Last Update: Wednesday, 12 February, 2014 3:06 PM




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Sarah Dutton - Costume Designer-Maker

Sarah Dutton
Costume Designer-Maker



Name: Sarah Dutton
Title: Costume Designer-Maker
Credits include: The Underwater Realm, Jana "Avalanche" music video, Wolf Girl trailer
Interview Date: February 2014

Q. Hi Sarah, give us a little background on yourself before you became a costume designer-maker? (degree, relevant work experience, interests, etc)
A. I've had a keen interest in clothes and story telling since I was a young child. Whilst at college I organised work placements at the New Vic Theatre in Staffordshire. They produce plays in house and the theatre is in the round, so it's challenging and fast paced but lots of fun. The designer there, Lis Evans, became my mentor and supported my application to Wimbledon College of Art to study Costume Design.

Q. And how did you first get into the film industry as a costume designer?
A. After I graduated I got a contract working in production at the BBC. I changed show every few weeks and gained a huge breadth of experience in a short space of time. I learned about all the things that make a production actually work, from insurance and finance to artistic control. After about a year there I got a phone call asking me to go to Cannes Film Festival. Some friends of mine had won a cash prize through a Raindance Film Festival competition to make this crazy sounding film. That, for me, was the start of the Underwater Realm journey.

Q. What area of costume design do you specialise in?
A. The nature of designing is that the outcome is dependent on the story you are telling. You have to get inside the character and understand their place in the context of the story. Then you can start to get an idea about what the right clothes for the character are. That can take you in all sorts of directions: period, contemporary, fantasy, or a combination of elements.

Jana "Avalanche" music video - John Wilson Photography
© John Wilson Photography

Jana "Avalanche" music video - John Wilson Photography
© John Wilson Photography

Q. In your line of work are you limited solely to film or do you work in other industries too?
A. I've worked in lots of different industries, including fashion, film, theatre, commercials, music videos, burlesque and performance art. The design process is always the same, although you can end up with very different outcomes!

Q. What practical and mental skills are required to be a costume designer?
A. I think that it's important to have some sewing and construction abilities in order to understand how clothes are put together. You also need to be able to draw, or have some way of visually communicating your ideas. Imagination, budgeting, time management, problem solving and negotiating skills are all necessary to get the job done, especially if you're working solo.

Q. Do you have to attend lots fashion shows and industry events to keep abreast of new fashions and tooling? If so which are the best ones?
A. Fashion is a completely separate industry to costume. Designers will only reference fashion when it is relevant to the character or story.

Q. How do you go about designing a costume?
A. In an ideal world I would receive a script, create a breakdown and budget, negotiate, then research, design and realise the costumes. My experience of small scale projects is that there's a lack of either budget, time or both, and so you start the process by reading the script (if there is one!) thinking about what's achievable rather than what would serve the story best.

Q. What kind of research do you do for each project?
A. Every project has different demands as to the kinds of research that is required, but my two favourite sources of information are libraries and museums. Directors often have research of their own to show you, and you build from there. You also have to consider the work of the Art Department and of Hair and Makeup. When all the visual departments collaborate the result is a much more believable aesthetic.

Q. Where do you draw your ideas and inspiration come from?
A. I can't tell you exactly where my ideas come from. Sometimes it's conversations with your colleagues, or a particular piece of research, or something you see on the tube. I once interviewed the cast of a play whilst they were in character. My conversation with one of the actors led into him describing the kitchen of his fictitious house to me in minute detail. By the time I left the rehearsal room I had designed his entire wardrobe in my mind.

Q. Typically, at what point are you brought on to a production?
A. That depends on how organised the production is! My Dad always said "you get what you pay for" and it's true. The more time and budget a costume department has the better the costumes will be. The shortest amount of prep time I've been given was 2 days. I managed to make 3 costumes and source 4 others. I'm not sure how, and I don't make a habit of working like that, but I thought the idea for the project was good and so I went for it. Of course, with more time and money those costumes would have been better.

Q. Do you make all your clothes from scratch or modify existing ones to suit the production?
A. That depends on the production. Sometimes it has to be made because you can't source it. In other instances you don't have time to make, so you hire items from costume houses or buy clothes from the high street. Sometimes you have to do all three to get the costume right, on schedule and in budget. My personal preference is for making costumes, because I think it gives you a greater degree of control over the outcome. It can be expensive
because the time of skilled people isn't cheap but it is worth it.

