Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Interview: Leslie and Deborah - Part 1

I am really excited to have both these lovely ladies take the time for this interview. I felt that their experiences would be something that would be of interest to our cosplay community. A kind of back stage pass if you will to how the costumes are created for the shows many of us watch.

This will also be our first of a multi-part interview. Due to the complexity of answers, it would be too long of a blog for one shot. I think the wealth of knowledge that both Leslie and Deborah posses is astonishing.

When I first started this interview, I was not aware of the various roles involved with making the costumes for Film and TV. I mistakenly thought that they were Costume Designers, but in fact are actually Cutters. Here is how they broke it down for me and thought it worth repeating here.

The 'Costume Designer' position is hired by the Production Company to oversee the entire Costume Department – its designs, budgets, personnel and daily on set function.

In fact in the vernacular of the film industry our position is that known as 'Cutter'. For the laymen readers, a Cutter is essentially in charge of interpreting or identifying what the Costume Designer wants. We then use the measurements given to draft a pattern, cut out the fabric and instruct all the seamstresses on the construction techniques. Often we need to estimate how long each process will take and how much of each of the materials will be required.

With this educational lesson out of the way, lets get to the interview :D

What are your names and where do you reside?

Leslie Cairns - Burnaby, BC, Canada
Deborah Gyug - North Vancouver, BC, Canada

What first started you both on the road to your current profession?

Deb: I started at a very young age to have an interest in clothing, and fashion and sewing and all things textile. My first project was an embroidery sampler I received for my 4th birthday and completed by my 5th. My mother truly thought someone was “nuts” to give such a present to a four year old – but I was hooked. After high school I took a three year Clothing Design Diploma at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto. I graduated in 1976 and have been employed in the clothing and fashion industry and ultimately film ever since.

Fashion is my Passion – and the Story-telling of film was always of great interest to me. In 1992 I made contact with some individuals working in the film industry here in Vancouver. Vancouver was all ‘a buzz’ then with this fairly ‘new’ to the city industry and I wanted to see how that could involve ME!

The rest is, as they say, history. My first film contract was re-creating a pair of bespoke trousers for Roger Moore and I have been fully employed ever since. At a rough count I have produced well over 2 million dollars worth of film wardrobe – in labour alone. I love it – but it can be a tough industry with very high expectations.

Over to you Leslie.

It was my 11th birthday when I received my first sewing machine. It was a Kenmore and it did this fancy stitch call a zig-zag. I didn’t know what that was, but, it was a machine and I was truly ‘diggin’ it. No bit of fabric was sacred anymore and I was soon banned from the linen closet. I’m thinking they probably wanted to ban me from school based on the memories I have of some of my earliest creations which I proudly strutted around in.
After high school I took a course in fashion design at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario.

I was unable to find work in Kingston in the fashion industry and it wasn’t until I moved to Vancouver, that I started working in the clothing industry as a production manager at a hat factory and then a designers assistant at a local ready to wear womens’ wear company. It was there that I decided to go back to school again with my focus on pattern drafting.

Two years later, I was designing snowboard and ski-wear for Quiksilver Canada. I was not enchanted there and started working at the Vancouver Opera. I did many shows at the Opera and other local theatre companies as a Cutter and then one day got a call to work on a TV show and then shortly after that a movie…. The rest is history. I’ve been busy ever since with short stints, contracts, a full season as Cutter on the Lone Gunman as well as a 4 year stint as Head Cutter on Andromeda.

Machinery still turns my crank and I now have a workshop full of specialty sewing machines.

I saw the MASSIVE LIST of TV Shows and Movies you did. If I included all the ones that I loved, I think this would be a novel. But due to time and space, we would not be able to do that (sorry everyone). 

One that got my attention right away was that you did G-Saviour (for those that are not into Gundam, this was actually a live action movie). Can you let us know what you worked on for this movie?

Deb: Well Dan, I worked on G-Saviour way back in 1998? Or 1999? I was hired as Cutter for the workshop and as I remember we made a lot of uniforms!…and a very special series of leather flight-suits. I can recall the trapunto quilting that was featured on the chest plate. I clearly remember using the rough logo artwork and then figuring out how to translate that into an image we could sew. There was a red gown for a woman, and lots of futuristic pantsuits.

