In her teenage years, China’s Mozhi (Leila) Li was obsessed with Broadway shows and historical films. She was transfixed by what she saw on screen, with characters in elaborate costumes reflecting their personalities. Li instantly was fascinated by how fashion could be presented through the screen and on stage, and she knew she was meant to pursue a career in costume design.
“I use my gift and knowledge to help my clients pull their characters from the script to reality. Through communications and understanding of the story, I also use my aesthetic gift along with design principles to work as a team member with other visual departments, together to create a perfect frame in film. It’s more of a team job than individual success but that’s what makes me so determined with my job,” she said.
Throughout her career, Li has proven time and time again why she is such an in-demand costume designer and wardrobe stylist. Millions have seen her work in music videos for Jason Zhang and Yitai Wang and the films Zero, Under Heart, and Where Dreams Rest. The last of which is one of the highlights of Li’s esteemed career.
Where Dreams Restfollows a young Chinese woman who crosses the US-Mexico border to chase after her American dream. It was an Official Selection at the Lady Filmmakers Festival, where many connected with the timely and dramatic story.
“The film talks about a strong feminine figure, who has this devoted love to her partner, which is touching. There are other immigrants with different races and characters in this film. Even though some of them are non-speaking roles, I love the details of the story given for each character, it gave some vulnerable feelings when I went through these supporting roles,” said Li.
Li was touched by the script and knew instantly she wanted to be a part of the film. The story is based on a working-class background. This created a unique challenge with choosing and aging costumes for the main character, while still ensuring her presentation would work well on cameras with all the colors balanced with the scene.
“Costumes can reflect large amount of details and stories behind each character. Especially for this project, the background is very realistic. It’s important to deliver the real-life texture to each costume by distressing and aging them professionally,” Li described.
The best part of the experience for the costume designer was the team she worked with. She thought the director was thoughtful and gifted, and the actors were passionate. She enjoyed her interactions with the art department, discussing ideas of color and fabrications.
“The story was touching, and all the characters have colorful personalities. I really enjoyed exchanging ideas and thoughts when I first met the director and production designer, they are talented and passionate young filmmakers. Everybody is devoted and played a great part in a team, that’s always the project you look forward to working with. All these factors made me feel it would be a project worth my time,” Li concluded.
While most creatives take many years to find their true calling and turn it into a career, often times there are hints during childhood as to the direction their artistry will later take, and London-based costume designer Jemima Penny is no exception.
Penny recalls, “I was always drawn to costumes. As a little girl my favorite game was ‘dressing up.’ I never wanted bought costumes, I’d always make them up myself.”
Over the past decade Penny has become known internationally for her work as the costume designer on a wide range of projects, including films such as the popular Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, which was nominated for a prestigious BAFTA Film Award for Best Documentary in 2015, the dramatic mystery film In The Dark Half starring Jessica Barden from the Golden Globe nominated series Penny Dreadful, the comedy film Where Have I Been All Your Life? with two-time Primetime Emmy Award winner James Corden (Into the Woods), and many more.
“I was always fascinated by how people define themselves and send messages to wider society about who they are through the way they dress. So I naturally gravitate towards character work over trend. And of course, storytelling is one of the most important and basic human needs. Its how we communicate and pass messages on to one another. So to be able to be part of this industry is a wonderful thing,” explains Penny about what led her to pursue her career as a costume designer.
Penny recently wrapped production on multi-award winning director Jonathan Hopkins’ (Goodbye Mr. Snuggles) upcoming horror film Slumber, which is slated to be released later this year and stars Maggie Q (Live Free or Die Hard, Mission: Impossible III), Will Kemp (Reign, Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce) and Sylvester McCoy (Sense8, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey).
The film follows Alice, played by Maggie Q, a rationally minded sleep doctor who, after finding no plausible scientific explanation for the terror an entire family of clients faces while they’re asleep, is forced to abandon reason and accept the existence of the ‘Night Hag.’ In Slumber, we realize that this supposed mythical creature who paralyzes her victims while they’re asleep, one who’s been referenced and written about by practically every culture since the beginning of time, may not be as mythical as everyone believes.
For the upcoming film costume designer Jemima Penny has done a thoroughly brilliant job of representing the changing mental states of the characters into their wardrobe, which in the case of this film in particular, changes drastically over the course of the film, at least for some. One of the most drastic visual changes in wardrobe style that audiences will immediately notice is that of Q’s character Alice.
