LAURA CHRISTINA ORTIZ & Synchronic
This week, we chat with costume designer Laura Cristina Ortiz. She chats with us about discovering her love for costuming (it’s in her blood!) and her passion for ethical fashion. She talks with us about her recent project, the film Synchronic which can be found on VOD, and the fascinating design challenges she faced on that. Enjoy our conversation!
Click here to listen to our interview with Laura Christina Ortiz on Apple Podcasts.
Episode transcription below.
LAURA CHRISTINA ORTIZ & Synchronic
Laura: My name is Laura. I'm a costume designer. I live in Los Angeles, California.
I work primarily in film, but I really work across the gamut in terms of the projects I take on I'm born and raised from New York. I'm Nuyorican, which means I'm a Puerto Rican New Yorker. I'm the third generation of my family to pursue a career involving garments. My grandmother, um, when she came to New York from Puerto Rico, she, was a teenager and she was working in the garment factories in New York.
So sweat shops in New York and, uh, doing that. And then my aunt, um, kind of followed in the garment footsteps and was a fashion designer in the eighties. And then I got involved in costuming. So I'm very lucky to have had grown up with, that kind of resource in my family. And. I guess what led me to becoming a costume designer is I grew up-- so kind of providing a little bit of background, you know, so besides like sewing, my family is just very creative. We're very creative. I grew up, uh, my parents were huge, like classic film aficionados. We celebrated Halloween as like the biggest holiday and it's still a tradition to this year. It's like, it's the biggest, we throw huge parties. We start decorating in the middle of August, you know, it's, uh, you know, my mom has like a whole rental , not like a shed in the back of their house that's just filled with like Halloween decorations. So like we, um, my parents and my cousins, because my mom and my aunt are identical twins, so we all kind of grew up together. So I learned early on like a lot of things about imagination and storytelling and, um, I shared a lot with a big family. And I, you know, because of that and a lot of playing around, I eventually kind of, and, you know, movies and things like that and growing up in New York where you have so many arts, there's just so many different things that contributed. I definitely fell in love and was attracted to costumes cause, I didn't even think it was a career, you could have, I just thought like, It just like the concept of filmmaking was so foreign to me as a kid.
Like, I didn't really understand like what went on in any sense and watching the movies like Sleepy Hollow or Star Wars Episode One of those movies were like, what kind of clicked something in my brain that made me want to really dive deep into what, wait, wait a second-- how did they do this though? And so that really started the journey of like me becoming like, uh, like a nerd, like really diving in and becoming like a costuming nerd.
So I would then start looking at some of my favorite movies and looking at the costume designers and then I would watch their repertoire. So I'd just do like, you know, I'll just watch all of Colleen Atwood's, you know, collection who, you know, costume design, Sleepy Hollow, or I'd go and see, um, Sandy Powell's work, who, you know, costume design, you know, another like Titan in the costume industry, who's done like Shakespeare In Love and The Young Victoria and Hugo and, um, and then including classic movies too.
And I was just so enthralled I definitely was very much in love with it, but in terms of like, I didn't necessarily have this overwhelming, like I, I didn't understand like clothing construction, and until I fell into cosplay when I was like around 13, so it was like all these different avenues kind of crossed paths. When I was a preteen, that was, I started exploring those things and I was like, I want to dress up like Sailor Moon characters and go to anime conventions. And can I do that? And so that's when my aunt and my grandmother came into the picture and they're like, ah, so you got the bag, you got the sewing bag.
And so that's where I really started to learn those skills, even those like this kind of hobby thing. And. You know, really, it was, uh, my, my first education and garment construction. And I did that for a while until it was time to go to college. And once again, like I thought it was so cool that there's these designers who were able to do it, but I didn't really think there was a space for me in that industry.
It was just like, I'm just, you know, I'm just a kid in New York, you know, even though I get to enjoy all these things, like it's so foreign, like that seems like such a huge concept to be able to like go to Hollywood and like work in the movies and things like that. And, um, so I went to school, not with that in mind and it was, um, my husband, at the time he was my boyfriend.
