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Making of a PSA: Interviews with Production & Costume Designer Deborah Zawol Smyth and Makeup Artist Jennifer Snowdon

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Taliyah Whitaker as the 1980s talk show host getting last-minute touchups from Makeup Artist Jennifer Snowdon on the set of Little Leading Ladies. Photo courtesy of Amanda Lin Costa/Instagram.

This is the fourth installment of a five-part series co-presented by New York Women in Film & Television and Adorama Rentals.

NYWIFT member Susan Modaress interviews Little Leading Ladies Production and Costume Designer Deborah Zawol Smyth and Makeup Artist, and NYWIFT member, Jennifer Snowdon.

The PSA depicts several different eras all seen for a brief amount of time. What eras did you create? How did you decide what key elements were needed to represent each era?
DEBORAH: I created a 1995 feel for future CEO Emily by using the actual clothing of my daughter Aubrey, which was bought at that time. Emily is wearing what Aubrey would call her “business girl” suit. I couldn’t bear to part with it and I am glad I kept it! Those are my kids’ lunch boxes. The hairstyles the girls are wearing have a late-’90s feel.

Isabella, the future director is from 1982. The dining room shows furniture that was popular then. Every object you see I personally bought in the ’80s. The glasses she puts on are spot-on 1980s.

For Vanessa, the 1988 future talk show host, I looked back to the beginning of Oprah’s reign on daytime TV. Big was in style—big hair, big jewelry, and big shoulder pads! My daughter and son built a talk show set in my basement quite like the one showed. The table and chairs used in the set was my children’s, bought from IKEA in the late-’80s.

The future makeup artist, Lucy, is from 1975, my favorite decade. Bright colors, flower power, a ginger jar and lava lamps depict the decade. All appliances such as the makeup mirror, box of makeup and curling irons were made in the ’70s. The key elements I decided to use are the ones that first spring to your mind when each decade is mentioned.

Which era proved to be the most challenging to capture and convey to an audience in a short scene?
DEBORAH: The hardest year to depict for me was 1982 for Isabella, the future director. I decided that Isabella would not be interested in trendy clothing, hence the black T-shirt, because she would be too focused on her art. The dining room would look like something a young couple with young children would have at that time, not too over the top. So the camera gives you an idea of the era and the glasses are authentic ’80s with a new wave/punk feel.

Period on a tight budget is difficult. What were the challenges? What out-of-the-box thinking did you have to do?
DEBORAH: Yes, period on a tight budget is difficult. I had to remember that the viewer only gets seconds to make a connection with the various years depicted so I went straight for the clichés of each year. There is a saying that you only get one chance to make a first impression. My thinking on this shoot was that authenticity was of the utmost importance. You can’t fool your audience.

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Production Designer Deborah Zawol Smyth cuts the hair of a 1970s doll used as a prop in Little Leading Ladies. Photo courtesy of Gingersnap.

What were some of your favorite props or costumes that you think really worked?
DEBORAH: Of course my favorite costume was for Emily, the future CEO. I never thought that I would see another little girl, Giselle Eisenberg, wear Aubrey’s childhood outfit! I also liked the set for Vanessa, the future talk show host. That set brought me back to a lovely time in my life when my children were young. I loved designing the bedroom for Lucy, the makeup artist. My own room when I was a teenager looked a lot like that. I like to design rooms for children, and I am also a volunteer Wish Granter for Make-A-Wish, specializing in room makeovers for children with life-threatening illnesses.

Was this your first time designing for a film? What did you learn from the experience?
DEBORAH: This was not the first time I designed, but it is the first time for a two-minute video. I learned that by just catching the essence of a decade with well-thought-out props and costumes tells the story without words.

What advice can you share with other designers regarding designing for period piece films?
DEBORAH: I think that set designing period pieces successfully depends on the accuracy of the details. You can’t put ‘90s objects in an ’80s room and have the viewer accept it. I think if you do that you have lost your audience. In this project, Little Leading Ladies, which is a humorous video on a serious subject, I brought things onto the various sets that would bring a smile to your face and say to yourself in acknowledgment, “Hey that’s me!”

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Zoe Manarel as the 1970s makeup artist on the set of Little Leading Ladies. Photo courtesy of Gingersnap/Instagram.

How is doing period makeup different from contemporary?
JENNIFER: You really have to do your research and see the wardrobe designs first. There are many changes within a decade, so you have to match what the wardrobe style dictates. There are great sites that actually detail the type of makeup products used at the time. This really gives you clues as to how to apply it, if you are going for authenticity. Otherwise, you will have a “2014 cat eye” and not a “1960 cat eye.” Or a frosted lipstick then is not the same as a frosted lip now. There are different product textures in different eras.

Was it particularly challenging to create the looks since the roles were played by children?
JENNIFER: The wardrobe was predetermined by the director, so I just took it from there. The makeup and hair was to support the look and capture the essence without turning it into a satire.The girls were emulating the women they wanted to be. In other words, playing dress up in look, attitude and attributes.

What are the particular challenges working with children on set?
JENNIFER: I think the challenge is more with those accompanying the children, whether parents or child “wranglers.” They can spin off a lot of energy before they even get on camera, especially if there are other children on set, and then not be able to hold their focus.

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Makeup Artist Jennifer Snowdon curls hair on the Little Leading Ladies set. Photo courtesy of Gingersnap.

What advice do you have for other makeup and hair designers in similar situations?
JENNIFER: I treat them [children] as professionals. Encourage them if they are nervous, discuss the process so they know what to expect, ask about their aspirations.

Please join us Friday when the series continues with interviews with Little Leading Ladies Editor Oscar Luna and Colorist Tim Ziegler. Catch up on Monday’s post, Interview with Little Leading Ladies Writer/Director Aubrey Smyth, Tuesday’s post, Making of a PSA: Interview with Casting Director Jessica Daniels, and Wednesday’s post, Interviews with DP Bryant Fisher & Gaffer Jerred Sanusi.

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