An Interview with Costume Set Supervisor Dawn Climie!

 Dawn Climie
Daneil Radcliffe (Left) as Ig Perrish and Dawn Climie (Right) on set of the award-winning film “Horns”

When a major Hollywood film production plans to bring a story to the screen filled with complex costumes with intricate details that change over the course of the story, ones that require someone capable of staying on top of all of these changes, predicting possible malfunctions and liaising between the costume designer and director to make sure the costume department nails the overall vision for the film—they call in Costume Set Supervisor Dawn Climie.

In fact, Climie’s title in the industry is actually a Canadian title, it doesn’t exist in the U.S. and that’s because usually, at least on smaller productions, Climie’s position is filled by various people, which she touches on in our interview.

Climie, who was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award along with Costume Designer Bob Mackie back in 2006 for their work on the series Once Upon a Mattress, has amassed an overwhelming list of diverse credits in the industry over the course of her 25-year career.

Some of Climie’s credits to date include the films The Chronicle of Riddick starring Vin Diesel and Judy Dench, Miami Vice starring Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell, The A-Team starring Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper, the Oscar Award nominated film Tron: Legacy and many, many more.

While Climie’s work in film is beyond dazzling, the sought after costume set supervisor has also been pulled in to lend her skills to massive television undertakings as well, an intense challenge considering that scripts change daily, sometimes just before the production is scheduled to begin shooting. Climie’s contributions to TV series including Once Upon a Time, Exes & Ohs, Secret Agent Man and Kyle XY, have helped ensure the continuity of the costumes, and in the end, the credibility of each show.

If you’re interested in the magical world of costume design for film and television, specifically the intricate and vast work of a costume set supervisor, then this interview is a must read.

Not only will you learn about the responsibilities that this integral creative contributor takes on during a film and television production, but Dawn Climie generously gives us a thorough break down of what it takes to be the best in the profession, tools of the trade, as well as dishes about some of her most memorable projects.

To find out more about Dawn and her work you can also check out her blog: Don’t Shoot The Costumer

TTNN: Where are you from?

DC: I was born in Kitchener Ontario but I grew up in Leduc Alberta, a small city 20 minutes south of Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. I moved to Vancouver BC, in 1997 and have been living and working here for the last 18 years.

TTNN: How did you become interested in working as a costume set supervisor on film and television projects?

DC: I had grown up in this industry in a way. My father worked at a TV station in Edmonton, Alberta. My sister and I would spend time at the station where we would get to sit in the booth and watch live news broadcasts, or the back of the sound stage when movies were being shot.

My memories of the dark room blinking with lights on the boards, the feeds from each camera… it was magical. I can remember watching the filming of a dance number for “Bye Bye Blues”… the swing of the period dresses, the wonderful hair and the music filling the space. I was in awe the first time I saw the set for a road and an entire forest built inside a building. For a kid this is beyond imagination, this is magic, and it still is for me.

Costumes became my favorite expression of that magic. The transformation that occurs in a performer when they don a costume designed to be the outward expression of their character is truly a gift to behold. I wanted to be a part of that so the costume department was a natural fit.

The costume department has many different areas in which we can apply our skills. I started in sewing and building the costumes. I have had my hand at dyeing and ageing. I was an assistant designer and a designer, as well as a supervisor/coordinator. Those experiences were invaluable, but it was as a costume set supervisor that I found my calling. Having tried all the positions in our department, and gained the skills and expertise required to be fortunate enough to work at the highest levels, I have known for many years that the combination of the intensity, creativity and the problem-solving environment of working on-set as a costume set supervisor is the position that not only fulfills me professionally but suits my personal skill set best as well.

TTNN: What does the work of a costume set supervisor entail?