He, um, he was the one who pushed me and he was like, well, I'm going to go to film school. Cause my, my goal is to work professionally in the film industry. And so there's a pass for you too. And I was like, that's kind of scary though. Like to really take a chance, you know, the arts can be very fickle. It seems, I also feel like there's a stigma about starving artists and that you'll never be successful, that you'll never have like a roof over your head or be able to enjoy life. You're just going to be suffering for your art for the rest of your life. I was like, how can I have a lot of my like life goals by doing it? And he's like, there's, there's a way to do it. There's a path. And so I then decided to go to fashion school. I went to my aunt's alma mater. I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
And upon graduating, I moved out to California. My husband graduated from his school, which was the Florida State University film program. And we moved to LA seven years ago. And. Now I'm union. I'm represented by an agency I've been able to work. And this is my job. Like I'm able to put food on my table and a roof over my head and even afford a cute thing once in a while for myself and that, you know, so that's kind of how I came to this point, in general, in a long-winded way.
Jennifer: I love that. That was such a great story. And the confluence of like your family and your husband and like all of that. Wow. That's great. Cool. I so many questions about that, but we do want to hear about your, uh, there's too much to talk about.
I do also want to hear about the feature film Synchronic that you were the costume designer for. And the film sounds really interesting. Haven't had a chance to see it yet, but it follows two paramedics losing touch with reality who then follow a string of deaths caused by a new designer drug, um, which sounds like a whole world in itself. So What drew you to this particular project and costume designing it.
Laura: I have a previous working relationship with the directors, so Aaron Moorehead and Justin Benson, um, actually within the first year of moving out to LA, I was kind of scooped up into the Florida State University alumni kids that were kind of just like living here, you know, surviving, they have a very, you know, tight network, you know, like Barry Jenkins is an FSU alumni, Adele Romanski who produced Moonlight. She's a physio, you know, a lot of those people were all classmates and that's kind of the vibe. And, um, I was one of the only people who, we, had interest in costuming who was kind of doing that. And I was on set with a camera operator named Will, and he recommended me to Aaron and that's how I met them.
And that was within the first year of me living out here. And Will, is their go-to camera operator on all of their projects. And, um, so that was a long time ago and I've been very fortunate to work with them and have a continued working relationship with them over the years. And it's been really cool because, to see how, you know, they grow as artists, to see the different projects that they do. So that was really interesting, but Synchronic was, uh, the biggest budget and it's kind of their step into, it was their introduction as directors into the studio system. So to say, and. So even if I had a working relationship, I still had to fight for the position because, you know, when you start getting into the studio game, you know, you have EPs and distributor, you know, you have a lot of names, a lot of people in the pot who, it's not like an indie, like this director, producer likes, and that's it.
You have a lot of more voices being like, we need this person because they have this amount of credits or they did this movie so they have to do this one. And they were like, you know, we really like working with you, but you have to like, do like, you have to like submit your thoughts. And so, you know, we can move forward and I was like, but I really want this. Cause it sounds fucking dope. So they posted like, you know, like they're, uh, they actually like announced that they're like, Oh, we have this movie in two gentlemen when they Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. And it's about this like time-travel drug thing. And I was like, I want to do this.
I emailed them and the producer, David, who also has been working with them on every single project. They're like a trio that are inseparable and I was like, Hey, uh, I'm sure you're reaching out to different costume designers and I want to throw my name into the ring. It sounds really cool. And that's when they were like, yeah, you know, we need you to make a presentation.
And, uh, I read the script and, uh, they gave me just like a smorgasbord of fun because, you know, in contemporary costuming, there's a lot of thought behind the process. And I don't know think that audiences, when they see contemporary films, they, they really absorb the amount of work that goes into contemporary costuming.
Because, you know, when people think costumes, they think the theatrical silhouettes or fabrics, or, you know, like those types of things, but the costuming in like, let's say Bridesmaids is just as integral and important as a Young Victoria as a La La land as a Shape in Water and, you know, you have like, it's all about storytelling and that's the difference, right?
