Tag Archives: Behind The Scenes

Costume Designer Spotlight: Claudia Sarbu

Costume Designer Claudia Sarbu
Costume Designer Claudia Sarbu

A passion that courses through her veins and experience far beyond her years have earned costume designer Claudia Sarbu her place at the forefront of her field. Her sheer talent is reflected in her diverse work on films ranging from the epic 2014 blockbuster “Divergent” to the heartwarming drama “20th Century Women,” released early this year. Few in the field are able to move so seamlessly between such wildly different productions, but Sarbu has been training her entire life.

She was born near Bucharest, and growing up she lived just blocks from the film studio where both her parents worked. Her mother made costumes for the studio and encouraged her daughter’s natural talent.

“I remember when I designed my teacher’s wedding outfit, and then my mom made it,” she said, recalling how she got her first taste of design. “It was very avant-garde for that kind of small town wedding, but she looked great.”

Having been immersed in the field for longer than she can remember, Sarbu knows better than anyone how crucial good costume design is to any production that aims to create a believable universe. She proved this on an enormous scale when she served as Costume Coordinator for “Divergent,” the first in a hotly anticipated series of films based on the trilogy of internationally bestselling books by Veronica Roth. As the costume coordinator, Sarbu was responsible for ensuring the film’s costumes were made and prepared perfectly.

Divergent

The cast of the film made raised the stakes for Sarbu even higher. In addition to Shailene Woodley, known for her roles in “The Fault in Our Stars” and in “The Descendants” (alongside George Clooney), the film also stars Ashley Judd (“Double Jeopardy”) and Academy Award Winner Kate Winslet (“Titanic,” “Finding Neverland”).

The events of “Divergent” take place in a dystopian future where every person must fit neatly into one of five factions, each representing a different virtue. Anyone who is unable to assimilate into one of these factions is labelled a ‘divergent’ and faces mysterious but almost certainly deadly consequences. At the heart of the story is one such divergent, Tris (Woodley), who defiantly resolves to fight back against the unjust system.

The world in which the film is set is fractured and extraordinarily complex, which is mirrored in the relationships between characters and factions. It was an indescribably difficult undertaking to create a costume for each and every character that both captures the individual’s personality and visually represents the character’s faction and their station in the world’s social hierarchy.

“The majority of the costumes for ‘Divergent’ were manufactured in Romania by two workshops, and I was in charge of overseeing both. My job was to develop and translate the illustrations into actual garments by choosing fabrics, deciding on patterning and finishing details, as well as overseeing the quality of the manufacturing, aging and distressing processes,” she said, detailing her staggering list of responsibilities. “At the same time, I had to keep up with the shoot schedule’s demands, meaning prioritizing what to ship first while working under very tight deadlines. It was almost four months of intense work, but in the end we’d delivered over 2,000 pieces of costumes.”

All of Sarbu’s tireless work proved well worth it when “Divergent” was released in March 2014. It immediately shot to the top of the box office in its opening weekend as casual moviegoers and longtime fans of the novels piled into theaters to catch the first chapter in the epic trilogy.

20th Century Women
Poster for “20th Century Women”

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum lies “20th Century Women,” the exceptionally moving autobiographical story of two women who help a mother raise her son against the backdrop of Santa Barbara in 1979.

“The script for ‘20th Century Women’ is one of the closest to my heart, and also one of the most challenging ones I’ve read… spinning between past, present and future and mixed with dreams and flashbacks,” said Sarbu. “The costumes were extremely important to the film’s authenticity. We were dressing real life characters whose personalities and vibes needed to be conveyed through their style.”

The film debuted early this year and starred Annette Bening (“American Beauty”) and Elle Fanning (“Maleficent,” “Super 8”). Audiences and critics lauded “20th Century Women” with praise, and the film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay, a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Comedy, and a Golden Globe Best Actress nomination for Annette Bening for her powerful performance.

