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.
In any film or television production, the wardrobe department is responsible for designing and selecting costumes and attire for the cast. Regardless of setting or genre – whether it’s a Victorian or space age period piece, tragic drama, spy thriller or college comedy – costume design is an immense task that requires countless hours of planning, research, budgeting and acquisition.
The job of actually designing the costumes, dressing the cast and then watching over the wardrobe and preventing malfunctions when it comes to the shoot is too big for any one person, so the costume designer is usually unable to be on location during filming. In their stead, at least in Canadian productions, they appoint a costume set supervisor who they rely on to ensure that everything goes off without a hitch.
That’s where Dawn Climie comes in. Climie grew up in the industry; her father worked at a TV station in her native Alberta, Canada, and as a child she would sit in the sound stages and watch him work. She was fascinated by the hustle and bustle of the sets, by the lights and cameras and most of all, by the glamorous costumes and the cast’s ornate hairstyles.
“For a kid this is beyond imagination. This is magic, and it still is for me,” Climie recalled. “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.”
That childhood dream has been Climie’s reality for 25 years now. Climie received a 2006 Primetime Emmy nomination for her work on Once Upon a Mattress, and has been key to the success of such films as 50 Shades of Grey, Horns, The Bourne Legacy, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, The Thing, The A-Team, Tron Legacy, The Fog, Fantastic Four (2005), Blade 3 and The Chronicles of Riddick, among countless others.
The long list of Climie’s credits is so impressive not just because her projects are myriad and hugely varied, but because so many of them are high-profile big-budget productions which have been widely publicized and boasted casts packed with household names.
Working on Tron Legacy, Climie worked as the bridge between director Joseph Kosinski and designer Christine Clark, who was nominated for the 2011 Costume Designers Guild Award for her work on the film. The high-tech digital world at the center of the ambitious sequel was the result of hundreds of hours of careful planning and design. Much of what audiences saw in theaters was computer generated, and the eye-catching costumes worn by Tron Legacy’s stars Olivia Wilde (House M.D., Her, Cowboys & Aliens) and Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart, The Big Lebowski, True Grit) were painstakingly designed to complement that fantastical and visually-stunning environment.
“The costumes were an amazing advancement that had never been tried in film costuming before,” Climie said. “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.”
As a set costume set supervisor, she acts as the go-between for the costume designer and the director, makes sure there are no malfunctions in the wardrobe department and ensures that both the director’s and costume designer’s combined aesthetic vision is met and brought to life on camera.
In Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol the explosive action, breakneck speed and adrenaline-pumping stunts made the project one where every contingency had to be accounted for. Capturing the sophisticated spy-couture aesthetic was a huge challenge for Climie and the wardrobe department. The designer worked hard to balance the practical necessity of costumes which could handle the wear-and-tear of the film’s many crashes, jumps and rolls, but also didn’t restrict the actors’ mobility or cramp their style.
One of the most tense scenes of M:I – Ghost Protocol was filmed at (and on) the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. The iconic scene features Ethan Hunt, played of course by three-time Academy Award-nominated superstar Tom Cruise (Top Gun, A Few Good Men, Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire), climbing the massive skyscraper with nothing but a pair of high-tech gloves. Climie was integral in the scene’s visual success, as well as its safe execution.
“Myself and a few other crew members had to spend our days in five-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,” Climie said. “I spent a lot of time with the stunt and rigging teams. We had to plan and prepare each harness, pad and costume piece that would be needed to get the shots safely and seamlessly for the sequence.”
That careful planning and preparation paid off, and the scene went off almost without a hitch. But Climie certainly felt the pressure of having the safety of an actor – one of the world’s best known and highest grossing actors, no less – reliant upon her and her team’s work. And when the inevitable glitch did rear its head, Climie leaped into action, so to speak.
“I can still remember the feeling of lying on my stomach leaning out of an 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,” Climie recalled. “The view was astounding but my prayers were, ‘Oh lord, don’t let me let go of the glove.’”
One of Climie’s latest projects is the Amazon Original Series The Man in the High Castle. A period piece set in an alternate timeline, the acclaimed series meets at the dark crossroads of science fiction dystopia and socio-political philosophy. Adapted from the novel by sci-fi legend Philip K. Dick, both the series and the book take place in 1962. However, in this timeline the Allies lost World War II and the United States has been under Japanese and German occupation for 14 years.
The costumes in The Man in the High Castle are not what you would expect from a period piece set in 1962. Because the series takes place in a timeline where the U.S. lost, the ‘50s and ‘60s styles we know today had be reimagined for a world where the Axis powers became the dominant superpowers. It fell on Climie to make sure that the show’s creative team and designer Audrey Fisher’s careful and deliberate wardrobe decisions were faithfully adhered to, and that no costume mishaps delayed shooting. Of course when those mishaps do happen, the director, designer and crew are always glad Climie is on hand – as they were when a hiking scene caused one cast member’s pants to tear under pressure.
“The result was an exploded inseam with some alarming exposure! Thankfully we had a wonderfully understanding cast member and my amazing crew ran out to the woods with a sewing machine and some fabric so we could repair the pants on site,” Climie said. “Rebuilding a pair of pants in the woods was not the original plan, but the show must go on.”
Every film and TV series she has been involved in has benefited from her invaluable expertise, quick thinking and creative problem solving. She has one of the most demanding jobs on any production, but because of her dedication and poise under pressure her talents are always in high demand. The first season of The Man in the High Castle will be available on Amazon Nov. 20, 2015. Many of her other projects can be seen on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, and most are available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
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