So you're still using the same techniques, just different applications, depending on what the script is asking for. And what was cool about this group is that you have time travel. So you're talking about different periods. So it's like, Oh man. So I got to show my skills and explore these different time periods.
Oh, there's there it's a horror movie. So we got blood and we got some distressing and we got some really interesting things. Uh, we have New Orleans, which is an incredible. I've never had a city make me fall in love with it, like as much as New York then as NOLA. Like if I was, I live in LA because of work, but if I could choose, I would totally live in NOLA.
Um, so you know, you have that like shooting in that city, bringing the culture of that city to the film. And then the time like in the script is written that these closed distorts. So even though it's contemporary clothes, they all kind of. Like get messed up in some sort of way that is a more facili and abstractly describes in the script.
And I was like, this is so cool. And it's awesome, like for, for a costume designer. Um, and so I worked really hard and I think I made six, I made like a sixty board presentation in 24 hours or 48 hours or something like that, to show them, and like I had. My friend , who is really important to the process, he's an illustrator.
And he did all these 3D models of what we wanted to do to show. So our approach to this time travel mechanic for. Steve, which is Anthony Mackie's character and some of the other side characters. And we came up with all these thesis, you know, like this thesis of design of, um, you know, depending on how far the person, when, if they're wearing polyester, polyester would morph more because they wouldn't have plastic textiles in this time period, or things like that.
And then playing with Prince and things and, um, I'm very grateful to say that they loved my pitch and then they assigned me on. Um, and then immediately I immediately got to work. I think they announced their project in early September. I interviewed in, uh, late October and then a week later, I had the job and I was immediately like having to problem solve 'cause then we were three weeks out from shooting. So it was, it was like a constant race. And so I was in LA for a couple of weeks. And then, you know, then I had to fly to NOLA and then working in terms of fitting everybody and then getting it, it was, it was a lot, but it was very, very cool. And it was a challenge that was so cool.
Larkin: I feel very blessed to have been able to design that project. It gave me a lot to work with. I'm curious, like either what was the most, like, challenging costume, you know, like you're describing like the costumes themselves, um, get distorted. I don't know. Um, what was, what was just like one example of going through that and, and how did it work going from like your vision, your storyboards to actually doing it with the costumes and the fabrics themselves?
Laura: Uh, the definitely the most difficult thing was working out. How are we were going to portray this time, travel, aesthetic, um, how it was going to apply to every character that was affected by it and how to do it in a way that we can afford. So,you know, that's always, you know, that's always going to be a question whenever you're doing a film or a project, but especially in indie filmmaking, you're working with very little, most of the time and you know, so being really creative and we had to have constant--
So definitely talking to Aaron and Justin and sharing different references, talking to Ariel Vita and Katie Simon, who was the art team. So Arielle was production designer. Katie was the art director? And we constantly were sharing sketches because what I did had to match what they were going to do with props.
'Cause it was almost like every character who like went back in times, had some sort of a prop associated with them. And so we wanted to make sure that what they were doing made sense and was translated also into the clothes. And then we also wanted it to feel like how we were going to do this in a way that felt very other-worldly and it didn't feel just like, and it didn't feel distracting and it felt like a natural, so to say, to film, because I didn't, I don't want to, I didn't want to design something that like, we have like the climax of the movie where Anthony Mackie is like saving, um, his best friend who's played, uh, Jamie Dornan, his, uh, his daughter takes a drug and Anthony has to go save her.
I don't want, you know, you're, you're thinking he's in this middle of this battle. He's trying to save, I don't want you to be distracted. Cause he's got this crazy thing and people are going to be like, that costume is ridiculous. You know, you want it to really feel, even if something is outlandish, you want us to make sense for the world that it's in, right? So, that was really tricky in terms of figuring out that balance.
