The Dressmaker learning resource

The Dressmaker

Learn more about the way professional media makers create work. The Media Production Process includes development, pre-production, production, post-production and distribution.

Using The Dressmaker as a case study, this resource introduces the creative industry practices that relate to each stage of the production process.

Recommended for Year levels: VCE

Learning areas: Media

1. Development

Films often start with the spark of an idea, an intriguing topic, or a commission. Key creative roles in the Development Stage generally include producer, director and/or writer. They capture ideas and inspiration and explore styles and technologies.  

Watch the extract below from The Dressmaker: Behind the Seams.

Producer Sue Maslin

After watching the extract from The Dressmaker: Behind the Seams:

  1. identify why Sue Maslin felt connected to the story.
  2. describe the key ideas from the novel that were to be explored in the film.
  3. What steps did Sue Maslin need to take after reading the novel?
  4. How and why was the director, Jocelyn Moorhouse, involved in the Development Stage of the film?
  5. In Sue Maslin’s original marketing plan for the film, written in 2008 when she secured the rights to the book from the author Rosalie Ham, she wrote: “Audiences won't know whether to laugh or to cry, and it will appeal to a female-skewed audience, but it should be enjoyed by women and men alike.” Describe some of the ways that engaging the target audience has been considered through the Development Stage of The Dressmaker.

Director Jocelyn Moorhouse

The novel is heightened reality, definitely stylized – I took that as my permission and made it even more so.

Moorhouse's inspiration included making "the setting more fantasy-like, a fable with just a little bit of magical realism” and was inspired by film styles such as film noir, spaghetti westerns, and the directors Sergio Leone and David Lynch.

  1. Watch video essays on film styles such as film noir, spaghetti westerns, and the directors Sergio Leone and David Lynch. List similarities and differences with The Dressmaker. In what ways are these styles similarly "stylized” and “fantasy-like”?

Development Stage activities

  1. Research the making of your favourite film or TV show, what was the writer, director and/or producer inspired by? Describe some steps they took in the Development Stage.
  2. Jocelyn Moorhouse has said, "I'm a major movie fan — I don't just make movies, I love movies. I watch them all the time." In what ways does this attitude enable her to make successful films? What movies and television shows do you watch? Detail stylistic elements that inspire you.
  3. Choose a song that you love at the moment and complete the Development Stage of the Media Production Process for a music video. 
    • Brainstorm main themes and ideas from the song. Create a mind map or use a site such as https://coggle.it
    • Consider your major stylistic influences (film and television styles, directors, genres) and make an inspiration board (such as a mood board).
    • Choose your key creative team – producer and director. What role would you take any why? Who would take the other role?
    • Who is the audience for your music video? How might you engage them? How might the choices you have made above further engage them? Could you make any adjustments to your stylistic decisions or key creative team?

2. Pre-production Stage

The Dressmaker Rojer Ford Jocelyn Moorhouse
Production designer Roger Ford with director Jocelyn Moorhouse

Production design

During the Pre-production Stage, specialist roles work together to plan and organise the film.

Production designer, Roger Ford, built the town of Dungatar from scratch. He had the task of creating a town inspired by spaghetti westerns but with an Australian flavour. The silos and the fire at the end of the film were created using CGI.

  1. Find out more about the production design process in this interview.
  2. Identify features of Dungatar that give it a 'gunslinger feel'.
  3. Which elements of the production design are characteristically Australian?
  4. Analyse the way the physical set is blended with CGI elements and explain the impact of this process.

Costume design

In The Dressmaker costume design communicates essential ideas about story, setting and character . Margot Wilson designed the costumes for the character Tilly Dunnage (Kate Winslet). 

  1. Compare and contrast the design of Tilly's costume in the opening and resolution scenes. Describe what this suggests about her journey.
  2. What does costume communicate about the women in the town?
  3. Describe and explain the interconnection between costume and setting.

Storyboarding

During pre-production, the cinematographer and the director plan how they will visually tell the story using storyboards.

  1. You can learn more about this process by using ACMI's Film It storyboard module.
  2. The Dressmaker film was adapted from a novel by Rosalie Ham. Read the following excerpt from the novel and storyboard a 5 shot sequence.
  3. Identify and explain the camera techniques you used to tell the story.
  4. Compare your storyboard sequence to the scene of Tilly’s arrival in the film. Explain at least two changes made by Jocelyn Moorhouse when adapting the novel.
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3. Production Stage

The Production Stage, when filming takes place, is also known as 'principal photography'.