DC: Costume set supervisor is a job with many hats, but the guiding philosophy of the work is that I am the eyes and ears for the designer on set. The designer and I talk about the look he or she has created for each character. Although the designer creates the costumes for each character, but it is the way the costumes are worn, the nuances that help create the humanity within each character. When the characters leave the designer and come under my care on set, I maintain all the things that the designer and I have discussed to make each character unique and personalized… the tilt of the hat, the knot in the tie, the neatness or the disheveled appearance of the costume, the shiny spot on the coat where a man might clean his pocket watch… all these nuances are essential to creating believable characters and every detail falls under my supervision.

Just as important as the look is, how that look changes over time for each character is essential to the storytelling as well. I take all the particulars for each character’s look and help maintain and evolve the look from the beginning to the end of the project. Aging and breakdown on fabrics helps indicate the time, effort and circumstance of the journey. Using breakdown and aging techniques on set I ensure that each costume piece reflects the place in time that the character inhabits for each scene, that the proper time within the story is represented by the wear on the costume.

The Set Supervisor is also responsible for the continuity for each character for the show. We don’t shoot a movie in linear script sequence so we need to track which costume pieces are worn and how those pieces are worn from scene to scene. If in scene 1 our leading character walks out of the house with his hat on and a coat over his arm, in scene 2 (which may be shot a month later and possibly in another country) they must be outside the house looking exactly the same.

As a Set Supervisor I am also responsible for the costume crew that we work with. I directly supervise and manage on-set costume crews from 3 to 50 people on a daily basis depending on what the day’s shooting requires. Each scene requires different resources whether it be a stunt scene which requires doubles of the costumes and extra labor to help with those sequences or underwater scenes which require I higher level of cast comfort and logistics planning.

I use our shooting schedule to coordinate with my team for labor requirements, additional costume pieces or doubles, the logistics of our equipment trucks and having the resources we need close to us and I coordinate with each of the departments that may impact how we deal with each circumstance. For example, a stunt sequence requires that I coordinate with, at the very least, the stunt department, the special effects department and the AD department in regards to safety, shooting elements and continuity.

Each day I coordinate with my Truck or base camp Costumer to reconfirm long term schedules and plan each upcoming day’s costume requirements, our lines-ups, and address any details that may have changed. I have to make sure that we have all the costume pieces we need when we go to camera, and we have to be ready to work on the fly and adapt to moment-to-moment changes that may and do occur.

I am responsible for costume specific effects such as bullet hits and blood effects. This involves a culmination of most of the skills and requirements of my job. I schedule any extra resources I might need for the shooting that day and request any additional costume pieces or technical equipment needed. I then plan ahead to the following scenes to be shot after the effect and plan out the breakdown and matching for continuity I will have to do on each costume piece to shoot the next scenes. When we actually shoot the effect I coordinate with Stunts and Special Effects and often the Makeup Department to design and execute the aftermath of the effects (damaged clothing, blood, debris and dirt) then I must match that effect on all multiple costumes for that character.

Ultimately no matter what we do on set, we must track what we do and the look of the costumes before, during and after each scene is shot. I keep notes, photos and scene-by-scene descriptions so that all the info needed can be shared with the entire costume department. This is essential when coordinating scenes that are shot out of my direct supervision such as a second unit or a unit shooting in another country.

TTNN: What is the typical workflow for a costume set supervisor from the beginning phase of a production to the end?

DC: The beginning of a show always starts with reading the script several times and using costume specific software to break down the elements in the script that indicate costume department considerations.

I go through the script scene-by-scene and separate out the cast, day sequences, costume changes, and what will happen in the scene. This can be anything from a stunt sequence to just making dinner during a scene. Breaking down all the details helps me make a list so when I talk to the costumes team I will be able to have a projection on how many costumes that I think may be required for each section of the script, what special elements may be needed and a rough estimate of additional labor for our department.

Once my breakdown is completed I assist with the prep process. I help the designer with cast and background fittings, assist with the aging and breakdown process to help prepare the costume pieces for shooting, and I deal with cast, costumes and specific fabrics during camera and lighting tests.