“Alice, the main character is a rational, scientific person who likes to have total control over every element of her life. She is ordered and methodical. However over the course of the film she starts to unravel as the Night Hag becomes more real to her,” explains Penny.
“We used her costumes to help depict this journey. At the beginning of the film she is very put together. Her clothing reflects her character– buttoned up, stylish, sleek, conservative and coordinated… As the film progresses and Alice’s mental state deteriorates we gravitate to more casual, rougher looks– jeans, boots and tees… and the colour palette becomes more earthy and darker.”
The reason Penny has become such a recognizable and sought after costume designer in the industry is due to more than just her skilled abilities as a designer and seamstress. At the end of the day her success can be attributed to the rare and unique way that she gets inside the head of each character she designs for… it’s the methodical way that she breaks down their personality, changing emotions and the outer circumstances that they can’t control to design their wardrobe scene by scene that makes her such a powerful force in her field.
Slumber star Maggie Q says, “Jemima is one of my favorite designers. Not only does she have an incredible sense of style, that is evident in all her work no matter what the brief, but she is totally dedicated to getting the costumes right for the piece, which, for an actor, is such an essential part of being able to fully become immersed in a role.”
Bringing such talent to the table, it is not at all surprising that Slumber is not Jemima Penny’s first time working as a costume designer on one of Jonathan Hopkins’ films. Earlier on in her career she served as the costume designer on his comedy film Minimus, which earned the Festival Award from the 2013 Chicago Comedy Festival. The genres alone reveal the polar opposite nature of the previous project compared to their most recent collaboration, but clearly Penny’s talent as a costume designer proves that her skill exceeds the limitation of any particular genre– or medium for that matter.
“Johnny and I have worked together for a long time. We started making TV commercials together nearly 10 years ago and have built a solid understanding of each other’s work. So after an initial meeting Johnny will ask me to develop designs for the piece and we have a very collaborative process… he is always open to new ideas and trusts in the rest of his creative team to bring valuable input to the project,” says Penny about working with director Jonathan Hopkins.
In addition to making a strong impact as a costume designer in the world of film, Penny has also created a dazzling repertoire of work that includes music videos, such as Calvin Harris’ ‘Sweet Nothing’ feat. Florence Welch, which has over 200 million views on Youtube, as well as an overwhelming list of commercials for globally recognized brands such as Nike, Virgin Media, ITV’s The X Factor, the BBC, Cadbury, Dyson, Disney, Absolut Vodka and many more.
Up next for costume designer Jemima Penny is Primetime Emmy nominee Polly Draper’s (Thirtysomething, Demolition) film Stella’s Last Weekend starring Nat Wolff (Paper Towns, The Fault in Our Stars) and Alex Wolff (Coming Through the Rye, Patriots Day), as well as the upcoming film Farming, which is set in Great Britain in the 1970s and follows a Nigerian child who grows up in a white working class family and ultimately becomes the leader of a skinhead white supremacist gang.
About the upcoming film Farming, Penny says, “It’s a heart wrenching terrifying look at racism in the not too distant past and it should be a very powerful piece. It’s also a fantastic era for costume.”
Originally from Hanover, Germany, costumer Lisa Sass is one of the key figures who works tirelessly behind the scenes on film and television productions to ensure that all the actors on screen visually represent their characters down to the most minute detail.
Over the past five years Sass’s vast skill set as a costumer have landed her leading roles on a huge range of high profile productions including the Oscar Award nominated films Star Trek Beyond and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the Golden Globe nominated film Furious 7 starring Vin Diesel (xXx) and the feature film War Machine starring Oscar Award winner Brad Pitt (World War Z), which was released last month.
While it hasn’t taken her long to establish a reputation that is strong enough to be sought out by some of the biggest film productions in the world, she definitely paid her dues along the way. The path to becoming a costumer for film and TV was something that actually began for Sass during childhood.
She explains, “I’ve always been a big fan of movies and TV series. I started drawing when I was about 4 years old, started copying cartoon and comic characters at some point and went to more realistic drawings from there. I made up stories and started creating my own characters and their clothes. Going into costume design combined my passion for film and creating characters.”
Sass’ role as a costumer is one that starts long before the cameras begin rolling and finishes long after the director says ‘that’s a wrap.’ While the costume designer ultimately decides what costume each character wears on screen, it’s the costumer’s job to breakdown the script scene by scene and create a look-book for every single character documenting the multitude of costumes they wear over the course of a production. Sass then goes to work compiling a massive wardrobe collection to fit the main characters, as well as everything worn by the background talent. But her job definitely doesn’t end there, if it did, things would be far too easy.
