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IFTA Q&A Series: Joanne O’Brien on Costume Design
18 Apr 2024 : Luke Shanahan
Lies We Tell
To mark the 21st anniversary of the IFTA awards, we are showcasing Irish talent who are blazing a trail across our industry, working in front of and behind the camera.

Hosted in association with IFTA, this Q&A Series connects with Irish talent who represent a range of disciplines across our industry.

We find out about their approach to craft, working on the projects they’ve been nominated for, and the best piece of advice they’ve been given in their career.

Joanne O’Brien is IFTA-nominated for Best Costume Design for Lies We Tell. The film is nominated for 13 IFTA Awards overall, including Best Film. O’Brien’s most recent credits include Sunlight and Let the Wrong One In.

IFTN: How has your approach to the work evolved since you began in the industry and what have you learned?

JOANNE: “As weird as it may sound I have never seen my job as work, but opportunity! I have been hungry for my job before it was my job. I’ve always been attracted to clothing, and have been secretly squirrelling away knowledge for winter my whole life.”

“I get into projects and there is a cycle of stamina, commitment, inspiration, perspiration, knowledge, learning and creative problem solving. I really do have to push through all emotions, including pain, but I end up with a baby and somehow I forget the pain! My approach to my work has not changed since I began in the industry, but everyday I learn and I hope I never stop!”

IFTN: How do you collaborate with the director and other HODs to ensure that the costumes complement the overall vision of the production?

JOANNE: “My work is entirely a collaborative endeavour. I begin with conversations with the director to try to understand their vision. By now I have read any draft scripts and writers cannot be forgotten here! Then I will give my input and follow up with many moodboards over and back.  I always try to have meetings with all the design teams and meet with HODs of makeup, hair and production design.”

“Furthermore, I like to push for camera tests so I can see how the DOP intends to light the shoot.  It's important that I see how the colours of the costume reacts to the lighting and lenses the DOP has chosen.”

IFTN: In this project, how did you go about reflecting the personalities of the characters in the costume design?

JOANNE: “The characters were restricted within the boundary of the period, but also by the rules of mourning. My challenge was to multilayer black in an interesting way, but also to also carve out characters within that strict and narrow confinement. I have found my carbonara improves every time I take an ingredient out! It's a similar process. I tried to really refine my choices to what I felt the character would wear and choose. I suppose it's a matter of trying to get into the mind of the character, in a way, to truly and authentically bring them to life. It's a process I like to undertake with the actor, and I'm grateful for their input and participation here.”

IFTN: How do you source and select materials for costumes, and what factors do you consider when choosing fabrics and other materials?

JOANNE: “I source fabrics and materials online and in-person. I have flown to warehouses, if the budget allows and if I feel the need to do so for the project. However, I am environmentally conscious and aware so therefore always keep sustainability in mind. Selfishly, my first commitment tends to be to the project, however. I do my utmost to be as minimal to impacting the environment negatively as I can be.”

IFTN: Were there any unique creative challenges that this project presented, and if so, how did you overcome these challenges?  

JOANNE: “Every single day presented a new creative challenge that we overcame. I did so by surrounding myself with the most amazing and talented team. I am gifted at recognising other people's talents quickly and leaning into that, and allowing their own confidence to grow. I think this facilitates their creative expression in an environment whereby they (I hope) feel valued and part of an amazing project we are trying to realise. I overcome challenges with my team, I'm nothing without them.”

IFTN: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your career?

JOANNE: “They are just clothes, we're not curing cancer!”

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