, Grindhouse. His movies are very stunt heavy which makes his sets very active and interesting. The stunt coordinator for all the films I worked on for Mr. Rodriguez was a lovely and talented man named Jeff Dashnaw. Many of the actors and stunt actors were harnessed for various scenes. A stunt harness is similar, I suppose, to a climbing harness or rig. It’s made of heavy canvas and twill and sometimes has metal jump rings to facilitate the attachment of cables.

There are different types of harnesses, depending on what sort of action is required. Some are full vests and some are just a belt and leg straps. It’s up to the stunt coordinator to determine what harness should be used and where the cables should be attached in order to create the desired effect. There’s quite a bit of physics knowledge in all of that!

What to do when things go wrong

Things can go wrong sometimes and people can be injured. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen all that often. On a show I worked on recently one of the actors tore a ligament in his hand which, in turn, resulted in him having to wear a big, rather awkward cast. The task of trying to disguise this cast fell to the costume department.

The costume designer and I had to figure out how to make a glove of some sort to cover the cast.

Tracing of hands.

Tracing of hands.

First, we traced the actor’s hand in his cast.

Make a pattern.

Make a pattern.

Next, I made a pattern of the tracing. Our idea was to use an existing glove, take it apart, stitch the fingers together (since his fingers are bound together), and add a new neoprene layer on the palm side.

Taking apart an existing glove.

Taking apart an existing glove.

This was the first result: Not too bad.

First attempt at a glove to hide the cast.

First attempt at a glove to hide the cast.

Then we decided that it might look better to have the thumb separate so I did some modifications:

Attempt 2 with separate thumb.

Attempt 2 with separate thumb.

Now, it’s a bit too small across the knuckles so I have to take the neoprene back off and recut a new, wider one, to add some width.

Being flexible is key

Projects like this are fairly normal in my sewing life. And if there’s one thing that seems to be true no matter what show I’m working on it’s that the costume department is almost always the ones tasked with finding solutions to a problem that no one else wants to deal with.

TV magic. It’s a real thing. This actually reminds me of an incident during Boardwalk Empire when I came to work one morning to find a shredded beaded dress on my table with a note that said, “Help! Please work your magic to fix this dress. It works again this evening.”

We did indeed manage to put the dress back together to get through one more night of filming but we sent it back to set with a note that read, “We are all out of magic for the week but did our best to bring this dress back from the dead. Love, The Costume Shop.”

Costume Department Positions for Movies and Television Shows

Costume Department Positions for Movies and Television Shows

Last week, I wrote about how it takes a whole team of individuals to make a television show or movie, often more than most people realize. Then I got to thinking about all the conversations I’ve had throughout my life trying to explain to family, friends, acquaintances and sometimes strangers, what I do at work and what others in my department do.

One of the daily call sheets for Blindspot which lists the positions with call time (time to report to work). O/C means on call and is what is used for those who do not need to be on the actual shooting set.

One of the daily call sheets for Blindspot which lists the positions with call time (time to report to work). O/C means on call and is what is used for those who do not need to be on the actual shooting set.

Here’s a list of some common positions found in costume and wardrobe departments of films and television shows.

But first, the difference between the costume and wardrobe departments. Theses terms are basically interchangeable but, if a dividing line were to be drawn it would separate the costume and wardrobe departments by union locals.

The labor union for theatre, film, television and live events, founded in 1893, is IATSE or, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States, its Territories and Canada.

Designers, assistant designers, shoppers and coordinators are normally members of Locals 829 (United Scenic Artists) or 892 (Costume Designers Guild). There are various locals across the country that are wardrobe specific. In New York City, the wardrobe local is 764.

Common costume and wardrobe positions on movies and television shows

Design/Costume Department:

Costume Designer

This is fairly self-explanatory. The costume designer is responsible for developing the look and feel of a show. They usually spend time talking with producers or the creators of a show, reading scripts and discussing character with the actors and actresses, as well as researching. They conduct fittings and manage the entire department.

Assistant Costume Designer

Again, pretty self-explanatory. Often, the assistant designer is the one who dresses the background actors. They also often deal with the budgets.

Shopper

The shopper spends his or her day out in the world, shopping. Being a shopper in NYC is completely different than being a shopper anywhere else because well, you can’t get around NYC efficiently in a car. NYC shoppers spend a lot of time walking, schlepping and taking the subway. There’s often a costume department driver who will meet them to pick up purchases.

Wardrobe Department (764 positions):

Wardrobe Supervisor

This position is the department head. He or she manages the day-to-day execution of the designers vision. They are responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly on set. They spend a lot of time looking ahead and anticipating problems and catastrophes before they arise. They are also very good at putting out fires.

Set Costumer

A set costumer takes care of the actors on set. He or she is responsible for continuity (making sure the correct outfit is worn at the correct time in the proper manner). Shows are rarely, if ever, filmed in order. A set costumer watches during filming and makes adjustments as needed. He or she pays attention to things like: How many buttons are buttoned, are the sleeves of the shirt supposed to be rolled, should that bag be over the right or left shoulder.

