Carmen Poulten on ScreenSkills' Film Forward programme

Carmen Poulten on ScreenSkills' Film Forward programme

The Film Forward initiative is designed to create change in the UK film industry by supporting experienced Black, Asian or minority ethnic professionals to advance into more senior roles.

Carmen is stepping up from costume supervisor to costume designer.

When Carmen Poulten first heard about ScreenSkills’ new Film Forward scheme for mid-career professionals, she knew it was the perfect opportunity to explore the leap into costume design.

The 49-year-old has enjoyed an impressive two-part career – first as a stylist for top flight magazines, including the Mail on Sunday’s You and women’s titles She and Company.

As a teenager she had always loved playing about with clothes – shopping from second-hand markets and jumble sales. “Even at school, I remember having a man’s suit and making the trousers into a pair of shorts for myself.”

Carmen continued in magazines for 20 years, before taking a career break to raise her children, now in their teens and early twenties.

And then she was hit by the urge to switch to working in costume for film and TV. “I knew I wasn’t going back into editorial fashion; it’s very much a different business now. And I had this sense that in TV and film you can just keep going, whereas in fashion you have a shelf life, really.”

She was lucky enough to land a job straight away on EastEnders after meeting a costume designer at a friend’s barbecue, who mentioned a job was available on the show. “She gave me a number to call and I ended up speaking to the actual head of department. I’m glad I didn’t know it before I rang, because I would have procrastinated, but the chat was lovely and she said, ‘come in’.”

Carmen started in the laundry room and worked her way up over four years to costume supervisor. Of the role, she says: “I love how you know everything from start to finish, you read all the scripts and go through the shooting order, you have all of the knowledge to ask the questions of your team. It’s about having the overview.”

She adds: “I like the pressure, the fast pace and the buzz of being on the floor. It’s this whole energy, this problem-solving environment - as much as you try to plan you still can’t ever be complacent.”

Learning largely on the job, Carmen quickly progressed through the ranks while simultaneously taking ScreenSkills courses on the side: “I realised I really enjoy the learning process, I love throwing myself into new situations, and I learned my trade by watching others. I did lots of courses on managing your time, on budgets and health and safety and the business end of things. I just wanted as much info as I could get.”

More recently, she has worked as core standby on Sky’s The Rising and I Hate Suzie, and on feature films The Souvenir and Rare Beasts, as well as Netflix series Bridgerton and ITV’s Deep Heat.

She is currently standby on a new Netflix film: “It’s always been in my mind to move from TV to film. I guess I’m quite driven and want to move on.”

Film Forward is giving her the opportunity to step up: “I’m all fired up, maybe because I have my time back now my kids are older. I love film because it’s so immersive and I just want to be part of the creative process. On set, I get goosebumps. I get emotionally invested in creating something so beautiful, which takes people away from their daily worries.”

Film’s bigger budgets also appeal to someone enthralled by the drama of costume – “it’s the whole process of it looking very simple on screen but an incredible amount of work goes on behind the scenes”.

The plan is to find a Film Forward placement as a costume design assistant and learn more about the different positions that surround costume design: “When I started out, I didn’t know there even was a pathway or what it was. By talking to people, getting to know people, I’m finding out all these other roles.

“That’s why I think Film Forward is so good, because if I could get in as a costume design assistant or one of the jobs that supports that, it would give me more of an insight into which role suits me. It’s setting me on a journey to be able to work out what I want and giving me the space to do it.”

Another motivation is becoming something of a role model for others to follow. Carmen, who is of Jamaican heritage, born in Wales and raised in London, says: “On most jobs I can’t see anyone like myself. And then it’s the little things that come from a lack of diversity on the floor, like finding nipple shields for an actor of colour, or a dark bra or tights. Flesh tone in the past has meant paler skin. I’ve been able to help with things like that, which feels significant.”

While the current drive for diversity is to be applauded, she says Film Forward means she will also have the resources to ensure she succeeds: “It’s OK to fill a space with a black person, but if you’re not equipped with the skills you’re being set up to fail. You’ve got to have a support network. This is where Film Forward comes in.

“I do think about the people that come after – you know, you should do this because you can employ people that look like you. But doing it through Film Forward it feels less pressured, like you are being given the opportunity and the time to grow.”

Film Forward is delivered by ScreenSkills supported by the BFI with National Lottery funds as part of its Future Film Skills strategy.  

CV summary

A former editorial fashion stylist for women’s magazines, Carmen Poulten has worked in the screen industries for the past six years, moving swiftly through the ranks to costume supervisor and principal artist core standby on EastEnders. Other roles include costume designer for one-off Channel 4 comedy Halfbreed, as well as core standby on Sky’s The Rising and I Hate Suzie, and feature films The Souvenir and Rare Beasts, Netflix series Bridgerton and ITV’s Deep Heat. She describes herself as proactive and open-minded, thriving on the fast pace of the film and TV industries: “I care about getting the job done and achieving the highest possible standards while maintaining a positive and calm environment.”

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