I started on TV productions in the mid-70s under John McRae, who’d returned to NZ as Head of Drama for the newly-formed second TV channel, South Pacific Television. Children’s series Hunter’s Gold was one of the first shows I worked on.
I got my first design jobs on the 30 or so dramas of Ngaio Marsh Theatre, when Logan Brewer was designer.
In the early 1980s I spent a year in England, interning at the BBC when they were making lots of Shakespeare and period dramas. I came back to NZ, worked at TVNZ for a couple more years and then decided I’d leave and do something else.
I went on to Ferdinand Fairfax’s action comedy Savage Islands (aka Nate & Hayes) as assistant costume designer. It was pirates, good fun. The HODs all came in from elsewhere, but there was a large number of local crew – including Lee Tamahori and Tim Coddington as ADs.
What’s changed since those days?
We’ve grown up – probably in a good way. In the 80s it was all great unity and collaboration. We’re more professional now.
In the old days on Larry Parr’s dramas we wouldn’t fit extras in advance, just dress them on the day and pin and clip them into whatever collection of gear we’d brought.
We spent a lot of time scouring op shops for period clothes. We had to hire in a lot from Angels in London. It took a long time – and a third of the budget just disappeared on shipping. We would make a percentage of the costumes here, but they’d often disappear. That was part of the reason I set up Across the Board, so there’d be a collection of period costume that could be rented or at least used for reference.
Most of the fabrics are still imported, of course. I spend a lot of time keeping up to date with what’s available. With the internet we can also see what’s available around the world – fabrics or finished costumes – and source very quickly.
Much of the fabrics industry is now more automated and based in China, while a generation ago it was India. In the era of Hercules and Xena the Indian fabrics were great for costume designers. They had lower thread counts than what we’d often get here. We could shape and dye and age them much more easily.
We can also print fabrics very quickly now, and do that digitally in New Zealand. We used to have to screen-print, which was a slow and labour-intensive process.
Back in the day designers would do a line drawing, maybe with a colour wash if we knew what colours a director wanted. Now we use a digital model of the actual actor’s body and map the costume straight on to it. We can accurately reproduce fabrics so the director gets to see exactly what they’ll get.
I love the challenges from the technical side. Once you’ve designed for look, you get to start all over again to get the costumes able to do what they have to. All our costumes for Ash vs Evil have to stretch. Now we can get cottons with 3% spandex, which is enough to give us the stretch we need. You can dye them and the colour remains consistent across the cotton and spandex which 10 years ago it wasn’t. We had the denim woven in Italy and then coloured.
Do you have regular collaborators?
My right hand and brain Olivia Dobson. We’re sisters in arms. We first met on Bridge to Terabithia, when I was costume designer and Dobson was a runner in the wardrobe department.
Olivia’s usually my assistant designer or wardrobe supervisor now.
How about Ash?
It’s a good fun show to do, always a rollicking good ride, but not without its challenges – many of which revolve around the amount of blood and guts the show spreads around. That was the main impact on the costumes, so there are a lot of repeats. Each episode has its own block of costumes.
The first season was very much a learning curve: how do we do blood so it looks great but is manageable?
We used to have to wrap the costumes in plastic to try to preserve them, but the blood would change colour and the ants would get at them. The actors eventually said no to the stickiness of the costumes!
We also make maps, so blood can be applied consistently across a number of instances of a costume. It creates more work for the standby team but we get it right.
The second season of Starz’s Ash Vs Evil Dead screens from October.
Keith is the editor of SCREENZ, and the co-creator and founding editor of CREWED.