Much of my prep is spent in production meetings and departmental meetings addressing cast costume and safety concerns in relations to stunts, rigging, special effects, extreme locations and other vital elements.

Once I get on set, my main tasks are two-fold; to work with the designer to make sure that their vision is maintained for the look of the show, and to track and maintain costume continuity. I keep notes and photos on everything pertaining to the costumes each day.

I need to ensure that my team of costumers are all working to achieve the same goals. That means coordinating the continuity across all the team members and working units and ensuring that each team member has a clear visual understanding of the designer’s vision.

I also need to keep an eye on our upcoming schedule so I can plan ahead and make sure myself and my team will be ready for the days ahead.

I work with our costume coordinator in the Costume Office to organize crew and equipment we should bring in depending on the requirements of each scene we are shooting and the logistics of each day’s shooting.

Planning for weather is vital to our process. I must assess on an hourly basis, as well as days in advance, what my requirements may be on-set each day in relation to weather.

The creative side of my work is to ensure that the costumes are having the impact that the director and designer want, this ranges from ensuring that the drape and flow of a Princess’ gown is as glamorous as possible to making sure that the flack jacket on a veteran soldier looks like he has been wearing it all his life to ensuring that blood work, bullet hits and wound damage conform to the desires of the director and the restrictions of standards and practices.

Once the filming of the production is finished, my main focus during wrap is to complete and deliver the continuity book to the designer and the creative production team. The continuity book contains all my photos and notes detailing each every scene of the production. This is the reference that will be referred to should any additional footage be necessary or if the production is to continue either through series or sequels in the future.

TTNN: Can you describe some of the film projects you’ve worked on and some of the challenges you’ve faced?

DC: The sets for The Chronicles of Riddick were some of the largest indoor studio sets that I have ever worked on… also one of the hottest. We did one shot inside the main space ship that had 150 fully latex and foam armor suited soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder. It was crazy hot. We had to do more than watch the costumes, we had to be very aware of Vin Diesel and the rest of the cast and background players that were covered from head to foot in latex rubber and spandex. There was very little ability for their bodies to cool easily. Just standing was unbelievably hot for everybody, but when they had to run across the stages, do stunts or rigged cable falls or jumps these were times that we needed to be aware of the potential for heat related maladies! Costuming is often much more than the costume being worn, it is about the people that are wearing them and what needs to be accomplished in that costume that makes the movie.

The Mission Impossible series of films is known for its constant drive for bigger better faster action sequences. The crew has to adapt! I can’t think of a day on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol that didn’t involve jumping onto or off of something that was either very high or moving very fast.

But I think the most memorable time were the days we spent in Dubai on the Burj Khalifa, the tallest man-made structure in the world. We were filming the sequence where Tom Cruise’s character has to free climb on the outside of the building using some high tech gloves. Myself and a few other crew members had to spend our days in 5 point harnesses attached to the cement ceiling of the building, while helping strap Tom into the different harnesses that would be needed to do each piece of the stunt. I spent a lot of time with the stunt and rigging teams. We had to plan and prepare each harness, pads and costume piece that would be needed to get the shots safely and seamlessly for the sequence.   I can still remember the feeling of lying on my stomach leaning out the open window on the 123rd floor, as myself and the props person tried to repair a malfunctioning light on one of Tom’s climbing gloves. The view was astounding but my prayers were, ‘Oh lord don’t let me let go of the glove!’

Tron: Legacy was visually stunning and a challenge to work on. We were continuing a story that had started almost 30 years before, the original Tron was filmed in 1982. The costumes were an amazing advancement that had never been tried in film costuming before. The foam latex superhero suit is a costume item that has seen a definite rise over the last three decades. With Tron: Legacy we added electricity and light. As costumers on set we had to take our skills to a whole new level. The foam costume material was impregnated with thin wiring that fed battery power to external light strips. Light in a costume was something that had never crossed my path before. So learning about a dressing a light grid suit, dealing with the replacing of broken lights, and re-patching broken wires was something that we all had to grasp on the fly.

