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FIDM Guest Speaker: Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Shares Career Advice

FIDM Guest Speaker: Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Shares Career Advice

Academy-Award winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood visited campus today and shared stories of her fabled career collaborating with directors like Tim Burton and Rob Marshall on over 65 films. With 11 Academy Award nominations and three wins (ChicagoMemoirs of a Geisha, and Alice in Wonderland) Atwood is at the top of her field. She often hires FIDM graduates on her crews.

Discussion was lead by Creative Director, Film & TV Costume, Celia Rogus.

What are the most important positions in the Costume department?
Your two greatest allies are the cutter and costume supervisor. The cutter makes the clothes but the supervisor runs a crew of 5 to 150 people. She must be organized and ultra professional—have respect for all the craftspeople and always keep a level head. Beware of hysterical trouble makers on a movie set.

What is your research process?
I like to start with visuals drawn from books, exhibitions, things I have seen. I have an assistant or other people do the Internet-based historic research. I like the spontaneity of what happens when you turn away from the screen and explore with an open mind.

Did your career have a turning point?
Many. I came from a bleak, small farm town in Washington state. I always loved art, drawing and reading but didn't set out to be a costume designer. I started my life over at 27 when I got a PA job on the movie Ragtime in New York. Looking back, I realize that all those jobs I did to survive contributed to my work as a costume designer. Remember, as a designer you are creating characters, so knowing what real people are like adds to the art as much as what you may learn in school.

What changes have you seen in the industry?
In general, the time allotted to research has gotten shorter as time frames are condensed. I may have only 1 or 2 fittings with an actor like Charlize Theron before production begins. You have to get it right fast.

Also, at the same time as we have new tech fabrics, the number of fabric choices have become less diverse. Often, I work with a textile artist to adapt current fabrics to make them more interesting.

Any advice for students just starting out in costume design?
Our industry appears glamorous, but it is really hard work. Be amenable to all the people you work with and don't bring a big sense of entitlement to the job. If you work hard, people will notice and call you back. Our industry is all about the people you work with. Treasure the good ones. Move on from the impossible ones and just keep on learning. I am continually learning as a designer.

Categories:  Film & TV Costume Design