Costume Design in a Digital Age
By Anna Wyckoff, February 3, 2010
Over a century ago, the history of film began as a wavering black and white image that played in silence. The picture was intercut with text, which in time was supplanted by sound. The action became smoother and moved more naturally, and then was completely transformed by color. Televisions brought the image home, and iPods made it even more ubiquitous.
In an effort to astonish audiences anew, digital effects have expanded the scope of cinema, most recently through the creation of convincing three-dimensional space. Like the reinvention of painting by Renaissance perspective, the medium of film has been dynamically changed by computer-generated imagery, or CGI. In order to explore the role of the Costume Designer in this new world of filmmaking, we interviewed several members of the Costume Designers Guild working at its frontier.
At first glance, one might assume that CGI will make the Costume Designer a relic of the past. A recent Hollywood Reporter article suggests that “… winning a costume nom [for Avatar] is a tall order, since those Na’vi loin cloths were fashioned in a computer rather than a designer’s studio.”
But one of the two Costume Designers from the film, Academy Award-winner Deborah L. Scott, dispels this myth. “It’s the same process with an extra technical element,” Scott says. “It’s exactly how a Costume Designer works every day, but the end result is not a physical body, but an animated body.” Costume Design in any medium is the construction of clothing, real or imagined, in order to create a character. CGI doesn’t reduce the role of the Costume Designer. To the contrary, it increases the design possibilities through variables including movement, scale and details.
The prevalence of high definition television has helped heighten the audience’s visual awareness. Viewers immediately recognize when a visual effect is not believable. Unsuccessful design undermines the veracity of a fantasy world, and therefore its narrative. One of “Avatar’s” great strengths is that it so definitively establishes a three-dimensional world in film.
This verisimilitude was created through painstaking collaboration. One of the many dilemmas the designers Mayes C. Rubeo and Deborah L. Scott faced during the film’s production was the unique challenge of communicating three-dimensional movement. For the female Na’vi clan leader’s ceremonial gown, Scott arrived at one particular element that matched director James Cameron’s concept: an actual leaf skeleton. She translated this ethereal object into a costume for the nine-foot tall Na’vi by making several sample garments from fabrics as disparate as chiffon and taffeta. Next, Scott tested the movement of these costumes, considering properties like flow and hang time. Finally, she distilled all of these components together and supplied animators with an illustration of her Costume Design, a motion test, an actual garment, a size reference, and a texture reference. These were the materials the animators needed in order to assemble a computerized image that corresponded to the vision of the character shared by Scott and Cameron.
In the highly anticipated 3D “Alice in Wonderland,” two-time Academy Award-winner Colleen Atwood meticulously built both animated and live-action costumes. A longtime conspirator of director Tim Burton, Atwood manipulated the interplay of fabrics to heighten the sense of dimension and pop. For Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter character, Atwood used an assemblage of aged textile artwork to amplify the visual effects’ “mood ring” quality. She deliberately used lights against darks in concert with rich textures to achieve dynamism, particularly in Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen costume. Burton wanted to imbue a sense of “real-life feeling” to the three-dimensional world, and the physical costumes helped guide the animators.
In the animated feature “Stuart Little 2,” no physical garments were constructed by Costume Designer Mona May. Director Rob Minkoff wanted casual, highly believable costumes. Scale became a crucial component in achieving this deceptively simple task. “Stuart Little didn’t really have a great body, he was very short, with not much inseam,” May remarks, “He had no neck and a belly, but we really were trying to work with the proportion of the clothes to simulate the human body,” specifically that of a little boy. Stuart’s wardrobe of red Converse tennis shoes, jeans and sweaters are convincingly ordinary. But this effortlessness is illusory, because May honed every nuance. For Stuart’s hoodie, she directed animators on minutia including how the hood lay, how the waistband fit, and even the size of the zipper. If the zipper had been drawn to scale, the teeth would have been invisible, so she made it very slightly oversized.
