We’ve all heard of costume design, but have you ever wondered what a costume designer does? It goes without saying, but as a costume designer you do a little bit of everything from fitting costumes to creating character images and helping to realize the costume designer’s vision. I recently had the privilege of speaking with costume designer Lisa Sass, who has an impressive list of works to her credit, including Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Trek Beyond.
In our conversation, Lisa explains the costume challenges and unique opportunities that arise with each film she makes. She also explains in detail how to ensure continuity, what factors to consider in terms of weather, and how she tackles different costume scenarios.
It was great to talk to Lisa and hear about all the incredible work she has done so far. So without further ado, take a look at our conversation below to learn all about her experience!
How did you get this job as a costume designer?
I started drawing when I was little, and my mother would bring us books and we would draw at the kitchen table. And I started drawing characters and costumes, and for a long time I didn’t even know it was a profession I could do. But when I got out of high school, I realized it was something I could study, so I went to college and got a BFA in costume design. I ended up going to film and found my true passion there.
What is the nature of your work? Is there a difference between a costume designer and a costume designer?
A costume designer is different from a costume designer. As a costume designer, you are part of the department and responsible for realizing the costume designer’s vision, as well as supporting and managing the set. I’ve been a costume supervisor on several projects, and you lead the set department, so to speak. In set design, you are part of the set design and, depending on the size of the department, you are also part of the creative process. I was lucky enough to be involved in my last project. I even shopped and researched online, created a creative board and brought the characters to life. As a costume designer, you are actually part of the costume club and part of the set. Usually you break down the script first and see how many outfits you need and what outfits you need for each scene.
After creating the look, especially as a costume designer, you are responsible for dressing the actors, giving them the right look throughout the day between scenes, and you must maintain continuity. So when you redo a shoot, you have to make sure everything looks exactly the same to avoid continuity errors when the scenes are cut together. And then you look ahead to the next day and get ready for what they are going to wear. It is important to keep the costumes and make sure they are identical and clean, or age/dress them to match the characters. Special effects such as blood holes, bullet holes or scratches may need to be taken into account. And then a very important part of all of this is putting the actors at ease. On my last assignment, which we shot in Montana late last year, it was about 30 degrees, so we had to equip the staff well to wear under their clothes, including heating jackets and/or heating pads. Our job is to support the actors so they can do their job well and be ready to film.
What does your creative process look like?
It always starts with reading the script and discovering the era, the setting, the character development, the plot and things like that. Then you talk to the costume designer, the director and the producers to come up with a plan on how they want to portray the script. Then you go out and research and look for inspiration. I usually look online or in magazines and listen to music that I think will give me the mood I’m working on, and then I go from there. Everything around you inspires you! Once you start looking at real things, once you start buying things, they just continue to grow. And then when you start trying things out and seeing the actor in the costumes, that helps a lot too.
You’ve done sci-fi movies like Star Trek Beyond and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But you’ve also done action and drama work. Do you like mixing genres and working on different things?
One of the things I love most about this job is that no job is exactly the same and no day is exactly the same – it’s constant change. With every job I have to learn something new and do research to become familiar with a period or a material, and then of course I take it all in for the next project. It’s really great that you have such a variety of work, you’re doing fantasy and science fiction, and then suddenly you have a period piece. It makes everything so interesting.
How do you deal with continuity issues, assuming that things don’t always happen in the right order?
Sometimes it can take months between one take and the next, so you have to be very organized and very attentive to the details on set. I mean, now with technology, obviously smartphones are very handy for keeping track of everything. But you have to have and use your natural ability to focus on these things.
How much of your personality is in the costumes you design, and how do you balance that with the character you dress?
Generally, it depends. But a lot of times I try to feel the characters more than see them. Sometimes you can see that it doesn’t really fit the character very well. It has to be balanced and of course you have to take into account what the director/producer thinks. It’s very organic, and even the casting is part of it. Whether it’s suggestions or something like that. Personally, I think you have to be very sensitive to the script and all the people involved, as well as the characters, to find a balance.
Which departments do you work closely with?
The noise is huge! The fabric sometimes makes terrible noises, so the costumes have to hide the microphones on the body. So there is always a collaboration to make sure the sound is good, but the microphones are not visible on camera.
What kind would you like to work on?
There are many periods that I haven’t worked on yet, I don’t have a particular period because they are all so fascinating. You have to look at each century in a different way. I love to explore, dive and learn new things and gain new knowledge.
How does time play on your costumes? For example, if you are shooting in a warm environment, but you need to dress the character for cold weather or vice versa, how do you deal with these kinds of problems?
If you are photographing in a cold place, you often have the misfortune that they are wearing super-warm clothes. Looks and feel are more important than what is appropriate for the weather. As a costume designer, you have to compensate for that. In cold environments, as I said, you have to hide the heating system and put on thick winter coats between shoots. Sometimes you have to give them warm shoes when they are not in front of the camera.
I also had the opposite extreme, shooting in the desert at 100-120 degrees. For Star Wars: The Force Awakens, we had these creatures that had all these layers of clothing and fabric, and it was very hot. So we had to take off parts of the costumes after each shot so they could breathe and let the air in. Fortunately, they’ve developed a lot of technology, like cooling vests that you can hide under if the suits allow it, sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes they put fans in the tents where the actors can go between shoots to make them comfortable. As a client, you are very involved in all of this and have to pay attention to every little detail.
Any tips for aspiring costume designers?
I recommend that anyone who wants to learn this craft do an internship on a film set. I started out going to college, and I think with these positions it makes sense to learn from the experience and be there. You can always choose to study costume design or fashion design, but I feel like I immerse myself in the craft and get a feel for it, especially in this field, because you have to have a certain feel for how things work, you have to be empathetic and have that detail-oriented mentality. It’s also important to be quick, because there’s always a lot of change. It is best to check from the beginning if this way of working is right for you, so you can learn from it and gain experience.
Does this interview inspire you to become a costume designer? Share your thoughts and comments below or head over to our Twitter, @TheSeriesRegs, to get the discussion started!