In addition to altering the costumes to fit each cast member perfectly, she is the person who makes sure her department has everything they need to keep the cast comfortable, which can be include everything from a wet suit to be worn under the clothing if the character falls into a cold lake during a scene to heat tech clothing to keep the cast member warm when shooting in frigid temperatures. She is also responsible for aging the costumes and adding desired effects depending what happens to the character in a specific scene and how that carries over into their wardrobe, and much more.
Sass first immersed herself in the industry in 2010 when she joined the the wardrobe department of the hit series Tatort, which has won over 100 awards since it first began in the 1970s and is still airing today! After learning the ropes from seasoned costume designer and German Television Academy Award winner Monika Hinz on the series Tatort, Sass was ready to begin working on her own as a lead costumer.
Immediately after completing her bachelor’s degree in costume design she landed a spot as a costumer on the set of the 26-episode comedy series In Your Dreams, an Australian/German co-production. One of Sass’s major roles once a production begins shooting is monitoring the continuity of each character’s costume throughout every scene, a skill she quickly acquired thanks to the grueling attention to detail required by In Your Dreams.
She recalls, “We were shooting all episodes out of order so it was essential, that you were fit in keeping the continuity of the costumes. A TV series usually shoots a lot more scenes in a day than you would on a film because of time pressure so we sometimes shot 10 scenes out of 10 different episodes a day which means you have to change the casts costumes after every scene and have to make sure it is worn exactly like the scene before or after one that you might have shot a month ago or longer.”
Sass’s early work on the series In Your Dreams, although demanding, served as excellent preparation for the many jobs that flowed in subsequently after, such as the German crimes series Monaco 110 starring Bavarian TV Award winner Monika Baumgartner (The Nasty Girl), the Jupiter Award nominated romcom film Vaterfreuden, the crime film Die reichen Leichen. Ein Starnbergkrimi directed by 10-time Adolf Grimme Award winner Dominik Graf (The Invincibles) and the crime series SOKO 5113 starring Gerd Silberbauer.
In Your Dreams director Ralph Strasser says, “We had quite a large cast on the series, and it was imperative that they always looked immaculate on camera, so the demands on Lisa and her colleagues were often quite intense. The ﬁlm set is a place where tensions frequently run high, but Lisa was always a friendly and good natured presence, doing what was required calmly and eﬃciently. Making ‘In Your Dreams’ was a very special experience in my career, largely due to the pleasure of sharing it with people like Lisa.”
After making a name for herself in the German film and television industry, Lisa Sass moved to Dubai where she began costuming for even bigger projects. There she was tapped as a lead costumer on the hit films Furious 7, Star Trek Beyond, Star Wars; The Force Awakens and War Machine.
Besides her unrivaled creativity, attention to detail and extensive wardrobe knowledge, one thing that has made Sass such a sought after costumer in the film industry internationally is the fact that costume designers can trust her to be prepared for any situation, and oftentimes that means having items on hand (that aren’t in the script) to keep the cast comfortable.
“It is not only important to dress the cast, it is also important to maintain comfort for the cast. There’s a lot of empathy and psychology at play but also simple things like providing warming jackets, heating insoles, warm blankets in between takes, umbrellas for rain or sun or fans on shoots in the desert. If the actors are happy, every shoot runs more smoothly and that can even mean a change of shoes in between takes or for a close up where you don’t see the difference,” explains Sass.
“This is all part of the job as a costumer behind the scenes for the things that you will not see on screen but is very important for the progress of the shoot.”
Aside from her key contributions to countless film and television productions, Sass has also been tapped to apply her skill as costumer on a plethora of major commercials for companies such as Nike, Nissan, Ultra Tech Cement, Lamborghini and others.
Earlier this year she was the costumer on the“What will they say about you?” commercial for Nike Middle East, which was geared towards women in the Middle East and created quite a buzz. The powerful and controversial commercial featured women athletes running through the streets, playing sports and being the epitome of strength, all the while wearing traditional Hijabs.
As someone who has made it to the top of the industry as an internationally sought after costumer, Sass is one person aspiring costumers should look to for advice if they are seriously considering making this a career.
Sass says, “The job needs a lot of empathy to work at your best in a team, adapt to the costume designer’s visions and be able to work with different people and personalities constantly. You have to be able to work well under pressure and think quickly on your feet and have a keen eye for details.”
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