"I'm going to have to relearn how to do my job," says costume designer Salvador Perez, on a call. "Anything we used to do is out the window. It doesn't matter how we used to do it. There's a new way of working — for the time being."
Returning to Atlanta to resume work on John Cena's Disney movie, "Vacation Friends," Mindy Kaling's go-to designer does have a heads up on what to expect while filming in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic: Perez is also the president of the Costume Designers Guild, IATSE union 892. Along with fellow unions including fellow North American IATSE and the actors' union, SAG-AFTRA, he spent the spring and summer working on protocol to resume filming safely. After consulting with experts and epidemiologists, the group presented a white paper in June with recommendations and guidelines, including testing frequency, wearing PPE and containing contact with talent. (Like hair and makeup artists, costume designers work in close physical proximity with the actors.)
Protocols continue to evolve as more information and healthcare advancements become available, and unions and studios are still negotiating on across-the-board guidelines. In the meantime, each individual production needs sign-off from all unions — and be in compliance with government guidelines — before commencing a shoot.
So productions are moving forward (or could almost start and then quickly shut down if unions don't agree). Still, some films and TV shows have begun prep in anticipation of approvals, plus, a few innovative ones, like Freeform's four-episode limited series, "Love in the Time of Corona," were filmed remotely. While designers are taking precautions to keep their talent and crews safe, they're also experimenting with new (and safe) approaches to their work, flexing their creativity and resourcefulness and multitasking as project and operations managers. Here's how they're doing it.
Working From Home
Shot in the actors' real homes (or shelter-in-place locations), "Love in the Time of Corona" (which will air starting Saturday, Aug. 22) was prepped, planned and designed from home by Deena Appel. Originally thinking the job would be "three weeks of consulting" from home, "it turned out to be nine weeks of non-stop [work]," she says, on a call, who works regularly with creator Joanna Johnson on "Good Trouble" and "The Fosters."
Appel first arranged virtual closet tours and fittings with each of the actors, including real-life couple Leslie Odom, Jr. and Nicolette Robinson (above), plus BFFs Tommy Dorfman and Rainey Qualley (at the top), to select character-building and differentiating pieces from their wardrobes.
"[The fittings] took two to three hours each," she says. "It was surprisingly long."
Appel took the opportunity to study the sets (i.e. the actors' homes) to further inform the costume stories — for instance, selecting richer colors, as opposed to neutrals, for Odom, Jr.'s and Robinson's career-focused couple to pop against their all-white décor. She also shopped online, to ship product directly to actors' homes. Luckily, for a romantic dramedy reflecting pandemic life, relaxed at-home outfits didn't need additional alterations. (Although, Appel did need to Amazon-ship a few actors spray cleaner to launder out stains she spotted via Zoom.) She also had to adjust her process for remote filming, which didn't even allow for watching a direct feed from home.
"We had the first AD trying to send us pictures before they would roll — and not always sending pictures," she says, about not having the ability to make on-site, last minute adjustments.
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Mona May applied her "Enchanted" and "Stuart Little" experience to a unique work-from-home movie project. Via Zoom, she's consulted with 3D animators and illustrators on the design, silhouette, fabric, texture and movement of animated costumes.
"I'm actually doing virtual alterations," says May, on a call. "Pulling the sleeves up, or making something longer, rolling the jeans roll up or not."
Accustomed to in-person collaboration, going virtual has been an adjustment for her: "Everybody is in a square box and is squinting their eyes and looking at your designs and you're not sure, 'Are they liking it or they can't see the detail?'" But May appreciates the opportunity to "engage my creativity and just feel the unknown."
Navigating the Zones
"For me, my number one is the safety of my crew," says Michelle Cole, on a call. After quarantining with her dogs since March, she recently began prep for season seven of "black-ish."
Productions are now divided into zones, which are either numbered or designated by letters or traffic light colors. For example, Zone A or Red will be for actors, who are unmasked during filming, and frequent contact crew only. Everyone else is restricted to B or Yellow. The unions are still debating whether costume designers, who are accustomed to making tweaks during filming — especially when introducing or "establishing" a character — would be allowed into A, according to Perez.
