Digital sketching was a luxury before COVID-19, it's now a necessity, writes costume designer Sheetal Sharma

'When COVID-19 began, it brought along reluctance and reservation. But as we have moved deeply into it, there is desperation in people, for not only jobs and money but also fulfilling creative work that excites and cures anxiety.'

Sheetal Sharma January 04, 2021 12:35:26 IST
Digital sketching was a luxury before COVID-19, it's now a necessity, writes costume designer Sheetal Sharma

Sheetal Sharma

2020 has been a watershed year in history, and that has also trickled down to the realm of entertainment. In this series, 2020 Unwind, stakeholders from the Indian entertainment scene weigh in on how they view entertainment now, how their skills had to evolve and adapt to changing patterns and whether the year has altered them as artists.

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2020 started with a major high. I was galloping my ways between two most creatively challenging projects, both set wide apart in different eras and locales. I was constantly running on high adrenaline. On 10 March 2020, my team and I were meant to leave for one of the shoots to Uzbekistan. A travel back to the ancient Silk route and Uzbekistan's enthralling arsenal of architecture and history was meant to be the highlight of the year.

There was lot of excitement in the team along with a bit of nervousness as the ‘Stay Home Stay Safe’ slogans had already started to make rounds in the media. Families started to worry as travel via airports was getting unsafe. As we were getting into our final rounds of packing, I heard one my team members whisper a prayer for it all to halt for a week (as we know now, her prayers were answered thousand folds).

Mumbai went into three months of complete lockdown and two months of extended partial lockdown. During these five months, ‘Working’ meant preparing for projects through presentations and video calls. Remote working that was far more exhaustive and economical than 14 hours of field work while on shoot. Obviously, all the household chores and full-time cooking and baby sitting was the front stage activity along with which all work coordination happened.

Ten years into the field, I am used to across-the-table discussions, instant sketches, on-spot approvals on swatches, and trial look tests. Post March 2020, all of it has been digital.

My immediate team comprises of a young work force. As the lockdowns eased and flights resumed, most of them travelled back to their native places. Hours and hours of zoom call discussions and endless online research brought us all only to one question - What Next?  Where do we proceed from here? Filmmaking needs solid ground-level work. Productions needed to be in full capacity, markets and retailers had to be available for us, finances were required to flow in order to proceed. It all had to wait not just for an official nod from the government authorities but also till we could gather the courage to step out and risk getting exposed.

With theatres still shut, jobs with OTT series started to sprout in July. With Mumbai still a Red Zone of pandemic, sourcing was limited to a few known vendors who were taking complete precautions. E-tailing evolved a new range of vendors and fabrics that could be sourced from all across the country. Of course, I missed the experience of feeling the fabric and checking its fall, but all that was possible once every single package went through isolation and sanitization.

Digital sketching was a luxury before COVID19 its now a necessity writes costume designer Sheetal Sharma

Sheetal Sharma

With physical contact marginalised, frequent look tests or trials have become questionable. Being blessed with good drawing skills, I have always relied on my character illustrations, and so have my directors. However, convincing actors requires hard work. COVID-19 has forced us to communicate and develop the characters’ personalities through artwork of costume drama clubbed with facial expressions and physical poses. It’s effective and gives us the ability to detail to perfection.

A few years ago, digital character sketching seemed like a fancy process. But during lockdown, it has became the only alternative to look tests.

In essence, things required time. Production houses and directors had to be intimated of planning way ahead in time.

Mumbai, the ‘maximum city’ that functions the way it does because of the workers from myriad regions settled within, was running out of its daily wagers. That means our workers, our tailors, embroiders, dress dadas, and ageing experts migrating across state borders. There was no stopping them. They had meagre supplies of food and finances, and huge families to take care of. And now, they do not have surety of either jobs or transport to make their way back. Since millions are still out of jobs, workforce is limited. For the projects that started in August, I have had to personally make arrangements for my tailors to resume jobs. I remember booking an instant flight to get a tailor back to Mumbai from Lucknow because we needed the garment that was stitched and kept ready for an actor before the lockdown. Every step and precaution has its own incurred cost.

Our strategies to budget have seen a drastic change. Every project needs extra number of people on board as a backhand for someone falling sick. There is one team hired to handle set and one hired for sourcing. I, being at the center of both, it is imperative for me to bear extra precautions. Getting tested every week, setting up a godown for quarantine and sanitization, creating a new workspace for safe discussions and meetings with vendors (apart for those offered by production houses), are only a few of them.

With most of the shoots being held in studios, every set has its own set of norms. Every single piece of garment, accessory, and footwear is sanitized and fumigated. The person in charge of handling the cast and set is always in PPE suit, while I can only approve from a distance and communicate through walkie-talkies.

Every step of execution is an extra effort. Yet we see people falling sick, and there is not a single set spared of COVID-19 . As we dare to move out of our safe homes and venture into markets, we dare to be on shoots with almost 100-150 persons on set working together, it is no longer mortifying for anyone to let their guards down and put the masks off. Despite constant reminders and warnings, all we can do is to frisk a little prayer.

When COVID-19 began, it brought along reluctance and reservation. But as we have moved deeply into it, there is desperation in people, for not only jobs and money but also fulfilling creative work that excites and cures anxiety. As a designer I have to keep evolving my strategies, COVID-19 (however devastating) is just a catapult. While I find the old-school approach more satisfying and grounded, technology has ensured a smooth work flow.

Sheetal Sharma is a costume designer, who has worked in Hindi films like Raees, Airlift, Manto, Stree, Kesari, Judgementall Hai Kya, and Bala.

For more stories in the 2020 Unwind series, click here.

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