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Making the Cut: Career Advice From ‘Ripper Street’ Costume Designer Lorna Marie Mugan
10 Jan 2013 : By Dylan Newe
Lorna Marie Mugan has worked on internationally acclaimed shows such as 'Treasure Island' and 'Ripper Street'
Costume designer Lorna Marie Mugan is currently leading the international pack of Irish designers who have secured an international reputation on film and TV sets.
Joining the ranks held by Consolata Boyle, Joan Bergin and Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh, Mugan broke into the industry in the late 90s and quickly went on to make a name for herself designing for shorts and features. Her designs have taken her to some of the most popular Irish sets of the last 10 years, including ‘Intermission’, ‘Inside I’m Dancing’ and ‘Man About Dog’.

The Enniskillen-born designer has carved a niche for herself in period drama of late, recently designing the 1930s-set ‘Christopher and His Kind’ (2011), 1990s-set ‘Shadow Dancer’ (2012) and the swash-buckling TV series ‘Treasure Island’, for which she earned a Primetime Emmy nomination.

Her most recent work can currently be seen on BBC One every Sunday night on Irish co-production ‘Ripper Street’, for which she designed 19th century corsets, petticoats, and three-piece suits for the likes of Charlene McKenna, Matthew Macfadyen, Jerome Flynn and Adam Rothenberg.

In another IFTN Making the Cut exclusive, Mugan tells us why designing is such a rewarding process for her, why glamour is the last thing she associates with her job, and why studying the craft is the best way to get ahead in the business.

Generally, as a costume designer, on set, my day begins with… final adjustments of any new costumes that are being established on camera and checking that they 'work', as required, for the actors. On days that there are crowd shots, we do a lineup of all the extras fully costumed. I will weed out anything that looks odd or wrong in colour, as background is a very important base layer to compliment rather than overpower the principal cast.

The most common misconception people have about my job is... that it's easy or possibly glamorous! It's a balancing act of many skills. There is a big responsibility to honour the director's vision for the script; integrate seamlessly with production design and camera; deliver quality on a limited budget and forge a relationship of trust with the cast. If they don't believe that the costumes belong to the character, no one else will. Even with meticulous planning, things go awry for any given reason and you must think under pressure, finding solutions immediately. Time is always against you. Working in various insalubrious swampy environments for months on end, glamour becomes a distant dream.

The most practical tip I would give to somebody trying to break into the film industry as a costume designer would be to... study first. I studied Theatre Design (Set and Costume) at Wimbledon College of Art and it was an invaluable four years of learning. From there, I began designing set and costume for Fringe Theatre in London and Edinburgh before moving to Dublin, first designing short films, then features. There are different paths into it for everyone, some work their way up as trainees and assistants, some come in from very different artistic backgrounds. It's important to keep learning by flexing your observation skills; noticing the changing effects of light on the colour and texture of fabric, how fabric moves, how people move. Pay attention to the craft of great actors, directors, production designers, directors of photography, as well as costume designers.

The greatest help in my career which helped me get where I am today has been… Realising that it is an ongoing experience of learning, fine tuning skills and being adaptable to new ideas and techniques (particularly when working abroad with new crew). Producing good costumes is a collaborative process; you can't physically do it all by yourself. So, trust in other people's skills is crucial. Each new script can be approached with an adrenalin rush of excitement for the unknown and an equally big fear of failure! That's what keeps it challenging and fun.

The best thing about being a costume designer is... that it's such a rewarding process, nurturing the development of a character from the seedlings of ideas in a script through two dimensional sketches, to fully formed and three dimensional on screen. I have also been fortunate to travel a lot through work and collaborate with greatly talented and inspiring people.

Websites you should surf/books you should read/film costume work you should use and observe for inspiration is… There are several interesting websites that offer broad-based knowledge of costume design such as ‘La Couturier Parisienne’ and ‘The FIDM Museum blog: Costume design’. The ‘Clothes on Film’ blog keeps reference with current design work in films also. For books, ‘Hollywood Costume’ and ‘Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design’ both by designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis for insights on how certain iconic costumes evolved, through interviews with various leading designers.

Peruse photography and art books related to the eras and cultures of interest as these are always the most valuable base for research. To see the power of block colour in costume, watch ‘The Birds’ or ‘Marnie’ by Hitchcock. For a sumptuous visual feast of the perfect marriage between costume and set design watch Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In the Mood for Love’.

Click below for previous 'Making the Cut' interviews:

Donal O’Farrell: ‘Ek Tha Tiger’ Stunt Man

Ray Harman: ‘Love/Hate’ Composer

Suzie Lavelle: 'The Other Side of Sleep' DoP

Nathan Nugent: 'What Richard Did' Editor

Louise Kiely: 'What Richard Did' Casting Director

Mark Geraghty: 'Ripper Street' Production Designer

Ronan Hill: 'Game of Thrones Sound Recordist

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