Despite being completely unlike “Divergent” in every conceivable way, the importance of Sarbu’s work to the industry at-large is illustrated by the fact that both of these wildly different films needed costumes, and both relied on Sarbu’s talents. For both, and for any other film, Sarbu knows that good costume design starts with understanding the characters and the worlds they live in. In this way, the process she follows for a film set in a nightmarish future is much the same as it would be for a film set in ‘70s-era Southern California. In practice, Sarbu’s process requires the instincts and training that she has honed throughout her illustrious career. When she describes what she does, however, she makes it sound straightforward and almost simple.

“Film and TV are essentially visuals,” she said, “and what people wear is essential to creating that visual.”

 

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Setting the Visual Tone with Electrician and Camera Operator Ekaterina Doldjeva!

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Camera operator and electrician Ekaterina Doldjeva

 

At the core of any good film or series is a good story, and just as with any story, the tone and mood are key. In a book, an author can simply tell the reader that the night is dark and stormy. In film, setting that tone takes a lot more nuance. Rather than relying on written words, filmmakers must use dialogue, ambient sound, curated scores and above all, meticulously orchestrated lighting. That’s where Ekaterina Doldjeva’s expertise becomes invaluable. As both a camera operator and an electrician, Doldjeva knows better than anyone just how important a role lighting plays in the storytelling process.

Born and raised in Bulgaria, Doldjeva found a passion early in her life for the film industry. Fascinated by the craft of cinematography, her seemingly limitless skillset covers the spectrum from the creative to the technical. As a lighting technician and electrician she is responsible for overseeing the proper and safe setup of lighting, and for ensuring that when the cameras roll and the cue is given, those lights work flawlessly. As a camera operator, she works closely with the cinematographer to ensure each scene captures the full essence of the director’s vision for the production.

“For me, every time I am lighting a set, it feels like I am painting with light,” she said, describing how her work lies at the confluence of science and artistry. “However, being a camera operator is a true passion of mine. In order to be a cinematographer you have to be able to translate words from the script into visuals.”

Doldjeva’s first big step into the field came when she began work on the critically acclaimed NBC series “Chicago Fire.” Centered around a tight knit band of firefighters in Chicago, the series honors the brave men and women who risk their lives everyday to protect their city and its people. Starring Jesse Spencer (“House”) and Taylor Kinney (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Shameless”), the brilliantly written series features themes of fraternity, courage, sacrifice — and a whole lot of fire.

“It is breathtaking to see how a certain scene is done, especially on a show like ‘Chicago Fire,’” Doldjeva said. “Most scenes include lighting buildings on fire and heavy stunt work, but helping and contributing to create those scenes, and afterwards seeing it on TV when the episode comes out, it repays for all the hard work I have done. I feel grateful that I am able to be apart of the crew at such a high level.”

In the few short years since her work on “Chicago Fire,” Doldjeva has gone on to work on an array of star-studded productions, such as the upcoming film “Office Christmas Party.” Doldjeva worked as the electrician on the film, which is directed by Josh Gordon (“Blades of Glory,” “The Switch”) and scheduled for release just in time for the holiday season this December. Starring Jennifer Aniston (“Friends,” “Cake”), Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development,” “Horrible Bosses”) and Olivia Munn (“The Newsroom,” “X-Men: Apocalypse”), the riotously hilarious film is guaranteed to be a box office smash.

Filming on “Office Christmas Party” provided a laundry list of challenges and obstacles, which Doldjeva was uniquely qualified to overcome. While shooting on the streets of Chicago she found herself in a battle against the elements. Despite a nonstop barrage of complications, Doldjeva kept her cool and saved the day from what could very well have been a disaster.

“Throughout the day, we experienced short blizzards, rain and clear skies — all within 30 minutes. A rapid weather change like this is never good for a lighting setup. At times I had to separate from the crew and follow the weather every 10 minutes, so I could tell the gaffer if there would be a lighting change,” Doldjeva said, recalling just how many fires she had to put out. “We had lights on every intersection… we were shooting at, and inside buildings and along trees. I had to stay close by to… decrease or increase the lights every time the sun changed, and to let everyone know so they could tell production. This was crucial for the lighting continuity within every shot and scene.”

