Designing for Nudity
June 25, 2013
Merkins, nude spandex and stick-on, disposable panties–in other words, just a few of the necessary materials and objects used by a costume designer tackling nude scenes on a television series. Whether concealing or implying nudity – or both – costume designers have an entire arsenal of goodies to help them make their actors comfortable, while keeping viewers at home entertained.
Network television and premium cable are of course very different in terms of what can and can’t be shown on screen and the costume department is responsible for adhering to those guidelines. We recently caught up with Costume Designers Alexandra Welker (“Grimm”) and Audrey Fisher (“True Blood”) for an up close and personal look at how they have mastered the art of designing for nudity.
Alexandra Welker – “Grimm”
NBC’s “Grimm” is a fantasy police procedural set in a world inhabited by humans as well as mythological creatures that are loosely based on stories written by The Brothers Grimm. The show has a fair amount of chills and spooks, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that where there are spooks, there is usually a lot of skin.
Welker, who has been designing for the series for two seasons, is no stranger to “barely- there” costumes and says that, “without question, the most important thing is communication between all parties involved: the director, the actor and the costume designer. If nobody bothers to have an open conversation about scenes in which an actor will appear naked in bed or in the shower, it can turn into a big issue.”
According to Welker, the worst situations are when an actor shows up for a fitting and is blindsided to learn from the costume designer that they will be nearly naked in an upcoming scene. Often times, actors have clauses written into their contracts that specify what he or she is willing (or not willing) to do when it comes to nudity. The costume designer must take this into consideration and determine, along with the director and producer, how to appropriately cover the actor and shoot the scene.
Comfort, which is a byproduct of good communication, is also a top priority. “It’s a funny thing [designing for network television], because you’re in a situation where they want to show as much as possible, yet they can’t really show anything. It’s not like cable. A lot of what we try to do is make a character look as bare as possible, but still make them comfortable so they can focus on acting,” she says.
“People wear less clothing at the beach, but it’s appropriate for that environment. Everyone around you is wearing the same thing and is on the same level. An actor on camera is really the only person that is undressed, and on top of it, everyone is staring at them.”
Welker’s “modesty” collection includes everything from moleskin to nude unitards. She is particularly fond of using moleskin, a felt-like adhesive padding that is nude in color, as it helps her cover an actress’s breasts while implying nudity from the side or from behind.
“Moleskin is tricky in the shower, however, because although it’s pretty adhesive, it’s also felt-y and gets waterlogged quickly,” she says, adding that in those situations she will sometimes use a nude swimsuit with a very low-cut back and a halter strap that is covered by hair.
Being in bed and under the covers offers more flexibility in terms of covering body parts, but Welker says it’s important to take into consideration how the character(s) end up in bed, and whether they will be getting out of bed as part of the scene. Skin-colored bandeau tops are a go-to for the ladies, as well as leggings that are light in color so as not to show through the sheets. Costume designers and set designers have to work together because the amount and type of bedding used in a scene can effect decisions made for modesty reasons. If it’s just a thin sheet, any clothing needs to be as smooth and close fitting as possible, whereas if the scene incorporates a big down comforter, actors can wear more underneath.
Welker will often put the men in pajama bottoms, nude bicycle shorts or underwear, depending on the scene and the actor’s preference. By now, she also knows to expect the unexpected, recalling a scene with Silas Weir Mitchell, who plays Monroe, when the director added him jumping out of bed at the last minute. “Thank God he was wearing his character pajama pants!” laughs Welker.
In other situations, Welker is tasked with making it seem as though little or no clothing is being worn by a male character. “H&M has a line of David Beckham underwear that has a much shorter leg and is very form-fitting, which is a favorite on set. A lot of men’s underwear has a brand name or logo on it, which is not the case on H&M’s. We use those and dye everything to match individual actors’ flesh tones.”
