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. 🙂

In the Wee Hours of the Morning

In the Wee Hours of the Morning

I’ve always been a morning person, or rather, I’ve never really found it that difficult to get up at before the crack of dawn. I’m usually not ready to actually talk to anyone until after the sun is up but, I actually really like the quiet pre-dawn hours, especially in a big city, like New York.

The bars here close at 4:00 am so the hours between four and six are the transition between last night and this morning; people who work in bars are on their way home (as well as those who were just out drinking) while another whole group of people are on their way to work. The streets are relatively quiet without much traffic – a true rarity in New York City. Cycling through the early morning streets always feels like a special, secret thing. The cabs that are out and about rarely honk this early and we share the roads without incident.

Top of the morning

A lot happens in the city between the hours of 4:00 am and 7:00 am. I’m not the only one out. Central Park is already humming starting at 5:00 am with runners, walkers, cyclists, and dogs. The street vendors are up and opening up their carts. Most bodegas are open already (many of them stay open all night). On the weekends, there are bike races and running races (the NYC half marathon was yesterday) and, all about the city, especially if its Monday morning, film and television crews are going to work, or are already at work.

If you want to work in film and television, you have to be able to get up early. And I mean early, like before 5:00 am, and, if you’re in the wardrobe of hair and makeup departments, often before 4:00 am. It’s not unusual for the costume and wardrobe departments to have to be at work by 5:30am, or 5:00 am. I’ve even had to be at work by 4:30 am before.

Actor call times for this morning, including fitting times.

Actor call times for this morning, including fitting times.

The main reason for this is the sun, and the fact that most shooting days are, at a very minimum, twelve hours long. Mondays usually mean a super early start as the goal is often to start filming outside as soon as the sun is up (you don’t want to miss any of that precious daylight, especially in the winter months when the days are shorter).

It’s all about proper preparation

In order to have the actors ready to go on set when the sun is up, they need to get to work an hour or two beforehand to go through hair and makeup and to get dressed. If it’s day that requires a large amount of background actors to be dressed and ready to go in the first shot, they (and the wardrobe people who are there to help them get ready) often must report to work a couple hours before sunrise.

As the tailor, I often have to be at work for an early morning fitting that happens before an actor goes to hair and makeup. Then I have the hour or so when they’re “in the chair” as we call it in the film business, to complete an alteration. This is also when my fast sewing skills come in handy.

The early bird

This Monday on Blindspot, we’re in the studio on the stage so all the scenes are interior but, general crew call is still 7:00 am.

This Monday on Blindspot, we’re in the studio on the stage so all the scenes are interior but, general crew call is still 7:00 am.

This Monday on Blindspot, we’re in the studio on the stage so all the scenes are interior but, general crew call is still 7:00 am. We were also on the stage most of last week, including Friday, so the crew will be pretty much ready at 7:00 to start shooting. If we’ve been out somewhere on location shooting, sometimes an extra half hour or so is needed to get the lights ready, the cameras out, the props set, etc.

Times the wardrobe, costume, and hair & makeup departments had to be at work this morning.

Times the wardrobe, costume, and hair & makeup departments had to be at work this morning.

The wardrobe crew, though, was here at 5:42 and 6:00 and the first actors arrived by 6:00.

Sometimes people ask how I’m able to get up so early. I honestly don’t know the answer. I will say that I think you do get used to it. I actually hate when I don’t have to be at work until 9:00 or 10:00, mainly because it can take twice as long to get there when you’re in the midst of rush hour traffic. I’d choose the 5:00 and 6:00 am starts every time.

I do my best, focused work early in the morning; things don’t seem as frenetic before the sun is up. There are fewer distractions, the phone doesn’t ring, the only texts are most likely directly related to whatever I’m working on, people aren’t quite awake yet so there’s less chit chat. Things just seem to flow along at a steady, quiet, unencumbered pace.  Also, when you get to work at 6:00 in the morning, you get to have second breakfast at 10:00 – and who wouldn’t be up for that?

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.

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.