For this show when our actors over heated in the suit, we had more to deal with than just a sweaty cast member. Our usual on-set repair kits that carried top stick, thread and lint brushes were changed out for tattoo ink, wire connectors, light strips, glues and powerful cooling fans.

I joined the Bourne Legacy team in Alberta for the snow sequence that starts the movie. We had an impressive challenge in this. The cold and snow are always hard to work in. Dealing with the correct layering to combat the extreme weather conditions and still create a costume that looks great on camera can be a challenge for all those involved, especially the cast.

For the opening sequence in Kananaskis, Alberta, our lead actor Jeremy Renner had to helicopter onto a mountaintop, climb rock outcrops and glacier falls, and swim in an almost frozen river below a waterfall. All of these locations were a challenge in keeping the actor warm and safe during the shoot. But the biggest challenge was the logistics of providing that care to Jeremy and all the stunt performers as well as packing and carrying all the gear required to do that job in each location. Luggage restrictions are much tighter in helicopters!

Miami Vice was an amazing and rewarding challenge because of the weather and the incredible amount of travel that was involved. Fortunately the basic requirements of how to do my job don’t really change, no matter where I am or what language I am speaking… but the hurricanes definitely provided a unique experience!

While we were in Miami we had 6 tropical storms and 2 hurricanes; Katrina and Wilma. It was something I will never forget. I was so impressed with the local crew and how they dealt with the weather, they definitely have my highest respect. The travel was also extreme. We went from Miami to the Dominican Republic, to Uruguay then to Paraguay, back to Miami and returned to Uruguay. The biggest challenge was managing the international shipping demands on our extremely tight travel schedule. We boxed, loaded shipped and then unboxed the costumes… and did it all again… and again… and again. Together with some top-notch local costumers we managed it all and made some memories that will last forever.

TTNN: What was it like working on the series Once Upon A Time?

DC: Once Upon a Time was a wonderful chance to get to work with the incredible Eduardo Castro, who is the costume designer of the show. I loved watching him dash off flawless sketches of the stunning fairytale outfits we use on the show each day. It was even more magical when those costumes finally arrived on set for us to use during shooting… the magnificent leather capes, headdresses of lace and crystal, sequins and shimmering gold thread. But on set we have mud, horses and rain!

Our challenge was to maintain the magic throughout the Pacific Northwest winter. A princess can never look soggy, a king muddy or a charming prince waterlogged. We developed some intense strategies to keep our cast and their costumes dry-ish and magical. Neither the cast, myself, or the horses were all that impressed with having a muddy cape wrung out all over us, but it does make for a few good soggy laughs!

TTNN: What has been your favorite project so far and why?

DC: This is always a hard question… I have had so many wonderful projects and all for different reasons; but I think that Once Upon a Mattress has been my favorite project so far!

It was not a big budget and we had huge challenges trying to keep up each day, but I had an amazing team of people to work with. The costume department as a whole, and a brilliant group of people on set, starting with the cast and director right through to the PA’s, were wonderful to work with.

The cast were people that I had grown up watching as a child; Carol Burnet from Annie and of course The Carol Burnette Show, Tommy Smothers who taught me how to use a yoyo, Edward Hibbert from Fraser and all the other amazing and talented cast.

I was introduced and walked through all of Carol’s costumes by the infamous American designer Bob Mackie on the day they arrived. This for me was beyond a dream, for any costumer just meeting Bob Mackie would be a lifetime achievement!

Invariably it is not how successful a project is at the box office, the locations or the scope of the work that makes a project truly memorable… it is the people you go into the trenches with. In the case of Once Upon a Mattress, the cast and crew were both down to earth and the very best at their crafts, a combination that etches this production in my heart.

 TTNN: What projects are you currently working on?