Decisions about nudity must also be made with the characters’ personality traits in mind. Welker describes a scene toward the end of last season that saw a slowly brewing romance between Rosalee (played by Bree Turner) and Monroe finally culminate in the bedroom. “Monroe as a character is not necessarily someone who would be flaunting his chest,” she says of their choice to have him sleeping in a t-shirt. To complement that decision, Welker chose to have Rosalee in a lacy camisole that could have realistically been worn under the outfit she had on. Turner had a baby this past year in real life, so it ended up working out perfectly.
Audrey Fisher – “True Blood”
On the other side of the spectrum is cable, network television’s naughty neighbor, and nobody does sex scenes like HBO’s “True Blood.”
Like Welker, “True Blood” Costume Designer Audrey Fisher also has a Nudity Kit – a treasure chest of tools to help her cover up her actors’ prized parts.
“We use nude spandex for socks [for the men]. Same with the patches we make for the ladies. Often we use the tiniest no-show thongs and G-strings. Commandos is a great brand, they are nice and thin and we work with them all the time – they are really wonderful!” Fisher also praises Shibue, the company behind the world’s first strapless, stick-on panty, which she uses all the time for the ladies.
For as little actual clothing as it requires, designing to conceal or imply nudity is a team effort. Fisher credits her costumers who work discreetly and carefully with the actors to make sure they feel comfortable during intimate scenes. Each actor has their dedicated nudity “closet” with everything they need, and plenty of whatever works best for them.
“Our nudity kit has every size and shape of pasty, stick on bra, bandeau, G-string, patch, dance belt and sock to help an actor feel comfortable during those moments. But if an actor is not contracted to show certain things, then the director just has to be savvy with the blocking and camera angles to not reveal too much.”
In some cases, however, if an actress is playing full-frontal nudity, but is either not contracted or not allowed to reveal herself fully, she will sometimes need a little help from the make-up department in the form of a merkin (a pubic wig). The make-up department will also often do full body make-up when the actors play “nude.”
Beyond the items in the nudity kit, undergarments and lingerie are usually the star of the show in the series’ intimate scenes, and Fisher treats them as she does all the costumes: with full attention to detail. “Especially with Sookie, if there is a seduction scene and she reveals her lingerie to her lover, she must look like a beautiful present that is ready to be unwrapped!”
Fisher recalls a few of the more memorable scenes, including “the crazy sex scene in season one when Bill digs out of his nighttime grave to hold Sookie in a passionate embrace and he pulls off her cute summer dress. They have sex in the dirt and that had its own set of gritty challenges for sure.”
Another jaw-dropping scene was when Bill and Lorena had hate sex and he broke her neck, twisting it 180 degrees – a moment that is widely considered to be one of the most disturbing sex scenes in the history of television.
“[Lorena] started in a custom-made black cocktail dress that [Bill] ripped off during the scene, and she wound up in a black satin bra and panties. His white tuxedo shirt was stained with her blood from his bite. We had to make multiples of a perfect LBD that was rigged to be effortlessly ripped off her body!”
There was also a steamy scene in the 1910 brothel flashback in season five when the dynamic duo Lorena and Bill make love to a half-naked prostitute. She was topless, in peach satin tap pants and silk stockings. Lorena was in a custom corset made from the palest blue Chinoiserie silk with a cherry blossom pattern, and Fisher had to hide a flying harness under it.
“We always carefully select the ‘picture’ lingerie to use under the costume for a sexy scene; sometimes I just don’t know what will happen so I’m prepared with a picture set no matter what, and then of course, we have 4-6 multiples to make because our sex scenes often involve passion bites,” says Fisher.
“I try to deliver the costume that the writers imagine, and sometimes they work with me to write in the right silhouette or style of dress for the ladies. Then, naturally, I have to make sure that the costume comes off easily during a quick and dirty scene, which is a special challenge and usually requires a lot of discussion with the actors in fittings, as well as planning with the director,” she explains. “I work closely with the actors to make sure they understand how the costume works, and to ensure that the fastenings are easy to undo, which sometimes limits my design, but the costume is there to serve the story and that is my guide.”
In an era of television that leaves little to the erotic imagination, Costume Designers like Welker and Fisher—and their expert design teams—continue to test the bounds of their craft, keeping actors comfortable and focused in what could otherwise be a very stressful and distracting situation.