There are artists who create in a solitary space. Painters, sculptors, writers, and others: these are some of those who manifest their art by themselves. In contrast, many artists are involved in a collaborative effort to summon forth the works that they present to the world. The individuals of this latter group long to work with others who inspire them to reach heights that even they felt incapable of achieving. The art of storytelling in its modern form is one of the most prominent of these. Costume designer Ruoxuan Li has taken part in many varied productions but one of the most profound was her work with Francis Ford Coppola on “Distant Vision.” There are few iconic names that raise the standard of an entertainment medium and define their generation; names so universally recognized and lauded that it seems everyone appreciates their work and all participants of said art form long to work with them. Early in her career, Ruoxuan has already achieved this. It has inspired her, given her the opportunity to learn, and cultivated a drive and confidence in herself that propels her into adventurous and artistic endeavors. Li’s work with Francis Ford Coppola on “Distant Vision” gave her a look into the mind of one of our greatest filmmakers as well as vetted her as one of the brightest stars in the costume design/production community.
Ruoxuan was introduced to Mr. Coppola by Dr. Deborah Landis. Li’s design work on the opera “Cosi Fan Tutte” had impressed Landis so much that she recommended the costume designer to Coppola with great confidence. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone from any location on the planet who isn’t a fan of Coppola’s universally lauded films, and Ruoxuan is no exception. Still, being a professional means placing the admiration you might have for such an artist aside for the time being and focusing on the work; easier said than done. The story of “Distant Vision” is based on Coppola’s own family. Li found herself having meetings with the director discussing personal conversations about his family and his perspective on them. While she pressed herself to deliver her very best, Li admits that the scenario was surreal as she found herself peering through Coppola’s own family photo albums with him and discussing options. Ruoxuan reveals, “I will always remember the first meeting I had with Mr. Coppola in person; it was truly like a dream. I’ve always been a fan of his films and could never have imagined myself working with him. Add to that his kindness and generosity. Every time we talked about the costumes, he was very open to ideas and a discussion of opinions. I felt that he was very connected to and aware of all the difficulties we might have. He was so supportive and appreciative. He made the environment so comfortable that I’d forget and then suddenly think ‘This is the man whose films I have worshipped for as long as I can remember. To say that it was a positive experience for me would be an extreme understatement.”
“Distant Vision” is a concept piece that recounts the struggles and triumphs of three generations of an Italian-American family set against the birth and growth of the invention of television.” The action of the story is divided into three different periods, all of which take place in the heart of Italian Harlem, New York. Set in the 1920’s, the first act is a tragedy from Alfonso Corrado’s story who helped engineer and build the first ‘television’ machine. On this rainy Easter Sunday, a big family baptism party occurs after the festival parade on the street. Alfonso’s two eldest sons, Danny and Archie show the guest children some reels from the newly built first television. Danny accidentally falls to his death from the roof while trying to fix the signal. The 1950’s present Act Two. A flash back of 10-year old Tony Corrado, son of Archie Corrado, playing a ‘television game’ with cameras made of cardboard at home in the basement with his friend. Though caught by his mother and scolded, the scene shows young Tony developing a passion for television. The final 1980’s scene presents an adult Tony Corrado, now a celebrity director. He is shown explaining the new project he’s working on to an interviewer. Introducing his wife and daughter, he retells the camera the story of his family through generations with references of early footages and photos.
Li’s preproduction time was about two months long. The different decades were close enough to share similarities in style but different enough that each required their own subtle identities. Once research was done and early designs approved by Mr. Coppola, Ruoxuan set up a full team and shop to handle the volume of the work. The same shop which did the initial work and fittings would continue on through the filming to maintain all costuming and ensure that everything stayed with the proper actors. Emmy Award-Winning costume designer Jane Ruhm was the costume advisor on “Distant Vision” and was highly impressed by Li’s work. She declares, “Ruoxuan’s research was very thorough. It was presented in a beautifully curated book, and even included photographs from Mr. Coppola’s family photo albums. She is an accomplished artist and was able to communicate her design ideas clearly to Mr. Coppola and to the cutter/fitter who was hired to build them. Ruoxuan was an inspiration for her team which was paramount because a leader sets the tone for those she works with. In costuming, organization is so important when working with a large cast such as this. I overheard multiple actors tell her how happy they were with their costume and how it had helped them “find their character”. The various periods in the story and the overall production value of the film were totally dependent on Ruoxuan’s designs since the sets were minimal. I know how happy the producers and Mr. Coppola were with what she accomplished because they made a point of telling me about it.” This is perhaps the most prominent award one can achieve in the entertainment industry, to be respected and appreciated by both those known and unknown professionals alike. The role of a costume designer is to help individual in front of, behind, and those watching the camera’s display to lose themselves in the story and the performance. While Francis Ford Coppola is one name we all know who is a fan of Ruoxuan Li’s work, there are countless other professionals who share his same opinion when it comes to this talented costume designer.