Hala Bahmet, who's mostly prepping the upcoming season of "This Is Us" from home, is prepared to adjust. "I'm going to be in my office 50 paces away watching it on an iPad, so I can communicate with my team, 'Oh yeah, move the pocket square to the left,' or whatever changes we would want to do to a costume," she says, on a call. "So that's going to be different, but safe."
In such close contact with talent, costume teams will undergo regular Covid-19 testing, from once a week to every three days, depending on the scope of work and production. The use of PPE is also required, with exact union guidelines being determined.
Restarting (and re-adjusting) prep on a period film, which halted production in March, Antoinette Messam ("SuperFly," "Hold the Dark") was equipped with surgical masks, visors, a hospital gown and gloves. For a recent fitting, she and her tailor were both tested prior and dressed in full PPE (above), while the actor wore a mask. "If my tailor was measuring [the actor], I kept my distance," she explains, on a call. "If I moved in to try a hat or help him with a boot, my tailor steps back."
Productions now include Health Safety Supervisors and Unit Managers for on-site support and guidance — or, "the task force," as Cole likes to say. "If you're standing next to somebody, they'll come over to you and say, 'Separate, guys!'" she says, adding that "they're part of the crew. They've become part of us now. Their job is to make sure we stay alive."
Reconfiguring Work Spaces
Offices behind-the-scenes also need to be reconfigured to allow for social distancing and accommodate sanitation and quarantining time.
Natalie Bronfman recently returned to "See," which also shut down in March, after shooting the season two premiere. On the Jason Momoa-starring sci-fi series, she oversees four divisions of 57 team members and essentially runs a custom-building factory: sewing, metal- and leather-working, age-ing and dyeing, etc.
"Sometimes I had three or four people sitting around a big cutting table and that can't happen anymore," says Bronfman, over the phone. Her workshop, which also includes a costume warehouse, will need to be rearranged, including spacing out sewing machines with plexiglass partitions.
As Bahmet preps from home, the studios are retrofitting the "This Is Us" studios with a "state of the art filtration system," while renting additional space for her department to have individual offices. To minimize contact and exposure, costume departments will also make use of remote technology, even if working on-site.
"It's FaceTime-ing. It's Zoom-ing now," says Cole, about communicating from different floors in her department.
Receiving an Assist From the Actors
To reduce touch points, actors will have to take on some of their own costume tasks.
Appel helped the "Love in the Time of Corona" cast set up their own costume continuity lines at home. She and her costumer matched each item with tags detailing related scene information and sent the packets to each actor's home to set up their own costume racks.
"[They] also cleaned up after their fittings, which meant a big mess of heap of clothes on their beds," says Appel. "They would have to hang it all up on hangers and put the rubber bands around it and know, 'This is for this change,' and 'This is for that change' and keep track."
Access to talent trailers will also be limited. In pre-pandemic days, costume staffers would unpack and set out the full looks before talent arrival. So instead, actors may carry their own costumes from fittings to dress themselves.
"We've left the Hyatt and moved to the Best Western version," says Messam, who now leaves garment bags hanging outside cast trailers for pick-up. "We're all happy to get back to work, so however we can do so that we're complying and safe."
Quarantining With The Talent
While quarantining isn't part of the recommended union guidelines, per Perez, some productions are requiring leads and crew to quarantine — or shoot an entirely within a bubble.
"PEN15" designer Melissa Walker recently experienced this earlier this summer on an small film. While quarantining for two weeks (bookended with tests) prior to filming along with the leads, the director and a lean crew, she filled the time with prep. Walker edited from options sent by the lead's stylist, incorporated vintage from her own stock and custom-built multiples of a gown with her "portable atelier" of two sewing machines and a dress form. A dedicated driver in a sanitized vehicle would regularly run costume options (and film) back and forth to L.A. from the isolated summer camp-style set, where cast and crew also lived.
Like the rest of the production, Walker multi-tasked without the help of her usual team. "It was definitely challenging doing alterations by day and then set by night," she says, over the phone.
Because of the strict precautions taken, Walker enjoyed working closely with the cast and having peace of mind to concentrate on her craft. "We did the fittings and we all wore masks. It was pretty much business as usual, just a lot more PPE and protocol," she explains. "The quarantine's nice because it takes away the guesswork."