Q. How long does it typically take to make a costume?
A. There is no single answer to that question because it depends on the costume. A shift dress can be made by an individual in a day (excluding fittings and adjustments), and I've heard that the Batman suit had a whole team working on it for months.

The Under Water Realm
Actor Jon Campling - read his interview our sister site

Q. Do you have to design costumes to be practical (e.g. movement, stunts, safety, durability) or is it merely down to aesthetics and how they look on camera?
A. Working out what is required of the costume is part of the realisation process. Sometimes there are things that you designed that aren't possible for technical reasons, and you have to compromise or problem solve.

Q. You worked on The Under Water Realm, a series of 5 short films shot mostly underwater – what challenges did this bring to your role as costume designer?
A. The Underwater Realm is by far the most challenging project I've designed. Shooting underwater brings its own unique technical challenges. From a design point of view the project spans five time periods and includes a mythical aquatic race, all of which had to feel realistic whilst being true to the story. There were budget restrictions too; we produced over 50 costumes on a £5,000 budget, which isn't easy when you're importing fish leather and casting sculpted costumes in expensive rubbers. There were also personal challenges. No one was paid to work on the project so all the costumes were produced by team of my friends in the studio I lived in. That went on for 18 months whilst I was working other jobs to pay the bills. Without the support of that costume team I would have collapsed with exhaustion after the first week of 22 hour days.

The Under Water Realm

Q. Which costume has been the most fun, sensational or ridiculous you have created?
A. There are lots of costumes I have enjoyed working on, but I think that the coat I made for Joe Black is still one of my favourite collaborations. He's full of ideas and so much fun to work with because has a great sense of character and he's not afraid of theatricality.

Joe Black - Photographer Scott Chalmers
© Scott Chalmers Photography

Q. Which genres of movie are the most fun or interesting to work on from your perspective?
A. My dream job would be to design a Sci-fi. There's so much scope to play with because it hasn't happened yet. Bladerunner, Firefly, Fifth Element - all totally different and all amazing design aesthetics. I'd love to work on something that could be added to that list.

Q. How important is it for you as a costume designer-maker to be on set and why?
A. As a designer, being on set is pure magic because you see your costumes come to life when they're combined with the performance and the work of all the other departments. The on set job of the department standby is different to the role of the designer. They keep continuity, look after the actors and make sure the costume looks as it should, whether that's neat, muddy, wet etc.

Q. How important are contacts in the film industry?
A. I don't think it's possible to get work in the Industry if you don't have contacts. How you get them in the first place is fairly open ended - I've met people at events, through social media, by recommendation, on jobs and and even in the street.

Q. Do costume designers have agents?
A. If you are a well established designer who works on large scale productions you have an agent or a diary service. In industry terms I'm still starting out so I'm not at that stage yet.

Q. Are you limited to traditional craft techniques in your role or do new techniques constantly appear and evolve?
A. Areas like tailoring, embroidery and millinery can be both modern and historic in their process and outcome. New technologies such as 3D Printing are emerging all the time, which is incredibly exciting for a designer because it means that more and more of your ideas are possible.

Q. What advice would you give to someone starting out or interested in becoming a costume designer?
A. First and foremost, do not give up! Nothing happens overnight and you have to stick at it. Do your research to find out if the director hard-selling you that great film idea has to skill to actually make it before you get involved. Always put the safety of yourself and your colleagues first; sometimes in the collective enthusiasm to make something amazing this can get left behind. And finally, always enjoy your work. For me that means working with a
good crew on an inspiring project, because that's what keeps you going when things get tough!

Thank you Sarah, we look forward to seeing many more of your designs on stage and the big screen soon!


Sarah's Contact Details:
Contact: Sarah Dutton
Twitter: @_SarahDutton


The Under Water Realm Poster

The Under Water Realm

The Under Water Realm

The Under Water Realm

The Under Water Realm

Jana "Avalanche" music video - John Wilson Photography
© John Wilson Photography

Jana "Avalanche" music video - John Wilson Photography
© John Wilson Photography





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