And so one way we did that is, um, I was like, well, you know, they use like these descriptors in the script. Well, Justin who writes the scripts, you know, he uses certain adjectives and, like visual cues that I was like, Hmm, that'd be really interesting. Like primordial ooze, like, how is that, how am I going to translate that?
Or you have Steve who's going through, uh, he has, uh, a tumor in his brain. And so I started looking at images of cells and how bolbous they are.
Um, that the idea of that being a mechanic narratively, I wanted to include it in the costumes. So as he like kind travels more and more his costume, like almost like birds, like these, like they like Burt's tumors on the costume almost in a way. And so we did that by using a combination of polyurethane foam and steel filings, and we tried using magnets to like sculpt it a little bit and then like free form pouring and sculpting of this material and the fabric, and then painting it and color matching it to the jacket, just trying to figure out all these different ways to do something like that. And, to show these elements that you know, you might not even be cognizant of as an audience member, but that you're not, you know, you may not actively be thinking like, Oh wow.
You know, like, Oh, it looks like his tumors or anything, but something is happening with his costume that's making you understand that with every trip, it becomes more dangerous or, you know, It's highly unusual and it sells this genre bending high horror sci-fi which, you know, Aaron and Justin seems to excel at in terms of their films, not really being classically one thing or another. Um, and so. That was definitely the biggest challenge was working that out.
I owe a lot to the people that, agreed to come on a project that I'm designing to help support me in executing a design. So my designs can only go as far as the team that comes with me. So I'm very grateful for that.
Jennifer: We've heard that you have a passion for both ethical fashion and sustainability, which I know personally, I've heard a lot about that in the clothing industry, but I haven't really heard how that translates to costume design and, and, and especially that for film and TV. So wondering how you incorporate that passion into your designs.
Laura: Yeah, I, um, regarding ethical and sustainable practices. I didn't really know that my grandmother worked in sweat shops until maybe, I was in high school, I think was when I learned about that.
And so not only is it about like, just being cognizant of the impact of our waste environmentally, but also just the conditions in which we deem acceptable for production, for things for us to wear. And, and most people aren't really, are cognizant of it most of the time, because you just go to the store and purchase something and you don't understand that there is a person who had to cut every single sleeve because it's not an automated business.
Everything is still done with human beings. you know, I think that there's a gap in that versus, you know, in terms of. People not understanding that and the film industry and entertainment, especially, you know, you have a lot of people who will watch a movie and want to be like, where did they get this thing?
Or, you know, stills will come out and they'll be like, wow, that's really cool. I can talk about the clothes and I can mention, you know, Oh yeah. This brand or blah, blah, blah.
And we're given budgets. Right. And I'm not saying like, you know, uh, Some people have millions and millions and millions of dollars of budget. Some people have a few thousand and all depends on the project you're on. But as a designer, you are very easily, you can spend a thousand, $2,000 at a brand. And so if I'm going to invest $2,000 at a Forever 21, because they have great simple tees and t-shirts, I'll be like, I could go to another brand and support them and provide that income for their brands.
you know, it definitely is a challenge doing this in entertainment because there are, there are true obstacles, you know, like for instance, for, for synchronic, we did a lot of sustaining, you know, renting is one way to be sustainable as a costuming practice. But another way was, I had Steve and Dennis, the Anthony and Jamie, their costumes, I want to say about 80% were thrifted.
And, you know, I went to places like Buffalo Exchange and Crossroads that I know are curated, but they're thrifted. And, you know, I was like, you know, this is a way to be sustainable, but I'm getting there. You know, there's another story here in LA called it's a rap that, you know, a lot of productions will sell their clothes to the store and the store will sell it to, you know, just people on the street, but, you know, clothes that were extra extras or that the studio doesn't want whatever it is.
Some actors are brand cognizant and they feel that it's important to their performance or whatever it is. So you want to be conscientious of your talents' needs.
You want to be able to deliver on budget because, sometimes. When you shop at sustainable brands, appoint, the price points are higher and they're hired because the production costs are paying ethical wages. And so of course the garment prices go up, but because, you know, we've gotten so used to consuming fast fashion, you know, making the argument of like, well, you're doing, you know, producers are not going to care.