There is usually more than one set costumer on a show. Some actors have personal set costumers who only take care of them but most television shows don’t have the budget for this. Some high paid, “famous” actors have a personal costumer written into their contracts.

In Europe, a set costumer is often called a stand by costumer.

Production Assistant

Every department tends to have a production assistants who are usually people just starting out in the business. They do all sorts of things. In the world of television they spend a lot of time returning unused clothing and organizing receipts.

Costume Coordinator

I always think of the Costume Coordinator as the glue that holds the entire department together. They should really be paid more money than what they are.

They are the accountants of the department, the phone call makers, the calmer of nerves, the birthday party planners, the detectives, the soothsayers, the joke makers, the ice cream and alcohol buyers, the lunatic whisperers and the magicians. A costume department with a shoddy coordinator will most certainly fall apart at some point.

On Blindspot, we are very lucky to have an amazing coordinator named Sade.

Tailor

Most contemporary television shows have one full time tailor who is responsible for alterations and clothing construction. Big, costume heavy shows often have a full in house costume shop.

How to See in the Dark

How to See in the Dark

During the course of my career, I’ve had the good fortune to work on quite a few large film productions with some highly recognizable actors and actresses. Film-making is exciting and tedious all at once, both exhilarating and debilitating. It’s not a life choice to venture into lightly – at least not if you require a steady, dependable job and paycheck.

You’ll never work again…

In movie making, and even more so in television, nothing is ever a sure thing. Shows get cancelled or pushed (postponed), people get let go for various, and sometimes odd, political (company) and personal reasons. I, personally, never believe a gig is going to happen until I’m actually there on the first day, filling out the inevitable novel of start paperwork you must complete at the commencement of every single job.

I’ve worked like this for twenty-five years now and I can say only two things for sure. One, explaining to people not in the business, be it your family, friends, or the bank you want a mortgage from, what you do and how you are hired, is never an easy thing. And two, that weird space you enter when you’re between jobs and the phone isn’t ringing and the little voice inside your head whispers you’ll never work again, never gets easier, not really. It doesn’t matter that history has always proven that you will indeed work again; you simply believe, irrationally, that this time is different.

At least that’s how it usually is for me. Yet, at the same time, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I can’t fathom going to the same office every day for thirty years or more and doing the same thing over and over. It’s just not how I’m made. So I take the uncertainty and the freelance roller coaster ride in exchange for getting to do something that, most days, I love.

If you’re thinking of a freelance career in film, television and the theatre, you need to be really honest about whether or not you’re able to live with a heightened amount of insecurity.

I fought, bit, screamed, clawed and scratched my way in. There was no way I was giving up.

Here are a few of the things that I’ve found invaluable and helpful in surviving the freelance life.

1. Tenacity

Be determined. Wholly and truly give it your all. Remain persistent. Things don’t necessarily come easily. I remember a conversation I had long ago with a friend and colleague. We were talking about ‘breaking in’ to the movie business and how we landed our first job on a major film.

“I fought, bit, screamed, clawed and scratched my way in,” my friend said, “There was no way I was giving up.”

2. Resilience

It’s easy to believe in yourself and your talents when other people do. The true feat, though, is to believe in yourself and your abilities when no one else seems to. There will be failures and missteps and things that you wished had turned out differently. That’s all part of the whole thing.

There will, of course, always be that odd, seemingly infinitely lucky individual, who coasts, completely upright, into a successful freelance career with out skinning even one knee. But that’s the exception.

Most of us arrive a bit battered and disheveled with grass stains on our knees and twigs in our hair.

3. Vision

As the extremely successful celebrity stylist (and all around nice guy), Derek Roche has said, Build your own dreams or someone will hire you to build theirs.

 4. Learn how to see in the dark

When the darkness comes (and it will) you have to be able to navigate your way out and through it…

Some of my first theatre jobs were as a backstage dresser during live performances. This involved laundry and maintaining the costumes, as well as, helping the actors get dressed if needed (period things like corsets and garments with multiple back closures) and doing quick changes backstage in the dark.

Many backstage dressers use small bite lights to help them see while performing fast costume changes. I never really did. If you spend enough time in the wings in the dark, you eventually are able to see. I have no idea if this is a scientific fact; I only know that it was true for me. I have no problem finding zipper ends, or a slew of hooks or snaps in the dark.

Darkness, of course, can come in different forms – it can be literal like working backstage or it can be figurative like not being certain what your next move should be or being unable to see the path in front of you. When the darkness comes (and it will) you have to be able to navigate your way out and through it, you have to reach for that zipper and be able to insert one end into the other by feel.

Seeing in the dark is a tricky thing to master. It involves taking all your tenacity, resilience and vision at once and stepping forward, all the while trusting that the ground is indeed beneath your feet – just as it should be.

A Pleating Problem

A Pleating Problem

You know the back pleats that are almost always present on the back of button front dress shirts? The ones that are sewn into the shirt body where it attaches to the yoke? Sometimes there are two, one on each side and sometimes, often on women’s shirts, there is a single big one at the center back. They exist for the purpose of ease, or freedom of movement but, what they really do, is just create a whole lot of extra unruly fabric and make a shirt look as if it is too big.

