By: Colleen Monroe
Costume Supervisor, Valerie Laven-Cooper absolutely loves managing a team. She refers to herself as the “department mom,” taking care of her crew and the costume designers’ needs on a daily basis and guiding them through all the challenges of running a busy costume department.
What makes Valerie a seasoned supervisor with superhero organizational skills? Well, her resume speaks for itself — she’s worked in every role: stylist, shopper, costumer, key costumer, assistant costume designer, and designer. Some of her recent projects include: Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, Last Man Standing, For All Mankind, and Homeland.
With her vast knowledge of the industry, Valerie opened the door to her costume shop to share with us what REALLY goes into gearing up for a project.
Below are four of her go-to tools she pulls out of her kit when preparing for a project…
“It’s really important to me to hire a crew that is kind with good communication skills, and who are able to get along with each other because there is so much that goes on in a day”
Tool #1: Curate a Favorite Crew List
Crewing up a Costume department is a collaboration between the costume designer and costume supervisor.
Before a project begins, Valerie taps into her Rolodex of the trusted crew she’s work with on past projects or reaches out to her colleagues for referrals. She will then compare notes with the designer to ensure they both hire people who have the skills and personality to complement the show and the other crew members.
Valerie is dealing not only with the big picture of getting costumes ready for shooting, but also managing the interpersonal issues of the crew. She mentions, “It’s really important to me to hire a crew that is kind with good communication skills, and who are able to get along with each other because there is so much that goes on in a day”.
Here’s a wishlist of positions Valerie might hire out for on a show like Homeland:
- Costume Coordinator
- Key Military Costumer
- Key Contemporary Costumer
- Principle Set Costumers
- Background Costumers
- Patternmaker / Fitter
- Ager Dyer with an Assistant
- 2 PA’s
Tool #2: Set Up Organizational Processes
With new script notes coming in daily, fitting times changing, and rentals to return — once production hits, every day is filled with swiftly moving pieces that Valerie needs to communicate to her crew.
That’s why she relies on specific apps and systems to track information in real-time that her crew can quickly reference and avoid any miscommunication. Some of the favorite organizational tools she uses to prep for a project:
When meeting with her key costumers, Valerie will review what current costumes are in stock, what additional costumes should be purchased or rented, and if there are pre-fits required. Valerie brings SyncOnSet with her into these meetings to quickly gauge current spending and make thoughtful, data-driven decisions so the key costumer knows exactly what budget she has to work with to get the job done.
Valerie also uses SynconSet to track actor sizing and make notes about their costumes. As soon as the actors are cast, she puts their sizing information into the app and matches them with the character in the script breakdown. When her crew are out in the field (shopping, on set, in a fitting), they all have access to the same information.
To ensure everyone is on the same page, Valerie will also make notes for other departments. For instance, if an actor has tattoos that might need airbrushing, she will add that note to the actor’s profile within SyncOnSet so the makeup department is made aware and can plan ahead.
When all of the departments are plugged into SyncOnSet, it creates less work for everyone and keeps the project moving forward efficiently.
The White Board
While tech plays an important role in Valerie’s costume department, she’s also a proponent of the whiteboard and other classic organizational tools.
Valerie designates an area in her costume shop with a giant calendar, whiteboards, and color-coded post-its, using a template for easy reading — none of that chicken scratch writing that requires a professional cryptographer to decipher! Valerie runs a clean, organized, and up-to-date costume shop.
What goes on the post-its? Locations and scene numbers (if it’s relevant) and fittings that are constantly being scheduled. This way, Valerie and her crew stay prepared for that day and ahead of schedule.
Additionally, the whiteboard serves as a two-week calendar noting when studio memo returns and costume house rentals are due. The more information that the whole crew can refer to leaves less room for mistakes
Classic Digital Tools
In addition to the big picture calendar, Valerie creates a daily schedule. It’s an ongoing Google doc with all of her To-Do’s.
She starts with what she’s doing for that day, checks off what was accomplished the day before, and then makes additional notes.
Having a digital list saves time every day rewriting priorities. Plus, when needed, a digital list can be distributed to crew who also need to accomplish the same goals.
Excel spreadsheets are another digital tool that Valerie uses to keep information consistent for her internal crew and outside vendors.
On, For All Mankind, Valerie pulled together information for when specific types of spacesuits with different boots gloves or helmets needed to be distributed to Production, Global Effects Rentals, Assistant Directors, and Assistant Designers. Using this process, everyone had the correct information to allow for enough prep time on set, ensure specific items were available, and the right amount of crew booked ahead of time for a smooth-running production.
“You have to do the job,
before you get the job.”
Tool #3: Schedule Ahead of Time
Even before signing the NDA for a project, Valerie will take the initiative and start making calls and writing emails to secure crew, scout out places to set up shop, and research the status of rental stock
She emphasizes, “You have to do the job, before you get the job.”
Scheduling pre-fits is a huge component of prepping for a project, and since Valerie is big on assembling the right team, she starts booking early to get the best people possible.
When Valerie supervised, For All Mankind, her crew dressed sometimes up to 500 people with multiple changes an episode when they were block shooting. To ensure she had the right people available for the job, she reached out to costumers a month ahead of time to put them on standby. When she finally received the one-liner and shooting schedule, she could book crew right away.
Tool #4: Set Up the Right Space
Scouting out the ideal space for a costume department is a puzzle that often involves cobbling together multiple locations, especially for projects that require numerous fittings, aging/dying areas, and a costume shop making custom builds. There never seems to be enough space for it all!
On For All Mankind, Valerie found a location in the Barrymore Building at Sony Studios. She put up shelving for period fabrics, utilized existing star fitting rooms, set up hold rooms designated to men and women principles, and created offices for the designer, coordinator, assistant designers, shoppers, workroom, and PA. In the basement of the building, she created an area for the ager/dyer team to work and another area to hold and secure the very expensive spacesuits. She then rented out a warehouse space part of Western Costume to store the stock costumes and run the constant large background fittings. Beyond the working offices, Valerie also rented two 53-foot trucks to hold principle and background wardrobe for shooting. Talk about a master of organization!
That’s a wrap on prep, let’s start shooting…
Bringing stories to life through the filmmaking process is an exciting journey! Equipped with the right tools going into your next project, you’ll be avoiding additional headaches down the road once production starts and ultimately set your crew up for success.
Now THAT is movie-making magic at its best.