Doctoral student helped stitch together historically significant film

· 4 min read

Doctoral student helped stitch together historically significant film

Heather Striebel created the costumes for all of the women featured in The Bell Affair, including accessories.
Heather Striebel created the costumes for all of the women featured in "The Bell Affair," including accessories.

After premiering in the nation’s capital June 2, Nebraska audiences will have an opportunity to experience “The Bell Affair” in Lincoln Sept. 21. Theatergoers will be transported to 1830s Washington D.C., and have a front-row seat to one of the many freedom suits that highlighted America’s struggle over slavery. The story is remarkable, and so too are the lengths the production team went to make sure it was told.

The new film was produced by Salt Marsh Productions, founded by the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Michael Burton, assistant professor in textiles, merchandising and fashion design; Kwakiutl Dreher, associate professor in English; and William Thomas, professor of history, Angle Chair in the Humanities, and associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences. The team was awarded a highly competitive National Endowment for the Humanities Media Production Grant, which supported salaries for students, alumni, actors and crew from across Nebraska and the U.S.

In early 2020, the team was working on setting up the schedule to shoot the feature-length animated film at a green screen studio in Lincoln. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, plans for the two-week in-person shoot were scrapped, and preparations began to produce the film remotely.

Remote production presented many new challenges, especially when it came to wardrobe for the 40 actors in the film. Fortunately, lead costume designer Heather Striebel, doctoral student in the department of textiles, merchandising and fashion design, was up to the task.

“I was just thankful that production was continuing because I was so happy to be working with this team,” Striebel said.

Striebel earned her master of fine arts degree in costume design from the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. She combined her experience working with historical reproduction fabrics, along with her abundant notes from meeting with the team, to launch a plan to create the costumes for the film with as much historical accuracy as possible, all while never meeting any of the actors in person.

“Heather’s commitment to this project was evident early on and just outstanding,” said Michael Burton, assistant professor in textiles, merchandising and fashion design. “Without her organization and attention to detail, this production wouldn’t have been possible.”

That organization involved meeting over Zoom with the actors to explain the exact measurements they would need to send her. Along with a stitching team of Huskers Anna Coleman and Audrey Foster, Striebel created the costumes for all of the women featured in the film, including accessories. Coleman, earned her master of arts degree in material culture from Nebraska. Foster, current graduate student in the department of child, youth and family studies, earned her bachelor of science degree in textiles, merchandising and fashion design.

Once the pieces were finished, she shipped everything to each actor, along with a detailed packet of information containing photos of all pieces, broken down by scene so they would know exactly what to wear while filming. She conducted virtual fittings to ensure proper fit, and even sent the actors instructional hair and makeup videos. As lead costume designer, Striebel also coordinated the design, sourcing and purchasing for all of the costumes for the men and children for the film.

“All of the actors and honestly everyone involved in the production went above and beyond to see this through because we were so excited about telling this important story that deserves to be told,” Striebel said.

“The Bell Affair” tracks the story of the Daniel and Mary Bell family, chronicling the legal fight for Mary’s freedom following a widow’s rejection of a deed of manumission, the legal document granting freedom to an enslaved person signed by a slaveowner. These courtroom battles culminated in an escape attempt on April 15, 1848, when 77 enslaved people boarded the schooner, Pearl. It was the largest escape attempt ever recorded, though unsuccessful.

Striebel graduated earlier in May with her doctorate in apparel design. The Arizona-native is returned to her home state where she has landed a role as a costume director for a professional theatre company, taking with her lessons learned from “The Bell Affair.”

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