Frank Helmer Interview | Cobra Kai Costume Designer

Frank Helmer Interview | Cobra Kai Costume Designer

Our founder, Kevin, was fortunate enough to play a small role in the production of Cobra Kai season one (back when it was on Youtube!) thanks to the costume designer Frank Helmer seeking him out for some assistance.  Frank was gracious enough to answer some questions about himself and his job.


Q: How did you get started / Did you know you wanted to go into costume design / Did you have a big break?  (basically give your origin story going as far back as you think is relevant)

A: I moved to LA from Seattle shortly after college to follow the dream of working in film and television. I had been designing a small line of clothing when I met a couple indie film directors and producers while I was volunteering at the Seattle International Film Festival. One of them suggested I do the costumes for their friend’s student film and I jumped at the opportunity. I then spent the next few weeks sleeping on my friend’s couch and doing my first film. I was hooked!  Six months  after that I moved to Los Angeles and began working every possible job in the industry I could find. There’s an old adage in Hollywood that it takes ten years to have your “overnight” success. Which means there’s generally ten years of hard work and dedication on the way to getting the big break that brings you to the attention of the world. Working in the entertainment industry is a marathon and you have to love what you do and keep at it with a good attitude and a lot of perseverance.


Q: How did you get the Cobra Kai job?

A: Cobra Kai came to me through my favorite producers to work with. When they asked if I had any interest in reading the script for a new Karate Kid series starring the original actors, I mean, how could I say no? Aside from the fan buy in me, they have gathered a really great “film family” and we have done a number of shows together so it was a no brainer.


Q: What kind of hours do you work?

A: TV production hours can be gruelling!  A typical day is usually 14 hours long and I usually start at 5am with a slate of fittings for the days work, run over to approve how the background actors are dressed, step on set to establish any new looks that are being filmed for the first time, dash over to the stunt unit to make sure the stunt doubles are matching the actors, read the next script, work on my research and inspiration boards for the next episode and then back into another round of fittings. It’s a lot of work but I love it.


Q: Do you watch the filming to make sure you like the end results of your choices?

A: Always. I am there everytime a new outfit goes to camera making the final adjustments. After that my amazing on set crew maintain the looks for the duration of the shoot.


Q: Were you a Karate Kid movie fan prior to getting the job?

A: I am a big fan of the originals! I grew up with them as a kid and when I got the call to meet on season one I could not have been more excited.


Q: How many times did you watch the original movies in preparation for this job?

A: Each season is loosely inspired by one of the originals so in preparation I will watch each one in its entirety again and then as we are shooting, I’ll  dip in and watch specific scenes if there’s a particular easter egg I’m planning or something I want to reference. In Season 4 for example there are a lot of details I pulled and referenced from Karate Kid 3 that will be really fun for fans to discover.


Q: How long do you have to prepare before an episode airs?

A: I have roughly 7 days to prep each new episode while we are shooting. We shoot each episode in 11 days on average and I am prepping and fitting for the next one while we are shooting the current one. Once we are done shooting the whole season, the show runners go into post-production mode and will spend around 6 months or so editing before the season in released.


Q: How much interaction do you have with the cast?

A: I work very closely with all the cast.  I am in every fitting and am on set every time a new outfit is worn for the first time to make sure everything is exactly how it should be. One thing I love about what I do is the collaborative nature of creating and enhancing the characters through their costumes so I always present my character research inspirations and love to discuss any ideas  or insights they may have. 


Frank Helmer with some of the cast of Cobra Kai


Q: With something as iconic as the Cobra Kai name / logo, are there levels of approvals you have to get before doing any updates?

A: Some things you just don’t mess with. To fundamentally change the Cobra Kai snake logo or the Miyagi-do tree and rising sun would never be considered. However, in Season 4 I got to do a very exciting collaboration with a big sportswear brand that gave me the opportunity to really expand on the look and style of the Cobra Kai. For that the producers gave me a lot of freedom to interpret the classic CK aesthetic knowing that I would fully respect the integrity of the classic logo. 


Q: How much say do the cast members have in what they wear (I read that Billy didn't think his character would wear a particular band shirt)? 

A: This goes back to the collaborative nature of character creation. Billy and Ralph know these characters so intimately that when a choice isn't quite exactly spot on, they speak up and I love it. The band tee is a really good example. I got a great vintage Jane’s Addiction concert tee and even though Billy and I both love the band and it was from a concert in the late 80’s, we were going back and forth about whether or  not Johnny Lawrence would have been a fan and gone to that concert. We decided that it was a little too cool for Johnny and so we cut the tee because it wasn’t the best reflection of the character. 


Q: How has your status been affected by the increased exposure that has come with the move to Netflix?

A: What’s been incredibly gratifying has been the global response to the show. I get messages and questions from fans all over the world and have even been told that our show has hugely boosted the number of kids taking up karate. It’s great to be part of a hit show and it’s even better that we are bringing so much j


Q: What is your dream job of any kind?

A: Design-wise I’d really love a post-apocalyptic show or a story set in the near or distant future like Blade Runner, Mad Max, Ready Player One, Brazil or Fifth Element. Getting to imagine what the world and society looks like in an unknown future would be a thrill.


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