I also remember that it was Christmas time. So somewhere during that gig of 12-hour days I cooked dinner for 10 and wrapped gifts for friends and family. In fact I remember best driving through blowing snow on the last evening shopping night to buy groceries to cook for a traditional festive dinner. I bought the last onion and last stick of celery in a giant supermarket. And no one was left in the store! After working on costumes for a future world all day – I thought I must be living in a dystopian new world order!

I fondly remember Andromeda which was watched by myself and my wife. Can you let us know how it was to work on that project for such a long period of time and what it meant to be the ‘Head Cutter’?

Leslie:  Andromeda was one of those magical shows for me. It was ten km from my home and I rode my bike every day. When I got to work I got cleaned up and went to catering where Soren, the most amazing cook would whip me up the high protein breakfast of my choice. Our costume department was really quite large and had lots of south facing windows, so it was bright and cheerful through most of the day. Everyone from accounting to costumes and props, to set decoration, production, and all the sets, were all in the same building. We all ate breakfast and lunch together, and really got to know each other. We were more like a big family, in a weird way.

Working on a show with this volume could be stressful at times, but the team was so fantastic that we always pulled together and got the work done in time for camera. Being ‘Head Cutter’ meant that all the work for the workshop flowed through me. The designer came to me to discuss her designs and I would then decide who would do which aspects. I always did the cast leads and cast day players and the other cutter would usually do the background costumes. Over the 4 seasons, the shop had as few as two people to as many as 10 people. There was even a time at the very end when I was the only person in the shop at all.

This show operated on what was called a seven day shooting schedule, which meant that every seven days there was a new script and a new episode to work on. The script would come down from the production office. Then designer and her assistant would do what’s called a script breakdown, where they decide what new costumes need to be added and how many of each they will need. The designer then goes to work drawing up sketches and finally brings them to me. This process would usually take several days. That means our seven-day prep time is now 5 days. Now I have the designs… but guess what? …the producers haven’t cast the actor yet, so I have no sizes. Now, we have two choices, which I evaluate based on the design difficulty: I can either start the pattern guessing at the sizes, or I can wait it out until I get the sizes.

Meanwhile, if there are aspects of the costume that aren’t size dependent, we start those. I also start working out how we will deal with the fabrication issues for the chosen fabrics; whether they will need stabilizers or not, and if so, which ones work best, what types of components will function best, etc. We would usually end up with between 1and 4 days to draft, cut and construct the costumes. The actors or actresses would usually fly into town the night before camera, which meant that the costume HAD to fit and function as it was…talk about stress. Fortunately, in the 4 years that I worked on that show, I never held up camera with a costume that didn’t work. I did literally hundreds and hundreds of costumes with only a final fitting just before walking onto set. I call that success…and a bit of good luck!

The show was incredibly creative to work on because it was a lower budget production. The designer often found fabrics and bits for us to use that were to be re-purposed. It was always a fun challenge trying to figure out how to make that kitchen gadget look like it was something else and hopefully even make it function as something else. My favorite things to do were the leather pieces. I love working in leather because every single hide has a different weight and feel to it and you have to decide what method of construction best suits the piece and the design.

The show and my position there finished with the end of the 5th season. It was a sad day when that show ended, but….onto Stargate!

Here ends our 1st installment of our interview with Leslie and Deborah. To say this is just the tip of the iceberg is an understatement.


  1. Thanks for the great interview! The Andromeda Pic you've got up there is from the 1st season... The only season I wasn't there. I like to think the costumes got better after that...lol. Leslie

    1. It was fun interviewing bot you and Deborah. I can only imagine that they did with you on board. I have updated the picture to be of Season 3 now :D

      btw, DC sends this along (my co-writer on the blog):

      "3 Cheers for Our Web-Master Dan for presenting these 2 "FINE" Ladies involved in the industry. And 2 more to them too. I can't wait for the rest of their interview. Your stories for how you got there is a TRIP!""


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