23rd December 2020
Poppy Moorcroft was unaware costume design even existed when she was at university. But she has since made it her career, thanks to ScreenSkills support on productions including the recent BBC series Small Axe starring John Boyega, Letitia Wright and Micheal Ward among others.
Steve McQueen’s series of period dramas, about the real-life experiences of London’s West Indian community from the 1960s to 80s, won rave reviews and proved to be a key stepping stone for Poppy as she made the transition from assistant to assistant designer through the High-end TV Skills Fund Make A Move programme.
Working closely alongside the show’s experienced costume designer, Lisa Duncan, she gained valuable insights into the role of costume designer. They had previously worked together on the musical Been So Long when Poppy was a ScreenSkills Film Trainee Finder trainee.
“Lisa created mood boards for each of the characters in the script and then I did the same for the supporting artist characters, such as the Mangrove customers and Notting Hill passers-by,” Poppy says. “Creating my own mood boards was an important step in understanding the design process and it helped me to visualise the costumes we were looking to create.”
During her time on the production, she visited and worked with a number of costume hire houses, spent time pulling rails of clothing and, because costume stock for the era was low, also helped the team scout vintage shops and markets in London and Manchester for clothes.
“It was helpful to shadow Lisa when shopping as I soon came to understand how she made decisions,” she says. “Sometimes we would find garments that were incredible, but too expensive for our working-class characters. We had to consider how much the garment would have cost when originally sold and whether our character could afford this piece.”
Poppy also then assisted with fittings, including the challenge of late castings. . “What I found most interesting was how Lisa coped when the costume fittings didn’t go to plan,” says Poppy, who then used her learnings when fitting supporting artists. “Class, race and age of the character and the season and location of the scene were all important factors in knowing what a person should wear.”
Watching McQueen in action also proved to be an inspiration. “He was so chilled out on set but knew exactly what he wanted and was very hands-on in getting things and making sure the scenes were right,” says Poppy.
The Make a Move programme is open to productions that pay into the High-end TV Skills Fund. They receive financial support to employ and train individuals into higher grades. The subsidy is flexible and can be used to cover salaries, mentoring or other expenses such as attending short courses.
It can be a useful follow-up to ScreenSkills’ Trainee Finder course, for those taking their first steps into film and TV, as was the case for Poppy who landed a role through the scheme on Disney’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“I couldn’t quite believe my luck,” says Poppy, who was born and raised in Coventry where she also went to university. “I remember vividly the first few weeks working on the production because I was put with the creature costume team. We would help the actors get into the costume and work with the creature FX team who were in charge of the animatronic heads and body parts. Seeing the creatures come together was actually insane.”
She ended up staying on the film for six months, dressing crowd, organising costumes, helping with fittings and supporting the crowd team on set. “I was being mentored by some of the most experienced people in the industry,” she adds. The opportunity with ScreenSkills, then known as Creative Skillset, had come at the recommendation of renowned costume designer, Jane Petrie.
Poppy had previously done six weeks of work experience with Jane on the film Suffragette, while in her second year of studying costume for performance in London in 2012. The placement, during prep and a couple of days of filming, involved helping make some of the costumes and organising costumes from hire houses, which gave her a great taster of what was expected and to come.
“At that point, I had no idea what I was meant to be doing and tried my best to observe and follow others. Luckily the team were so lovely and taught me about set etiquette and what their role was,” explains Poppy. “Jane then told me about ScreenSkills when I left university and I was accepted onto the Trainee Finder scheme.”
Poppy’s incredible experience on Star Wars instilled high standards in her work and set her up for what was to come. Soon after ScreenSkills placed her on two more productions through Trainee Finder, Gwen and Been so Long, where she met Lisa Duncan, who also helped Poppy to step up to costume assistant on the Channel 4 series Chimerica.
“ScreenSkills have been amazing. They were able to make all these step-ups happen, including on the series Deep State through the Make A Move course, where I moved from trainee to assistant,” says Poppy. “I think getting these credits on my CV would have been much more difficult or perhaps would have happened much further down the line.”
Overall, she found the Make a Move training improved her confidence and understanding of many aspects of the department. “I’ve realised that as you step up in the department and gain more responsibility, you are required to make fast-paced decisions that are fundamental to the final outcome of the costume design and the costume team as a whole.”
Poppy moved from Small Axe to be a costume standby on season two of Hera Pictures’ TV series Temple, which is shooting at an abandoned old brewery site in Mortlake, south-west London, working alongside designer Rachel Walsh, who she worked with on Deep State. “The contacts that I’ve made on previous jobs have always helped me, and I always tell trainees about the Make a Move scheme because I do believe it was instrumental in helping me find work and ScreenSkills has supported me the entire way.”
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