20 Questions with Amelia Zontini

  1. What’s your name?

Amelia Zontini

  1. What do you do?

It depends! In the commercial world I am a Wardrobe Stylist, but in the Film/TV world I either head up a department as a Costume Designer or assist the costume team as a Key/Set Costumer. Most projects require that you wear many hats, and it’s important to have great organizational, sewing and people skills.

  1. How would you describe the duties of your job?

My job entails many layers of duties. As a stylist, I collaborate with the director, the client, and the talent to translate the project’s message for the screen. This involves extensive research, creating vision boards, communicating with the talent (especially if they are to provide some of their own wardrobe), and coordinating with the other creative departments like makeup, hair and production design in order to bring the client’s vision to life. Costume design is awesome and rewarding but requires great imagination, discipline, knowledge in clothing construction and solid leadership skills. As a Set Costumer, my main goal is to act as an extension of the designer and to provide excellent support to my team. In most cases, I am the last person to “touch,” adjust and tweak an actor’s clothing before the camera rolls. It’s important for a costumer to understand the value of her/his relationship with the talent; placing clothing on an actor is a personal and intimate responsibility. A costumer can provide immense support to the talent and the production if she/he handles herself respectfully. In addition to dressing talent, a Set Costumer resolves all on-set costume malfunctions, provides actors with appropriate outerwear for exterior, on-location filming (rain, snow and sun), and maintains costume continuity for all of the principal and background talent (most shows do not film in scene sequence order!).

  1. How did you get your start in the business?

A year after graduating from Virginia Tech with a Theatre Arts degree, I returned home to Virginia Beach and sought out an acting-for-camera class. The instructor, Antonio Zarro, also worked as a Producer at a local production company. One day, he offered any interested student an opportunity to work as a P.A. on his upcoming shoot. My hand shot up immediately to volunteer and then I asked, “What is a P.A.?” For two years I worked as a Production Assistant at various production companies throughout the Hampton Roads area, always looking for my niche in the world of TV and film. By the time I discovered my passion in costumes, I had the great advantage of understanding the overall goals of a functioning, working set. In 2003, working as a Set Costumer at New Dominion Pictures, I joined the professional union, I.A.T.S.E. (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) and shortly after was offered my first job on a TV pilot called, “Line of Fire.” It’s important to mention here that when I interviewed for the position, I had no union, professional credits on my resume. The supervisor told me that it was my attitude and energy on the phone that persuaded her to hire me.

  1. What is the best advice you ever received about the film business?

Don’t run, walk with intention. On many levels I encourage folks beginning their career in this business to respect each step forward and up. What makes me great at what I do comes from the life experiences I’ve encountered in the field. Wisdom and patience will advance you. Don’t rush; appreciate every step and every relationship formed along the way.

  1. What are your thoughts on film school vs. on the set training?

If there’s anything that this industry has shown me it’s that if you are meant to be successful in it, you will be. Film school can educate you, but set training will define you.

  1. What three things are essential parts of your “kit”?

My job requires that I remain hands-free at all times for up-to-the-last-second adjustments, so my critical piece of equipment is my tool belt. It holds needles and thread, double-sided tape, both fabric and paper scissors, a seam ripper, safety pins, head lamp, lint brush and a small multi tool. In addition to my tool belt, I keep my dirt and distressing kit near me at all times; equipped with various colors of makeup dirt plus sand paper, hard bristle brushes and a cheese grater.

  1. What are three tricks of your trade?

(1)Greet co-workers with a smile and a hello, (2) when my designer is on set, I position myself right next to her/him for support and execution, and (3) pre-thread your needles.

  1. What’s the most misunderstood aspect of your job?

Clothing can weigh more than you think!

  1. In your position, what are a few of the key considerations when shooting on film vs. digital?

When shooting with either, I still follow the rule of thumb; what the camera doesn’t see, doesn’t exist. For example, if we are in the close-up coverage of a scene, an actor may opt to wear comfort shoes. What I’m learning with digital, though, is that in post-production it’s possible to zoom the image in and out. I discovered this little nugget of information on the set of “Wish You Well.” Ellen Burstyn was wearing her comfort shoes when the director called her to the set, in a rush to add an additional set-up with camera. I noticed in the shot that you could read the Ugg label on the back of her boot, besides the fact that the boots were not the right style for the time period (1940’s). When I brought it to the director’s attention, her response was not to worry; she could crop it out in post if needed.

When collaborating with the Director of Photography, I am more concerned about the lighting design and if the use of filters will have any adverse effect on how the clothing looks on camera. On every project I work on, I make it my mission to watch the monitor at every rehearsal and throughout the multiple takes. It’s the best way to stay on top of what is ultimately recorded.

  1. What do you see as the biggest difference between an Indie set and a Hollywood set?

Experience. Perhaps some will say budgets, but I’d start with the level of experience of the crew. Yes, the budget will dictate the size of your department and what can be achieved in the design. Most independent projects will consist of experienced department heads and key players but will function as a learning set for those looking to expand their resumes and build on their field experience. Personally, I believe you will benefit from working on every type of budgeted project, and if you’re a newbie, say yes to every project you feel impelled to be a part of, regardless of the money.