DC: I just wrapped on the The Man in the High Castle, a TV series for Amazon based on the Philip K Dick novel of that name. It is based in 1962 but with a scary twist; the Nazi’s and the Japanese won the war in 1948 and the US has been under occupation for the last 14 years.

For me the scripts are intriguing, the story is fabulous, although disturbing in the possibilities. But the costumes are a very subtle combination of period and fantasy, and what happens to the cast each episode keep us on our toes with helping create that believable world. Our costume designer Audrey Fischer is astounding. She keeps a smile on her face even while creating the costumes for our complicated world.   And our cast is beyond measure. The passion they put forward in to each day keeps us all pushing ourselves to take the bar higher and higher to create an astounding finished project.

TTNN: What projects do you have coming up?

DC: I am soon to start a Bruce Lee biopic, Birth of the Dragon. I am thrilled to be joining this team. As it is another period story set in the 60’s, this project proposes to be fascinating and challenging.

TTNN: Do you have a passion for working on a specific kind of film or project, if so what kind of project and why?

DC: I love to work on it all, super heroes in foam suits, sci-fi green screen, any period piece and Disney fairytales. I mean how many people get to say, “ I have to go put Rumpelstiltskin in his suit of armor, can I call you back?”

But if I had to choose… I truly love working on projects where I get to make a mess!   I love shows with lots of blood. I teach classes in film blood, and I volunteer at museum film related events to show kids all about film blood, so it is definitely a passion of mine. But really, if I get to use my creative skills with breakdown, time-wear, dirt and blood, these projects add that extra dimension of deeper creativity to the intellectual challenges of planning and logistics, and tracking continuity.

TTNN: As a costume set supervisor, are you usually hired by the production company or the head costume designer?

DC: The Costume Designer always hires their crew. I have had the pleasure to work with some truly talent and wonderful costume designers from around the world including Michael Kaplan, Mark Bridges, Janty Yates, Shay Cunliff, Eduardo Castro, Audrey Fisher, Monique Prodhomme, Karen Patch, John Bloomfield, Chris Hargadon and Bob Mackie.

Some of the production companies I’ve worked with on projects over the years include Disney, 20th Centery Fox, Universal Studios, ABC, Focus Features, Paramount Pictures, Amazon, Sony Pictures, Warner bros pictures, New line cinema and Bad Robot.

TTNN: What makes a good costume set supervisor?

DC: Deep technical understanding of costume construction, fabrics and other costume elements, and film related techniques for manipulating costumes and fabrics is essential to being an excellent set costumer. As in any profession, an instinctive understanding of your basic tools is vital to operating at the highest technical and creative level possible.

A brilliant costume set supervisor is highly organized. From breaking down script elements to tracking and documenting costume continuity, the Set Supervisor must be able to plan and organize the work flow of that information, have vital details at their fingertips and be able to disseminate resources and information effectively. Today this means working with the most effective and efficient software and technologies available and being able to adapt technologies and strategies to constantly changing conditions.

A respected set supervisor is a strong leader. A film set is a high intensity, high-pressure environment where ethics are sometimes challenged. The set supervisor as well as organizing and running the onset costume crew, must have a working knowledge of the contracts that we work under and the production goals for an efficient shooting production. The Set Supervisor must be able to stand up firmly and respectfully for their cast and crew in matters of safety and due diligence.

An invaluable costume set supervisor is an effective communicator– they are often at the center of questions and issues between the costume designer, the actors and the director. In order to effectively negotiate these questions and concerns for a best possible outcome, the costume set supervisor must be first and foremost an empathetic listener and communicator. Efficiency as a communicator becomes vital when disseminating vital and changing information to the rest of the on-set team and to the designer and costume office personnel and to the other departments affected by costume decisions.

TTNN: What specific skills do you have that separate you from the rest of the costume set supervisors working in Hollywood?