The camera adds ten pounds…

It’s basically true that the camera adds ten pounds so most things in film and television are fit without extra (usually un-needed) fabric mucking up the svelte look.

I spend a lot of time taking these pleats out of shirts, partially because they seem to be in almost all shirts except for ones specifically called ‘slim fit’ and, truth be told, it’s a rather complicated alteration if done correctly.

Step One:

Take things apart. Separate the shirt back from the yoke. If you have two side back pleats, you don’t have to take the whole thing apart. You can stop after the pleats are free on either side and leave the center part still attached. If you have a center pleat, you’ll have to take the whole seam apart. Note how much fabric is in the pleat or pleats. This will tell you how much to take out of the side seam.

Step Two:

Take more things apart.

Take apart the back arms eye. I usually go an inch down from the shoulder seam to the underarm side seam. Then take apart the side seams. Basically, the entire shirt back needs to be free so you can recut it.

Paper diagram illustrating marking new arms eye and side seam lines on the shirt back piece.

Paper diagram illustrating marking new arms eye and side seam lines on the shirt back piece.

Step Three:

Redraw the arms eye and side seam lines.

Lets say your shirt had a center pleat that 1” on either side, or two ½” folds on each side. From this, you know that you want to take an inch out of each side the entire way down the back piece.

Slice up of new arms eye line.

Slice up of new arms eye line.

To redraw the armhole, mark 1” in at the top of the armhole curve and 1” in at the top of the side seam. Then fold your back piece, using the opposite side as a guide as to where to draw the curve.

Mark the side seam line 1” in all the way down through the hem.

Folding one side over to use as guide for redrawing the arms eye seam.

Folding one side over to use as guide for redrawing the arms eye seam.

Step Four:

Sew the back piece to the yoke, lining up the centers first and pinning out from there.

Step Five:

Sew the back armseye along your newly marked seam line.

Step Six:

Sew the side seam. You should use the original line on the front piece and your new line on the back piece.

Step Seven:

Give everything a nice press and you’re done.

Sometimes, designers like to make a shirt even more fitted by having their tailors add side back darts. This is extremely common in the film business. If you ever watch Hawaii Five-0, check out the button front shirts that Scott Caan wears. They are altered to within an inch of their life. They fit him like a glove. And they all have side back darts. Whenever I see them, I think, “Oh, a tailor got a hold of that shirt.” If they’re not custom made for him, then they have definitely been through the back pleat extraction/side back dart procedure.

Next time you’re watching your favorite show, pay close attention to the button front dress shirts. You’ll start to notice side back darts everywhere!

Getting In

Getting In

Whenever I tell people what I do for a living (Tailor and Pattern Maker for film and television) they inevitably say one of two things.

“Wow. How did you get into that?” or “What a cool job!” Sometimes acquaintances will ask me if I can talk to their niece or son or daughter’s friend or cousin or something and give them advice on how to ‘break into’ the business.

I’m never entirely sure what sort of advice to give. As Hunter S. Thompson said (or maybe didn’t say depending on who you ask),

The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.

There is some truth in that Hunter quote. Especially now when the major networks are increasingly concerned with cost and ratings and everyone wants to do more (and more) with less money. Period television is quite popular right now. The only problem with that is that period television is hard, perhaps the hardest genre.

“But, why?” you may ask, “It looks like so much fun!”

The Devil is in the details

Here’s the thing: period TV is expensive. You have to dress every single background actor and actress as well as the principals. On shows such as Law and Order, often the background (BG) performers are wearing something selected from their own personal closet. What generally happens is that the BG will come to work with a few clothing options. An assistant designer will usually pick which of these options is best and that’s what the actor will wear. Most people don’t have closets full of 1920s or 1880s clothing so, on a period show, the entire costume is provided, fit, and altered. This takes more time and manpower which, in turn, takes more money.

TV is also fast – faster than filming a movie. Most shows shoot an episode in 8 to 10 days, with at least a day or two when they are shooting two episodes at once. (We call those tandem days.) Because of this, you never really get any down time. On a movie, there is most always a point where you’re over the hump – you’ve established all the costumes needed. Or you’re working on something where all the action takes place on the same day and no one changes their clothes. Then, all you need to worry about is multiples and the rest of the work is up to the set costume crew who keep track of continuity and make sure everyone looks how they should in front of camera.

Do your thing & do it GREAT

I guess if I were to give one piece of advice I would say to become really good at the thing you want to do. Then, figure out how to do it very quickly if needed. I may have said this before (I say it a lot) but there are lots of good tailors and pattern makers out there. What there isn’t a lot of are exceptional tailors and pattern makers who can also work really fast. If you want to work in TV and film that will definitely give you an advantage.

As far as finding TV and film jobs, talk to people, contact your city’s (or state’s) film commission. Word of mouth is still the best way to find a job in this business.

Mind your manners

And be nice to everyone, even if you think they have no ‘influence’ or are looking for the same kind of job as you are. You never know who knows who and you never know when someone might need help because they have more work than they can handle on their own.

Oh, and that “What a cool job!” comment… Some days it is and some days it isn’t. I can assure you there is nothing glamorous about it but, at the same time, it is also rarely boring.