Toronto shoemaker crafting custom footwear for Hollywood's biggest hits
Jeff Churchill and his team at Jitterbug Boy make bespoke shoes and boots for the arts
You've likely seen Jeff Churchill's handiwork all over big and little screens, or perhaps at a musical or ballet. Maybe even during a live show in Las Vegas or Macao or Sydney.
From his fourth-floor workshop in a century-old factory space in Parkdale, Churchill designs and crafts some of the most exclusive bespoke footwear in the world.
His innovative creations have the biggest forces in entertainment coming back again and again, from Hollywood studios to Cirque du Soleil.
This year alone, Churchill and his team made shoes and boots for four of the five films nominated for best motion picture (musical or comedy) at the upcoming 2020 Golden Globes: Rocketman; Jojo Rabbit; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Dolemite is my name.
They've also worked on a laundry list of other big-name films, including Marvel blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnorok and the Oscar-winners The Shape of Water and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
He's even made boots for a personal hero, American musician and actor Tom Waits, to wear in the film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Churchill is such a big fan of the acclaimed songwriter that he named his shoemaking company after Waits' 1976 song Jitterbug Boy.
He's a bit blasé about what seem, to any reasonable observer, like impressive accomplishments.
"Seeing our stuff on the screen is great, but it's just a bonus really," Churchill said in his workshop. "Developing something that has never existed before in the world — that's the addiction for me."
The 45-year-old started Jitterbug Boy nearly 15 years ago, when it was just him in a small studio in a building that no longer stands.
Now he has a team of about 20, working at a break-neck pace to produce footwear for between 50 and 60 films each year. On top of that, there are the shoes and boots for television, live performances, and even for theme parks.
"Everything is made here, in Parkdale, completely by hand for shows literally all over the world," he said.
Churchill's professional background is in theatre set and costume design, experiences that he says helped him develop the shrewd aesthetic and creativity he now brings to this pursuit.
And it's a good thing — the workshop often finds itself pushing the limits on design, under tight deadlines for unforgiving clients in far-away places.
"A lot of the time, you have one chance to knock it out of the park. That's because the actors need to put the shoes on and say, 'Yep.' And then do their thing," he said.
"We have to anticipate all kinds of problems that the actors may encounter before each pair of shoes or boots goes out the door."
He sees three basic challenges when making footwear for the arts: working effectively with a costume designer; ensuring actors are comfortable for long days on set; and, as Churchill describes it, "the more technical aspect."
"They'll say, 'OK, we've got to have these really nice dress shoes made for this actor. And, oh yeah, he's got to hang on the outside of a plane at 5,000 feet,'" he said laughing. "And they need it in three weeks."
It's an allusion to a real life example. Churchill and his team made shoes for Tom Cruise to wear in the 2015 film Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. In one memorable action sequence, Cruise dangles off the side of a military cargo plane several thousand feet in the air as he tries to sneak his way into the fuselage.
Churchill credits his team for the workshop's ability to turn out thousands of pairs of shoes, boots and everything in between every year.
He estimates that each pair takes at least 20 to 30 hours to make, and some take much longer. They start at about $950 per pair, up to a few thousand dollars.
Most of Jitterbug's staff did not begin with any experience cobbling shoes. Many come from the design world and learned the craft over time.
"Fortunately I have a kick-ass team in here who can take everything and just fly with it, because it's constant pressure and it's not easy," he told CBC Toronto, adding that there's often no "prototype" they can work from.
"We're reinventing the wheel 20 times a week, from the perspective of how to make shoes."
Sometimes, after all the work, Jitterbug Boy's shoes are almost entirely cut from a film before its final release. But that's just part of the gig, Churchill said.
Despite the workshop's success, he has no immediate plans to make shoes for retail.
"I prefer being hands on, creating something for a person," Churchill said. "I want to make shoes, and I want to send something out the door that I'm passionate about."
With files from Dayna Gourley and Paul Borkwood