We Can’t Do It Without Them

The APDG costume members have been extremely proactive over the past few months. Erin Roche has been at the forefront of the “Naked Without Us” campaign, while I am advocating for training pathways that will enable mid-career costume supervisors to advance to senior costume supervisors.

The role of Costume Supervisor is crucial within the costume department, yet it is currently facing a concerning decline. The demanding workload and lack of compensation have led to burnout among some of our supervisors, prompting them to step away or exit the industry altogether.

This year, our Costume Department has seen the departure of three esteemed supervisors. These individuals have brought their expertise and talent to numerous acclaimed productions. Mel Dykes, is known for her work on the Oscar award-winning “Fury Road” and the anticipated prequel “Furiosa,” “Aquaman,” and “Love and Monsters.” Kerry Thompson, Catherine Martin’s right hand on productions like “Elvis” and “The Great Gatsby,” as well as “The Dressmaker” and “Hacksaw Ridge.” has stepped up to designer and no longer supervising. And Joanne Paterson, whose credits include “Gold Diggers,” “Young Rock,” “Tidelands,” and “Doctor Blake Mysteries.”

These three highly regarded supervisors have played a pivotal role in the success of our designers, leading to numerous prestigious costume awards and accolades. Their expertise has brought the Australian Film Industry into the spotlight on the world stage. It is disheartening to see that their invaluable knowledge has not been shared, and the industry has missed the opportunity to cultivate aspiring supervisors who could step into their shoes.

Within our department, the number of Costume Supervisors across the country is minimal. Moreover, the scarcity of those with the requisite expertise to oversee big-budget Australian or offshore productions is even more pronounced. Only five seasoned supervisors remain active in the industry for these large-scale productions. However, as these highly skilled women eventually retire, we will find ourselves lacking supervisors equipped to handle any significant production being filmed in Australia. Consequently, this valuable position will be filled by imported supervisors.

The Costume Department has faced countless challenges for years, often working tirelessly behind the scenes, navigating long hours, tight budgets, and minimal crews. Yet, the Costume Department plays a vital role in the filmmaking process, and as the industry evolves, it’s crucial that we adapt and embrace modern work practices. Identifying the issues and transforming how we work and effectively manage our crew.

During a recent Zoom meeting, Costume Designers and Costume Supervisors convened to discuss the pressing issue of shortages and promote collaborative idea-sharing. The consensus was reached that the costume department requires a new role to alleviate the workload of our supervisors and, more significantly, address the decline of experienced Costume Supervisors in the industry.

Several factors have been identified as contributing to the decline:

  • Supervisors are frequently overloaded on larger productions with many responsibilities, creating significant challenges. As a result, this often leads to prolonged working hours with minimal overtime being requested or approved.
  • Production demands are rising, necessitating shorter pre-production time, last-minute casting, and a greater emphasis on high-quality HD output.
  • Many productions assign impractical budgets, compelling supervisors to justify each expense or seek more economical alternatives. This process is time-consuming and frequently impracticable.
  • Supervisors and designers are frequently responsible for compensating for the crew’s lack of experience. This entails leveraging their own expertise to bridge the gap and ensure effective outcomes.
  • The production is lacking in allocating sufficient crew members to manage the department’s workload effectively.

The Problem:ย The industry faces challenges with senior supervisors leaving, resulting in a knowledge gap. There is no clear pathway for aspiring supervisors to gain experience on large-scale productions. Hiring additional coordinators to assist the Costume Supervisors is seen as a solution, but it merely acts as a temporary fix without addressing the underlying problem. This approach is like placing a band-aid on the issue, providing a short-term solution instead of a long-term strategy. How can we start to change this culture and encourage the retention of this amazing pool of experience and talent?

The Solution:ย Establishing a clear pathway to address the significant leap between the roles and provide a bridge for aspiring supervisors to gain experience on larger productions is essential. Introducing the role of Assistant Costume Supervisor within the department will serve as a stepping stone for crew members, facilitating their transition into the position of senior supervisor. This strategic addition will not only enhance career progression opportunities but also contribute to the overall growth and success of the department.

The Assistant Supervisor will be a vital link between the coordinator and the supervisor. They will take on various responsibilities that the supervisor can delegate, thus alleviating their workload. This valuable firsthand experience in managing a more extensive Costume Department will empower mid-career crew members to step into the more challenging role of supervising large-scale projects. Additionally, the additional support will help mitigate the fatigue and stress experienced by our senior supervisors, ensuring their continued success in their careers while safeguarding the future of our department.

The ideal candidate for the Assistant Supervisor position is a supervisor with a comprehensive resume showcasing experience in various local productions. While candidates from within the department, such as standby, buyer, coordinator, art department and production, are not excluded, the emphasis is on individuals looking to take the next step in their career. The assistant supervisor will be able to shadow the senior supervisor in all production and budget meetings, cast fittings, and be involved in all budget and design communication.

I had contacted the Industry Development Team at Screen Australia to address the issue of the declining number of senior costume supervisors in the industry. Despite recognizing the shortage of costume supervisors and including it in the broader list of funding opportunities, they did not prioritize it in this current round of BTL (Below the Line) NEXT STEP funding. However, Art Directors are included on the list and can benefit from this funding opportunity, applications are now open, please see links to Screen Australia’s funding programs below, also included is a link for returning crew to the industry.

I recently had a meeting with Rachel Nott, a costume supervisor, and Ken Crouch from Screen Australia. We discussed the possibility of APDG finding an alternative source of funding through the Skills Development Funding program. Screen Australia has up to $80k available which can be used to cover some of the wages of three mid-career supervisors. These supervisors will receive on-the-job training and mentoring from senior costume supervisors to help bridge the gap between managing a costume department on a low to mid-range budget and the additional skills and knowledge required to run it on a larger production. The production company would be responsible for the remaining wages of the placement. However, obtaining this grant is a difficult and competitive process. Nevertheless, it is a crucial first step towards ensuring the continued growth of costume supervisors.

Compared to the US and UK, Australia lacks the turnover of numerous productions needed to foster the growth of new crew members. Producers need to acknowledge the necessity of this additional position and include it in their future production budgets, ensuring the competence of our Costume Departments, regardless of financial constraints. I am hopeful that producers will recognise that the financial costs are justified, as the alternative would be relinquishing our ability to oversee our departments when international supervisors are hired to support designers brought in from abroad.

By training new senior costume supervisors, we can continue to cater to large-scale productions, safeguard the department’s future, and enhance our international competitiveness.

Liz Keogh Palmer APDG