Also to minimize risk, productions are rewriting scripts to focus on the main cast and avoid large numbers of extras, who also need costumes. Outfit changes for the cast may also be cut down in real time as scripts are adjusted.
"Maybe shows are simplifying," says Cole, who also designs the fashion costume-packed "grown-ish." "Maybe you don't need all the gags and things."
"In the first draft, they had something like 20 costume changes each for the three family members," says Appel, about designing for a household in "Love in the Time of Corona." "It pared itself down to eight or nine." But she's considering applying her new skills when she returns to set for "Good Trouble" by pre-fitting extras in their own clothes, via Zoom.
"This is changing us all forever — and hopefully in positive ways — by learning new technologies, learning to be flexible and learning how we can work going forward," Appel adds.
Planning Way in Advance
Implementing all the safety protocols also requires meticulous scheduling far in advance. Perez appreciates the generous prep time for season two of "Never Have I Ever": "They don't ever give you four weeks."
Because vendors, studio services at department stores and rental houses have also put their own protocols in place (which include appointment-only restrictions and limited hours), "what we would normally do in half a day is now going to take two and a half or three days," says Bahmet, about shopping for "This Is Us." Union guidelines also require that vendors, from fabric stores to dry cleaners, have approved safety measures in place, too.
Messam needs to regularly scour fabric houses and visit rental houses in person, given the lack of online options for a period piece. "We're really strategic with planning our day right now," she says, due to shorter hours and one-in, on-out policies. She and Perez point out that, ironically, the need for minimizing contact actually requires more hands-on-deck for all the multitasking and need to be in five places at once.
Additional days need to be factored in for quarantining costume pieces for up to 72-hours before fittings, too. It's even more of a math formula for Bronfman, whose custom-built costumes for "See" involve modular components that each require sanitizing and quarantining before moving to the next step.
"It's gonna be like molasses in terms of getting out pieces," she says, estimating that "80%" of her job now is dedicated to operations management and "making sure all the cogs are oiled so that it keeps moving."
Fitting schedules also need to be adjusted. For instance, Bahmet will pivot from "marathon fittings" to just two a day, with a "trained non-toxic hygiene" team sanitizing the room in between. She will also "pre-fit" a minimized pool of extras, who will follow the same protocols as the cast, in, most likely, a ventilated tent outside.
"Not only is it safer, it's also going to give me a moment to fine-tune, like, 'let's put a hat on that guy,' when I look at the pictures later," Bahmet says. "It's going to help our creativity, too."
The longer-lead schedules will also hopefully avoid that 11th hour scramble designers usually deal with, especially with last minute casting, per Perez: "They can't bring the actor in at 9pm on Thursday night and have them work 6am Friday. That doesn't happen anymore."
Staying Informed and Connected
"It is a responsibility of myself, as a head of department, to do my own research," says Messam. A member of unions in New York, L.A. and Toronto, she attends all the virtual town halls and meticulously keeps up on the ever-evolving research and science behind Covid-19 precautions. Same with Bronfman, who's been "reading avidly" and regularly disseminates information to her crew, also to keep up morale: "'Don't despair. It's OK,'" she says. "'Hang on, last 100 yards!'"
"Vox Lux" designer Keri Langerman decided to not return to work this year out of caution. But she's been working with a group of diverse East Coast-based designers to establish The New York Costume Society. Launching its website this week, N.Y.C.S. offers support for the local costume community and advocates for a more safe, equitable and conscientious workplace that also provides resources and forums for Covid-19 safety discussions.
Perez encourages designers to call union hotlines to share their experiences once they start a new job. (Union and government hotline numbers have also been sent to designers to anonymously report dangerous and sketchy practices.) "If you have a show, we want to make sure you're good to go," he says. "With some shows, we've had to correct them: 'You can't do that. This has to be done.'"
All the costume designers I spoke to have lauded the sense of community amongst their peers, not just for support, but to also discuss best practices and workflow recommendations while navigating uncharted waters.
"I've been lucky enough to be conferring with some of my team [in Toronto]. What are they doing for cleaning? Have they gotten anything approved?" says Messam, whose aged and dyed period costumes take special care.
"We have our little group, " Bahmet says. "We all share information. It's wonderful because there's safety in that."