Collaborating with Production Designers
Onscreen or off, a visually coordinated production is a thing of beauty
By Valli Herman
Costume Designer Hope Hanafin learned early in her career about the value of keeping in touch with production designers on set.
While shooting the ‘90s television miniseries “Stay the Night,” Hanafin created a wardrobe of pastel florals for actress Jane Alexander’s suburban mother character. But when Hanafin saw the set’s floral wallpaper, she switched the costume to include a white sweater so that her clothes wouldn’t compete.
“Then I went to rehearsal and they blocked her not up against the wallpaper but against the white refrigerator. I changed the costume again so she would have a pattern against the white,” said Hanafin, who makes a point to always attend rehearsals.
In the fast-moving, ever-changing environment of a film or television set, costume designers know that a strong relationship with the production design department has to begin before the cameras roll.
“The fact that we have to make decisions and solve problems so quickly makes it all the more important that when the project begins, we reach out to our collaborators and open the lines of communication and treat each other as co-equals so we can move forward in a meaningful and creative way when the pace accelerates,” said Hanafin.
Soon after she’s hired, Hanafin often invites the production designers into the costume world, beginning with a friendly phone call or an invitation to share ideas over drinks or a meal. She also creates websites to function as a central resource before and during production.
“The Internet can be very helpful because it’s not unusual that I don’t get to the location until a week before we shoot,” Hanafin said. With shared online research, “You’re influenced by the same take on the world, whether it is a painting, a photographer or a verbal account.”
For “Wayward Pines,” a FOX miniseries set to debut in 2015, Costume Designer Mary Vogt worked within an environment that she said looked a little like a black and white version of an Edward Hopper painting. Early on, production designer Curt Beech shared with Vogt the central ideas behind the town of Wayward Pines.
“The piece is very much about control, and so are the resources and the materials, right down to color,” Beech said. To evoke a wartime look, he used a restricted color palette to mimic the feel of the rationed pigments of the 1940s. He gave Vogt the Federal Standards Colors fan deck that would be their color bible.
“We had other restrictions in terms of color, which were esthetic choices. We specifically limited the color red,” Beech said. The primary color would be “almost a signal for something bad about to happen, a foreboding and foreshadowing of something bad.”
Beech also shared the concept book that he created to pitch the project to director M. Night Shyamalan. “I had that on the wall in my office. Everything literally came down from that,” Beech said.
With a new director on nearly every episode, Beech created a welcome packet that included a concept map, a list of locations and a copy of a prop Chamber of Commerce pamphlet, along with the stills that had been shot to date. The team also used a website that contained costumes, scenic ideas, location shots and more.
“Everyone got looped in and got up to speed as quickly as they could visually. You have only eight days to prep and eight days to shoot and a revolving door of directors,” Beech said. The team also embraced technology.
“We could get on a Skype or a conference call with people in L.A. while we were in Vancouver and show options and discuss them in real time while we’re all looking at same pictures,” Beech said.
Though technology has become an indispensable aid, so too is old-fashioned familiarity. Costume Designer Wendy Chuck and production designer Jane Ann Stewart have worked together on several Alexander Payne movies, including “The Descendants,” “About Schmidt,” “Election” and “Sideways.”
“We have a great collaboration going,” said Chuck. “We share resources, invent character backstories and have spent more time than most looking at colors and ideas. And she always asks me good questions.”
Recalling her long association with Chuck, Stewart said the two tend to conduct the similar research.
“I think she and I travel on the same landscape a lot in working with Alexander. We spent a lot of time honing in on the banality of the Midwest.” With several movies set in Omaha, Chuck and Stewart were keen to see how its residents lived and dressed.
“I remember that I was shopping in a department store one time in Omaha and I ran into Wendy and she was shopping in the same store. We were both looking for where these characters would shop.”
Stewart made sure that their interactions weren’t always accidental.
“I would respectfully go to her and see what she was up to. I would go off what she had gathered,” Stewart said. On “The Descendants,” Stewart invited Chuck to visit a location at a plantation where she giving walls and wood an aged patina and a strong sense of place.
“She soaked up the environment,” Stewart recalled. Chuck selected Hawaiian shirts for star George Clooney that designated him a local. Stewart did the same: “I threw my paint colors in based on what Clooney was wearing. You wanted to make him seem at ease and add layers of history.”
Though costumes are often considered easier to adjust than set designs, Stewart aims to prevent those changes.
“Once we establish what the rules are with a character, [Chuck] would tell me things she had discovered by talking to the director and the actor—conversations I wasn’t privy to. I could glean a little more insight,” Stewart said. “Sometimes in order to have the actor stand out or say something about the character, I would tone down what I was saying in terms of the environment I was creating.”
Costume and production designers agree that the more that they can have a concrete sense of the place and character, the more they can have a cohesive story and an easy working relationship. Whether the designers are sharing ideas online, on the phone or on set, they also know to appreciate each other’s efforts.
Hanafin has arrived on set without benefit of prior discussion only to delightedly discover that the production designers had matched decorations to her costume colors. In other instances, she noted the careful attention to detail on a Russian airport set—even the coffee cups and magazines were Russian.
“Taking a moment to look around and see what your peers pull off is thrilling,” Hanafin said. “Even if you are ships hurriedly passing in the night, you’re all heading toward the same port.”