DC: The position of costume set supervisor is a Canadian designation, there is not a position in Hollywood that is comparable. When I work in the United States I am usually given the title of Key Set Costumer and this is a very unique designation… let me explain. In my experience, the costumers working in Los Angeles are some of the very best in the world. But the costume departments in Canada and the US are structured differently. Because my job as a Costume Set Supervisor in Canada gives me the combined experience of being responsible for the continuity of the entire cast, organizing and running the set costume crew, liaising with the production regarding workplace issues, and being the designated on-set head of department, I am considered a unique resource in the Hollywood and US industry.

Technically my formal education in Period Costume Construction and over 2 decades as a seamstress provides the backbone for my 25 years in film, theatre and television in all aspects of costuming. My leaderships and organizational skills have been honed on multiple international blockbuster feature films and hundreds of North American Productions.

I am tremendously fortunate that when US Designers are looking for that unique skill set and level of experience I get to throw my hat in the ring. To me, that kind of consideration from Designers is an incredible honour and one I do not take lightly.

TTNN: What do you hope to achieve in your career?

DC: To continue learning! As the entertainment industry evolves… and it is evolving at an incredible rate… I am finding now more than ever it is imperative for me to continue learning my craft. This encompasses everything from understanding how digital delivery platforms are affected by different costume fabrics and patterns, to keeping ahead of the curve in on-set technology and techniques, to experiencing filmmaking in different regions of the world to see how indigenous industries have evolved… and more importantly how different cultures approach and celebrate our shared passion.

TTNN: What kind of training have you done in order to work in this field?

DC: My mother brought me into a passion for sewing and creating when I was young. This passion has shaped my formal education as well as my extra-curricular enthusiasms.

After high school, I enrolled in the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) where I studied Tailoring, Dressing Making and Drafting. I followed that with a scholarship to Banff Theater of Fine Arts where I studied the art of Costuming, drafting and building period costumes from ancient Egypt to present day.

I believe as a film industry member it is incumbent on me to self-govern my continuing education. I have taken an immense number of courses and workshops to broaden my skill base and add flair and creativity to my work. Just a few of these include:

  • The Craft of Tying Formal Kimono,
  • Silk Screening,
  • Camera Basics for On-Set Image Assessment,
  • Supervisory Skills for Film and Television,
  • WHYMS workshop on Safety and Hazards in the Workplace,
  • Contract and Union Liaison Workshop,
  • Excel for Spreadsheets and Continuity Templates,
  • Photoshop

TTNN: What would you say was your first foot in the door to the industry? Any advice as to how to maximize your chances for landing that first gig?

DC: My first foot in the door came from my exposure to our local television studio as a young woman. From observing the filming process whenever I could, the crew members at the station could see the passion and curiosity I had for the work. An opportunity came up for a volunteer position with the Costume Department and I jumped at the chance.

Getting your first foot in the door… as an educator (I have the honor of teaching the Blood for Film and Television course for Capilano University here in Vancouver) I always tell any one who asks me how to break into Costuming to look in your area first. Build a resume of volunteer jobs on short films, music videos, anything you can to get some practical experience. Contact your nearest film union office (our national union is IATSE) because they will often have an application that will tell you what skills and prerequisites they are looking for.

If you have the option of a film school then take a look at that as well, this is a great building block.

But if you are at the basics, then learn how to sew. You don’t have to be a couture seamstress if you do not want to go into the sewing room. But you should know how to put up a hem, sew on a button, and repair garments on the fly. These are all things that we need to do every day, from fitting background players and cast in the mornings to closing the holes on an outfit after we have finished with harnesses and stunt rigging in the afternoon.

Understand that you are entering a workplace that is directly connected to the fashion industry and its history. Know your silhouettes. Study period and cultural dress. Know the difference in what the costumes of the 1920’s look like compared to the 1880’s… the difference between desert headwear from the Saharan and Arabian regions… learn how to tie a tie in every knot including a bow tie… yes we use them all!

And most importantly, when you get your opportunity, be willing, be eager to work and don’t tell anybody that you are too good, too smart or too educated to sort hangers or sweep the floor!

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