Director of photography

Don McAlpine worked with the director and production designer to capture the film. It was McAlpine's role as director of photography/cinematographer to consider the framing and lighting of each shot.

  1. Find out more about the filmmaking process in this behind-the-scenes documentary:The Dressmaker: Behind the Seams.
  2. Research Don McAlpine and other films he has worked on as director of photography. What similarities and differences can you notice in the cinematography?
The Dressmaker Trudy-in-full-fligh
The Dressmaker: Behind the Seams. Film Art Media 2015

Visual style

Focus on specific scenes to explore the distinctive style of The Dressmaker cinematography.

Watch the clip below and respond to the following prompts:

  1. Take note of each shot, identifying the different light and camera movement.
  2. Explain McAlpine’s cinematography decisions in this scene. Why were different lighting techniques, shot sizes, angles and movement used?
  3. Select 3 shots from this scene and, using any type of video camera, recreate them using the same camera techniques 

4. Post-production Stage

During the Post-production Stage, production components are put together to make a completed film project. Sound, titles and effects are also added.

Editing

It’s a big puzzle to have a lot of footage and put it into some form that holds your interest and arrives somewhere

Jill Bilcock

Editor Jill Bilcock worked with Jocelyn Moorhouse to emphasise the magical realism and western styles of the film. She did this through the selection and ordering of a range of shots.

  1. Watch this interview where Bilcock recounts her experience of working on The Dressmaker. Explain why Bilcock chose not to read the novel the film was based on. Why is it important for a film editor to be passionate about the project she is working on?
  2. To learn more about the editing process, check out Film it

Opening Scenes

Beginnings of movies have got to be way above sensational – you have to establish style. (Jill Bilcock)

  1. Watch the opening scenes of The Dressmaker. Describe how Jill Bilcock has established the style of the film through the selection, order and duration of shots.
  2. How would you edit this scene to evoke a different style or genre? Identify the style or genre and then map out the selection, order and duration of shots. (You may like to do this in a storyboard format.)
  3. Watch the opening of another film edited by Bilcock and write at least 2 paragraphs comparing and contrasting the editing decisions she has made in each case.
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6. Distribution Stage

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Sue Maslin accepts an award at the AACTA awards

The Distribution Stage involves making a film available to an audience. During distribution the success of a film is often measured by box-office numbers and awards.

Producer, Sue Maslin was responsible for making distribution deals and entering The Dressmaker into festivals.

In outlining the challenges she faced as an independent Australian producer trying to finance The Dressmaker, Maslin also offered detailed insights into the challenges and secrets of distribution. Read this account of her talk at the Screen Forever conference.  

  1. Explain how the development and distribution phases are interconnected.
  2. What were some of the risks Maslin faced?
  3. Why was the date chosen for The Dressmaker's cinema release crucial to its success?
  4. How did Maslin as the producer eventually make money from the film?

During the Development Stage, Maslin pitched the film to distributors in order to stitch together the necessary finances. She discovered that many distributors were concerned that films targeting a female audience were not a good risk.

  1. The Dressmaker was a critical and commercial success. Do you think this could lead to more investors funding films with female protagonists and female directors in the future?
  2. A study of top-grossing U.S. films (2014-2017) concluded that "female-led films outperformed male-led films at all budget levels". How are these findings revolutionary and how do they challenge previous assumptions within the film industry? 

Marketing the film

At the beginning I thought I was producing a film. In retrospect, I realise I was producing not just a film, but a set of experiences for audiences and the film was just one part of the value chain

Sue Maslin

  1. How has the process of marketing and distributing a film changed over time?
  2. Describe some marketing/distribution strategies you consider  to be particularly effective.
  3. The Dressmaker did its best box-office in Australia. Can you pinpoint some of the reasons for its huge success in Australia? 

The changing audience

When Jocelyn Moorhouse accepted the AACTA award for The Dressmaker, she thanked Australians for going to see both it and other Australian films.

  1. Why did she do that? In formulating your answer, do a bit of research online so that you can support your response with accurate figures and references to the ongoing discussion within media and industry forums. 
  2. Do a short survey to gauge the attitude of family members and friends to Australian films including their knowledge of and support for the national industry.
  3. In light of the growth in view-on-demand streaming services, do you think box-office figures will remain important? In an interview format, ask your fellow students their opinion about this issue and create a short vox-pop documentary around their responses.