May had actual tiny patterns made for the clothing. The patterns were scanned and “sewn” together in the computer so the fabric would exhibit surface tension. Stuart Little was “fitted” in the computer, as well, and May notes that he never complained. Like an actual fitting, adjustments had to be made, but in this instance they focused on accommodating Stuart’s tail and the thickness of his fur. May simulated everyday fabrics like denim and thermal knit; she even created dirt marks where Stuart wiped his paws. The Stuart Little character demonstrates that the right costume can ground anyone in reality, even a four-inch tall, imaginary mouse.
Every CGI film requires a unique approach in terms of Costume Design. 2004’s groundbreaking “Polar Express” was the first full-length, performance-capture, digitally animated feature. Costume Designer Joanna Johnston explains, “In the ‘Polar Express’ days, we had to be economical about the design because more details directly translated into greater cost.” “Avatar” was created using the “Polar Express” technology as a foundation. One of “Avatar’s” two Costume Designers, Mayes Rubeo, fabricated garments in the traditional way—from leather, feathers, rope, and beads. These highly detailed, intricate pieces make a direct translation into the film, losing none of their complexity. If anything, Rubeo feels that the 3D medium gives a greater range of expression because the physical costume becomes a point of departure that the designer can refine with almost unlimited possibility.
But the accuracy of such realism also translates into surprisingly common wardrobe dilemmas. When Deborah L. Scott built a red beaded breastplate for the Moat character in “Avatar,” animators noted that Moat’s nipples showed when she moved. Scott was astounded. She explained to the animators a real world solution—how to secure the beads covering the areas in question to prevent this exposure. Scott says, “the animators don’t just draw the reality, they are referencing the reality that the Costume Designer is supplying them.” It is the Costume Designer’s technical skill and clothing expertise that translates into the ability to problem solve, regardless of medium.
Moving Between Media
Isis Mussenden, CDG Award winner for the “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” describes a complex CGI sequence. “There was a sequence in ‘Prince Caspian’ where the White Witch comes back to tempt our heroes. She would materialize in a sheet of ice, speak to our heroes, and then extend her hand through the ice.” Mussenden created a partial dress as a base for the visual effects artist to build upon. Because very little movement was required of the actor, Mussenden had a costume of gossamer lace adhered to her skin. In the resulting shot, the Witch appears to be swirling in ice. Realizing this sort of highly specialized image requires an exceptional synergy between costume and VFX departments.
Because the VFX department’s work usually culminates in post-production, Mussenden is sometimes wary of designs being modified. In order to preserve the integrity of the original Costume Design, she now supplies the VFX department with a costume “bible” to aid them in the post-production process. “Someday I hope to get a week of post in my contract, not unlike the DP timing a film down the line,” says Mussenden.
In 2008’s “Enchanted,” Costume Designer Mona May was brought on early to ensure the characters made a viable transition from 2D to live action to CGI. May began with the 2D characters, working directly with the animators. Inspired by the classic Disney paradigm, May created a princess gown for actor Amy Adams. To achieve the cartoonish proportion of a big skirt with an impossibly narrow waist in live action, May decided to build a massive gown. The skirt necessitated many yards of silk satin, weighed forty pounds, and was reinforced in metal. But when the princess dances through New York’s central park, she looks just like an animated character.
The evil queen Narissa, played by Susan Sarandon, had to transform from 2D animation to live action, finally becoming a dragon that blended CGI and live action. May worked with several different animation teams, as well as her own costume team, to create the various iterations of Narissa. Threading the essence of the character through all of the mediums, May seamlessly wove costume elements to tie together the 2D, live action and CGI, without divulging the plot. Toying with iconic childhood archetypes, May moved easily between mediums and created costumes that make the characters instantly recognizable in any guise.
This technological metamorphosis will certainly have long reaching ramifications. But CGI doesn’t mean a diminished role for the Costume Designer, but rather an opportunity for expansion of their artistry. The Costume Designers Guild motto has long been, “Behind every costume is a Costume Designer,” and this holds true for both physical and virtual garments. In the timeline of history, cinema and television are relatively young art forms. But the Costume Designer has always straddled both worlds, simultaneously wielding the knowledge of the past and using it to navigate the future.