  1. Paper or plastic?

Years ago, I created an initiative to bring awareness to green filmmaking, called Project GREENScreen. I’ve seen advances made to promote recycling and energy conservation on set, and it’s very encouraging. On the set of “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” crew and cast were given stainless steel bottles that we refilled from coolers located by set, and signs were displayed to remind folks to turn off lights when they left a room unattended. On location, cast and crew pay respect and practice awareness of the privilege we’ve earned to film in the historical places we go. We follow the rule to always leave a location better than we found it. At the end of the day, most of us work where we sleep, and we strive to act as ambassadors of good will in our community.

  1. Union or non-Union?

If you plan to continue to work as a professional in this industry and wish to gain benefits from it like health insurance and retirement income, then you must join the union. Working in Virginia is your right, but working in the film and television industry is your privilege.

  1. What was your funniest moment on set?

I laugh often on set, as it’s my personal rule to never take the stress of the situation too seriously. We are creating drama, not living by it. But, the funniest moment I can recall is from the set of “John Adams.” I was assigned to the principal actors sitting next to Paul Giamatti, and it just so happened that the Executive Producer’s (Tom Hanks) sons were on set that day to play as background talent. Mr. Hanks walked up to me with snacks and a drink in hand for his youngest (a lovely boy of 9 who wanted to be a scientist, not an Extra dressed in an 18th century suit). He shook my hand, introducing himself as Tom and asked if I didn’t mind looking after his son on set, and I happily agreed….As we looked over to find Truman, both hands grabbing the sides of a giant air-conditioning duct, his head fully inserted into it, with his wig half-flapping in the breeze.

  1. Set safety is a hot button these days. What are your thoughts on the subject?

Two words: Sarah Jones. Her story and the stories of the brave crew members of “Midnight Rider” will forever be engraved in my heart; brothers and sisters unite. Never, ever should the demands of a project put its people in direct danger and life-threatening situations, nor should producers create an environment that forces crew to risk their safety in order to complete a shooting schedule. Unfortunately, the general demands of any film or television project can create a physically demanding and emotionally challenging work environment due to extremely long work days (12-18hrs/day), lack of sleep (9hr turn arounds from wrap to call time), and weather conditions (ie. filming outside at 3AM in falling snow on a set of rubble and rock). Those of us who have been in the trenches learn how to watch for signs of dehydration and sleep deprivation but aren’t always willing to speak up for concern of not being seen as a team player. I will tell you, I am changing my tune. When I dress someone in the morning, I remind them to take care, to be vocal regarding any threatening situations, to find someone with a headset and they will alert the medic ASAP. We are family, and we must look out for each other. Silence is acceptance.

  1. What’s the most memorable location you’ve shot in?

We were 25 miles off the coast of Virginia, stationed on the USS Truxton, filming “Captain Phillips.” On that particular shoot, the actors assigned to me were the four pirates (awesome, awesome individuals), and I found myself in the most fantastic spaces, not discounting the cramped, hot orange lifeboat that I hid in with them, in order to maintain their sweat continuity.

  1. Is there location you’ve always wanted to work?

Most of my professional, industry experience has been in my home state, Virginia. I have had a backstage pass to the most exquisite locations; plantations, museums, historical homes, the Capital, inside a fake presidential motorcade, the Shenandoah Valley (from Fall into Winter), the Atlantic Ocean. Virginia holds many treasures, and I look forward to discovering more as I grow within my craft. But I will say, if one day a project allows me to explore my Italian heritage on-location in Italy, it will be hard for me to decline the offer!

  1. What are three things you want every film set newbie to know?

(1) You are part of a team, and no team member is insignificant,

(2) Ask questions! It’s important to not only understand what happens within a department but why the choices are made in the first place, and

(3) Purchase quality shoes and rain gear (I now wear stylish orthopedic shoes and compression socks)!

  1. What’s the title of your most recent project?

PBS’ “Mercy Street”

  1. What’s next?

I find myself in an interesting stage in my life. As a woman and a newlywed, practicing a positive life/work balance has become my mantra. Film work is all-encompassing and it requires your complete commitment, so I have had to strategically take a step back from full-time employment while I look to start a family. It’s been mostly an immense practice in Faith, as others will tell you, the life of a professional, freelancing “gypsy” can feel daunting, especially at picture wrap. I remain grateful for the gifts and Grace shown to me along my journey. Interestingly enough, stepping back has opened many more doors for me, and while I continue to dayplay on the big-budget sets, this new chapter allows me time to focus on my passion for acting, styling and refurbishing, restoring vintage and heirloom jewelry pieces. I believe life is what you make of it, but it’s through kindness and an openness of heart that we can achieve our grandest goals. Dream big.

Categories: Career Building

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