Doldjeva has earned a reputation as one of the most sought after professionals in her field, a fact proven time and again by the illustrious list of projects she is credited on. In 2015 she served as the electrician for the hit Fox series “Empire,” starring Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard (“Hustle & Flow”) as a hip-hop artist and recording mogul whose legacy is placed in jeopardy after being diagnosed with ALS.

A much different project than any other she had previously worked on, the logistics of shooting a series as thoroughly original and unprecedented as “Empire” proved to be an exciting challenge for Doldjeva. In particular, the show’s frequent use of musical performances kept Doldjeva on her toes.

“I often had to navigate a spotlight and follow the singer across the stage,” she said, explaining the high expectations and higher stakes involved. “Sometimes there would be a long shot where the performance might get interrupted when the singer would go off stage or dance. A small mistake on a giant production like this could be inexcusable.”

Doldjeva’s myriad projects have also seen her working alongside Academy Award nominee William H. Macy (“Fargo”) on the Showtime series “Shameless,” directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski (“The Matrix Trilogy,” “V For Vendetta”) on the Netflix Original Series “Sense8,” and Academy Award Winner Charlize Theron (“Monster,” “Mad Max: Fury Road”) on the upcoming film “American Express,” scheduled for release next year.

It isn’t luck or coincidence that has made Doldjeva such an omnipresent figure in some of the biggest productions over the last few years. Countless productions have relied not only on her expertise behind the camera, but on her unrivaled ability to turn lighting into an artform in its own right. With her years of experience, vast understanding of her craft, and a knack for quick action and quicker thinking, it’s no surprise that experts throughout the film industry have come to think of Ekaterina Doldjeva as the beacon that guides them when the waters get choppy.

Making It Reel!  

          ImageThe true mark of a movie’s success is making its audience forget that they’re watching a movie. As we’re brought back in time to say World War II, or to outer space, for a span of time in a theater or a living room we’re supposed to forget about everything else. That is dependent on the kind of visual effects in the movie. And that is where Nikola Todorovic comes in.

  Originally from Serbia, Mr. Todorovic grew up working in his Uncle’s video-rental store in the summers, which ignited his passion for film. Once Nikola arrived in Hollywood, he quickly found work as a visual effects artist, impressing and dazzling his coworkers with his talent.

 For his work on the upcoming film Little Boy, which stars Academy Award nominees Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson, Nikolai was tasked with helping create visual effects that would illuminate the journey of the main character, a 12 year old boy, as he undertakes the seemingly impossible task of bringing his father back from the Second World War.

One of Nikola’s most important tasks, for four final shots in the film, was to recreate a sunset that would take your breath away. Nikola rose to the occasion, and then some, by creating over thirty-five different possible shots for the director to choose from. The film’s producer was so impressed he believed that without Nikola’s work the film would not have been believable.

For the film When Kings Battle, Nikola supervised the filming when it was done with green screens, and then in post-production he was able to recreate a world that transported the movie’s audience to the ancient ages. The film is about an emperor who becomes obsessed with a woman who already has a husband, and it nearly brings his empire to ruin. The film was honored with an array of awards, and had its premiere at the historical Grauman Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The film’s director, John Bucher, was so taken by Nikola’s work he plans to work with him on all of his future projects. Nikola’s work on the film was so incredible that he gained the respect of the Hollyshorts Festival, whose organizers invited him back as a jury member for the festival’s future editions.

Movies are an escape, especially the kinds of movies that bring you to a different time – whether it’s in the past, or in the future. But the success of these movies almost completely depends on their visual effects, and Nikola Todorovic is the guy whose shoulders you want to be leaning on if you’re making a movie about World War Two, ancient Egypt or any other subject intended to transport the audience.