Business of Art and Design 2015 Graduate

Alumnus Keith Neilson
Keith Neilson, portrait by Elan Photography
A still from a yet-to-be-named holiday film
Still from production of Phantom

In just three years as a professional costume designer, Keith Nielsen has built a rich and incredibly diverse design portfolio in theatre, television, and film. After graduating from Ringling College in 2015 with a BA in Business of Art and Design (BOAD), the New York-based freelancer has taken the industry by storm, bringing his signature bold creativity and passion to everything he takes on.

Perhaps best known for his work on Mozart in the Jungle, The Real Stephen Blatt, and Quantico, Nielsen just wrapped his first feature film as Lead Designer. The untitled Christmas movie starring Barbara Eden, Denise Richards, and Pat Muldoon will be in theatres next holiday season.

Q. What drew you to costume design?
A. Costume is visual storytelling. It’s not about looking cute. It’s about the why, and what each detail says about the character. Say you’re doing a movie about a 45-year-old alcoholic. I’m more interested in the first 44 years of that life than what the script shows at year 45. I want to know how that person got there, and really focus on the character’s development relative to how that reflects in the wardrobe.

Q. How did you get your first break in the industry?
A. Tony Stopperan from Ringling College connected me with Roman Coppola as a result of the partnership between Semkhor Productions and the College. A couple months after graduation, I started working as an intern on Mozart in the Jungle. The following season I came back as Production Assistant and the next season became Costume Coordinator.
It really just snowballed from there.

Q. Ringling College’s BOAD major puts an emphasis on collaborations with industrial partners. Did this model help to prepare you for life after graduation?
A. A thousand percent. I worked with Hasbro, Microsoft Game Studios, Cirque du Soleil, and Tervis Tumbler. We learned to do it all—entrepreneurship, project management, research and development, strategy, pitch, and creative execution.

Q. Your work seems to strike a balance between painterly precision and visual risk-taking. Tell me about your creative process.
A. It starts with the script. Then I go to the table read with the cast, director, and producer, find the common thread and build on it. I’m obscenely crazy about researching and use the prompts in the script as a launching point. All my decisions are made with intention.

Q. What’s your work environment like?
A. I pack my kit bag and go. I’ve filmed in the rain and cold in an old stone building with no plumbing, heat, or electric, and I’ve worked in New York studios with massive soundstages, where anything you need is just a phone call away and you have the luxury of endless money and labor.

Q. What’s the best part of your career?
A. Some actors like the costume designer to be with them when they dress for a scene, especially for characters with extravagant hair and makeup. The best part is that moment when they get dressed, stand in front of the mirror, and take their first breath as their character. It’s a magical thing and such a privilege to be in the room for that.

Q. What’s been your favorite job so far?
A. Working on Yeston & Kopit’s Phantom was incredible. The story and the setting really allude to grandeur, so it was a question of how can I make it more fabulous. The theatre flew me to Boca Raton to pull costumes for the show from a massive collection of original Broadway costumes. I spent three weeks digging through a 45,000-square-foot warehouse to hand select every shirt, vest, dress, petticoat, and accessory to make over 200 costumes. There was not one detail unnoticed.

Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’ll actually be interviewing today with a theatre company based in California, and I’m in conversation with a Hallmark-affiliated production company about a possible movie. I’m also talking with my regional theatre producer about the Gloria Estefan musical, On Your Feet, which I’d love to do because it would be a good precursor to my ultimate dream in life of designing for a Madonna concert.

Q. Any words of advice for aspiring creatives?
A. Say yes to everything. You never know where things could lead. You could say yes to a project that might tank, but during shooting you might meet this great producer who calls you in ten years for a feature film. I designed a film in upstate New York and it was only a 10-minute proof of concept, but now, a year and a half later, it’s being made into a pilot. So yeah, I made $5 and spent two days in the middle of nowhere, but now I have a pilot on the horizon. Life is short and we only regret the things we don’t do.

By Kate Schwartz
Kate Schwartz is a former media and public relations copywriter who has been freelancing for over a decade. She develops content for businesses, schools, and non-profits across the United States.