We’re ending Amy Finnegan’s Not in the Script launch party week with a bang, folks! Today we’re getting a peek behind the scenes of the hit show Parks and Recreation.
One of the many wonderful things about Amy’s novel is how authentic the TV setting feels, which comes from very specific and well-placed details. In order to make sure these details were as accurate as possible, Amy enlisted the help of her brother, Tyler, who works on the Fox studio lot. He answered countless questions, took Amy on lots of on-set tours, and introduced Amy to a Parks and Recreation crew member, Rachel Parkin. At first, Rachel was brought into the loop to be a second set of fact-checking eyes for the manuscript, but once she read the novel, Rachel and Amy became fast friends.
It’s Rachel’s contribution to her manuscript that Amy credits as being critical for its success, and so we’re thrilled to now introduce you to Rachel Parkin, a set costumer for the hit show Parks and Rec.
Rachel Parkin in the Parks and Recreation Costumes trailer.
JCB: I love Parks and Rec! Could you first explain for us what you do as a set costumer and what a typical day of work at Parks and Rec is like for you?
RP: Thanks for inviting me to talk a little about my job. First of all I have to say Kirston Mann, the Costume Designer for Parks and Rec, does an amazing job of putting together the looks you see the characters wear each week on the show.
As a set costumer, my job begins after the clothes have been shopped, chosen, fit, and altered (yes, pretty much everything you see on camera has been altered to fit each actor perfectly, even when it’s purchased at a regular store that the general public shops at).
Set costumers work directly with the actors. We are one of the first crew members to arrive at set early in the morning, and one of the last to leave. All of the costumes worn on film for the day have to be prepped and set in the actor’s trailers. We provide everything for the actors, from undergarments and socks to jewelry and purses. TV shows aren’t filmed in order so it’s important to keep things organized and know what an actor wears for what scene.
Besides making sure the actors are wearing the correct costume for each scene, it’s important to make sure the continuity matches while we’re filming. What I mean by that is: If Ron Swanson has his polo shirt tucked in and sleeves down for a particular scene, I make sure he keeps it that way each time we film that particular script day!
Parks and Recreation Costume Rack
JCB: Where do costume departments get all of the costumes?
RP: Depending on the needs of the Film or TV project, costumes are purchased, rented, or custom made. Besides just showing up at the mall and shopping our hearts out, a lot of the clothing stores in Los Angeles offer what’s called “studio service”. They allow productions to borrow clothing from the stores for a few days in order to do fittings with the actors and get approval from directors and producers. We’ll then return anything that didn’t make the cut and won’t be used on the show.
There are also huge warehouses full of costumes called costume rental houses. You can find anything from contemporary clothing to medieval costumes to futuristic attire. Some rental houses specialize in certain things such as period military uniforms or highly styled runway attire to be used when styling print work for magazines, etc.
There are also some amazingly skilled patternmakers and cutter/fitters that make any costume sketch on paper into a real working garment. Film productions have more time to build entire wardrobes for characters, so most costumes in film are sourced that way. When I worked on the Disney film “Tron Legacy” all of those suits that lit up had to be constructed. There’s no ‘Light up futuristic costume’ store around to shop at.
On Parks and Rec we only have 5 days to prep for each episode, so it’s a lot of shopping and renting with a seamstress doing alterations. But sometimes things have to be custom made. In season 6 we did an episode where Leslie Knope had to do a press conference in a lime green suit. Because it was such a specific gag, the suit had to be made from scratch.
A Hollywood Costume Warehouse
JCB: Do you have a story about the most unusual place you found/acquired a costume?
RP: I was working on a film with costume designer Christopher Lawrence where an actress had to go through hours of hair and makeup in order to make her look ugly. One of the things she had to do was wear a wig that made it look like her hair was thin and falling out. One of the days we were filming we found out last minute that there wasn’t time for her to go through the entire wigging processes. To solve the problem we needed a hat to cover the fact that she wasn’t wigged. Christopher looked at the hat I was wearing and it was perfect to solve our problem! Talk about giving the coat off your own back!
Racks and racks of every kind of costume.
JCB: Have you worked on other shows, and if so, how do the experiences compare?
RP: I’ve worked on many different shows. I categorize them in three different ways: Single Camera Dramas, Single Camera Comedies, and Multi Camera shows. Despite the term “single camera” there are usually two or three cameras filming at the same time. Single camera shows are filmed on stage or on location. Examples of Single Camera shows I’ve worked on would be: “Parks and Rec”, “Heroes”, “Parenthood”, “Switched at Birth”, and “New Girl”.
Multi camera shows are what you think of when someone says the term “Three walled sitcom”. These are filmed with four cameras at the same time on a set (with three walls) and are filmed like a play, in order, in front of a live studio audience. Examples of multi camera shows I’ve worked on would be: “Melissa and Joey” and “The Exes”.
All three types of shows have their pros and cons for a set costumer. Single Camera Drama episodes are generally filmed in 7 days, have longer hours (I averaged 70 hrs a week when I worked on “Heroes”), but a lot of times the shows will have more interesting and involved costumes or stunts that makes it really fun to work on.
Single Camera Comedies are generally filmed in 5 days, have decent hours (decent for the film business that is, I usually average 50 hrs a week on these types of shows), and since it’s a comedy it’s fun to watch the scenes being filmed and laugh. Honestly, on Parks and Rec we have a great time!
Multi camera shows are fun to work on because of the energy you feed off from the live studio audience. It brings me back to my theatre days!
On the set of Parks and Recreation (Steve Morantz, Emmy-winning sound mixer)
JCB: I would be hard-pressed to do my job as a writer without my computer, books for reference and inspiration, and a notebook to doodle/brainstorm in. I also need patience, courage, and a sense of humor. What might a set costumer’s toolkit consist of?
RP: Number one tool, Organization! When you see the inside of a costume trailer you’ll understand why organization is key. Other tools would include creativity, innovativeness, basic sewing skills, and being able to go with the flow. You’ve probably heard how filming is a lot of “Hurry up and wait” and plans can change quickly, so it’s good to be able to just go with the flow and problem solve. I was on a TV pilot once where the director requested a 1970’s style bathrobe for one of our main characters to wear. No big deal, except he requested it 30min. before we were to shoot that scene!
The costumes trailer follows the production wherever it goes.
JCB: Are there any items you regularly use that might be unexpected to people unfamiliar with your line of work?
RP: We use A LOT of safety pins (not necessarily for pinning clothes, but for pinning the manila change tags to the outfits to keep everything organized). The other item we use a lot of is Top Stick. To the general public it’s called fashion tape. It’s pretty much just double stick toupee tape.
JCB: As writers, it can be hard to turn off our “writer brain” when we’re reading or hearing stories created by others. Do you have this problem when watching other TV shows or movies? What sorts of things do you notice?
RP: I love seeing the nuances in how a character’s personality comes through their clothes. We learn a lot of information very quickly about a character by what they’re wearing. In contemporary film and TV I love noticing how things are styled in order to accomplish that communication.
JCB: Since Parks and Rec is a comedy, do you have any funny anecdotes about working on the show to share?
RP: Parks and Rec is now in it’s 7th season and most of the cast and crew has been with the show since the beginning. As you can imagine we’ve become a TV family. It’s always fun to laugh and joke together. I don’t want to bore you with all of the fun and pranks that are played, but I’ll just drop one word, Whoopie Cushion.
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