They just want to have the budget delivered at the line that's supposed to be delivered on. I'm working with, a couple full of costumers and stylists in terms of building a database specifically for stylists and costumers and the entertainment industry. So we can maybe create a directory of brands that are open and understanding to work with the film industry and maybe create like studio policies or things like that, that would be open so we can encourage people using their brands, but also they can become familiar with the turnaround of our business because sometimes, you know, you buy you return.
So sometimes a better course of action is to lend, do the fitting, return, what isn't used and then, you know, and then do the final invoice in terms of financially.
It's not only about like fashion, it's also about the voices and stories we need to achieve and the people who are carrying it, right. And so you know, and we're in this awake, you know, I'm happy it's happening a little better, late than never, but you know, the fact that diversity, inclusion, and all of these things are happening and becoming prominent conversations and aren't just becoming like, uh, yeah, it'd be nice if we got like, One person of color, you know, like, you know what I mean?
It's becoming, uh, more like this is just, it's just the way it's supposed to be just normal. And my hope is that for ethical and sustainable fashion, that becomes more common too, because I think, um, We can support a lot of smaller businesses. I think it does a lot to funnel money into communities and companies that are actively trying to do better while still trying to deliver the needs of consumers.
So I think it it's both challenging logistically, but at the same time, I think it opens up creatively. What's available to you. Um, so, you know, it's something that I've become a far more involved in the past couple of years, more recently I've been starting to make moves in terms of this database with some other costumers.
And, um, my hope is that, you know, as in a few years we can have something that is just continually growing and provides a resource for people as an alternative or just an option. But it makes it very easy because people are just like, what brands are doing? What, because there's. Brands that we commonly use that are ethical, like Levi's is a great company, you know?
And so just having an understanding of that is good. So it's something I feel very passionate about and, um, I hope, I hope other people will, will catch the bug.
Jennifer: Yeah. Wow. Thank you. Learned a lot from that. That was cool. Well then we'll end. We end with our lightning round three, two, one action. We'll start with three, your favorite or most influential film.
Laura: Nightmare before Christmas. now Voyager and. uh, star Wars. Specifically, episode one, that changed my life considerably.
Larkin: Amazing. Dream person you want to work with.
Laura: I would love to work with Guillermo del Toro a hundred percent, a hundred percent. That'd be a dream come true. Uh, I would love to work with, um, Colleen Atwood to see her process. And she, you know, was the one who I fell in love with in terms of costume design.
I would love to sit down and have a conversation with Rita Moreno. Cause I think, uh, she was such a trailblazer for Puerto Rican's in the film industry. I think that's fabulous. And I would just love to have coffee with her and just kind of get into it. And if I could design for all my God, forget it. I could die a happy woman. That'd be incredible.
Jennifer: One: best advice you've received.
Laura: Learn to say no.
Larkin: And action. Where can people follow you on social media?
Laura: Um, I'm most active on Instagram, so you can follow me on @lacrisort, which is, it's my name abbreviated. So it's L a C R I S O R T. That's the main place I'm active. But I'm always happy to chat. You can always, you know, send me a message. Um, my, is there, you can always email me. I'm not a stranger to talking to people. I I'm, I love what I do. I love encouraging other people. If they're interested in costuming, I love helping them out. I love talking to them. I, you know, I love connecting to in whatever way that to get them started.
And, um, You know, it's a cool business to be a part of. It's a very demanding business to be a part of, but, you know, I couldn't imagine myself doing anything else and I'll be doing this to, to the day my hands don't work anymore. And even then I'll probably have somebody doing the hand work best. There'll be saying stuff and I'm, I'm at my big old mouth, so!
Jennifer: Thanks so much for sharing all your stories and experiences. That was really wonderful. I learned so much.
Laura: Yeah. Well, thank you for taking the time and, you know, uh, very speaking with me. I really appreciate it, you know?