Designing for Stunts and Effects

Success comes from a mix of the tried and true and the cutting edge

By Valli Herman

They have to leap through fire, survive dousings with water, wind and whatever an action-packed script requires. They’re the special effects costumes for actors and stuntmen and they’re some of the hardest working elements on a set.

These days, the costumes for stunts and effects aren’t just the extra-durable garments that define and protect a character through physical challenges. New technology is expanding the horizons of costume design to include computer-generated effects that defy physics. Yet a sampling of this year’s films illustrates that designing for stunts and effects remains an exercise in old-school practicality, creative problem solving, careful planning and a lot of collaboration.

Here is how some designers met the challenge.

A Simple Solution: “Birdman”

Michael Keaton has to fly. And he has to look like he’s somehow morphed into a cross between a caped, airborne Superman and a terrestrial Clark Kent in “Birdman,” the story of an over-the-hill actor who used to portray an iconic superhero. In a key fantasy sequence, Keaton flies over the streets of New York.

Costume Designer Albert Wolsky needed to strike a balance between gritty realism and the surreal. To solve the thorny problem, Wolsky embraced simplicity: Keaton wore a stripped-down raincoat.

“I avoided things like belts, and the capelet that English raincoats have,” said Wolsky. He selected an ordinary twill overcoat that you can buy in any number of men’s stores. To outfit the flying scene, Wolsky bought a coat a few sizes larger, tested them to see which fit the best over the flying harness, and cut slits in the coat where the tethers attached to the harness.

“The size, I thought, would be an issue, but it wasn’t,” Wolsky said. He attributes improved harnesses with making it easier to fit realistic-looking costumes on actors. And what Wolsky couldn’t cover with a raincoat, the wizards in post-production could erase–wires, hooks and even fraying at the slits.

“At first it seemed like a big problem, but oddly enough, it wasn’t. Once we decided on a particular raincoat and tested it, that was the end of the story,” he said.

A Weighty Issue: “Dolphin Tale 2”

When Hope Hanafin worked on “Dolphin Tale 2” from late fall to early winter in central Florida, the Costume Designer wasn’t just worried about how often her costumes would get wet.

“The biggest challenge of the shoot was keeping people both warm and cool. They were often in the water for a long period of time,” she said. Hanafin had to construct costumes to work with water-compatible fabrics, warmth-retaining wetsuits and weights to keep clothes anchored.

For the young star, Hazel Haskett (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), Hanafin built clothing to be modest, and ample enough to conceal wetsuits.

“We had to sew in pockets for the weights around her waist, so that is why her T-shirt is kind of loose and baggy,” Hanafin said. “Then we secured the T-shirt to the shorts so when she floated in the water, her clothes wouldn’t float away and show she had a wetsuit underneath.”

It’s not as if Costume Designers go to school to learn how to work with dolphins and wet, weighted child actors. “I was so grateful to have Leslie Herman as a supervisor because her diving experience was so helpful in determining how to weight things, where to hide weights and how to protect people and what weight of wetsuit to use,” Hanafin said.

“We were researching these concepts a few days before we had to shoot–and we were testing while we were shooting,” the designer said. “We started doing this just three or four weeks in to prep. We didn’t have the kids beforehand. So with very little time, we had to engineer the clothes not to float away, hide weights and hide the wetsuit and not sink the children. And not come undone. And we had to use the bulky weights not the pellet weighs. And it all had to be approved by the aquarium before we slipped anything into the pool,” she said.

Hanafin and the entire crew had to consider the costumes’ effects on their sea creature stars, too. For the safety of the animals, no costume element could pose potential harm.

“There were a lot of items to secure things that we couldn’t use because if there was any chance that it could come loose, they would shut shooting down,” she said. “No belts, no strings. No grommets, no snaps, no buttons, or anything that was metal, too, because it would catch their eye and take their focus,” she said.

“If the dolphins or turtles or otters ingest something, they would be doing serious, serious damage,” Hanafin said. Even standard scuba-diving gear that contained weighted pellets was banned to prevent potential leaks.

“We used big plastic zippers and Velcro, which is the least elegant solution, but we just didn’t have any other option for the safety of the animals,” she said. Given the strict specifications, Hanafin built most of the costumes to be dolphin- and turtle-safe.

Fake Space, Real Problems: “Interstellar”

There’s hardly a futuristic costume these days that doesn’t have some multi-tasking tech feature integrated into its construction. Costume Designer Mary Zophres had the dual challenge of making fantasy costume features look real and make real functions imperceptible in the space story “Interstellar.”

Zophres had to create spacesuits with rocket launchers embedded in the forearms and helmets that were reasonably attractive, large enough for fans that could deliver oxygen from backpack tanks.

Just getting the right helmet size required research, experimentation and collaboration with the sound department, which aided the installation of an audio system. Zophres selected Redondo Beach special effects firm SCPS, which guided her through 3D printing techniques that built costume parts.

“We went to a lot of different [effects] houses and said, ‘Here is a design and how would you go about doing it?’ And no one else suggested 3D printing. Everybody else was going to do it the old way — mold it out of clay,” she said.

Using a special computer program, the tech and costume team designed and then printed a mini 3D model of the helmet. “Then they grew the helmet on a 3D machine. I didn’t even know a printer like that existed,” Zophres said.

The costume’s rockets were equally difficult. “Those things had to actually ignite,” said Zophres, who fireproofed the fabric. “In order to get the rocket launcher right, the brace that fit it had to be woven into the costume,” she said. “It was a very painstaking process.”

The 3D technology was employed to make elements of the costume, part of the spaceship and even portions of the set.

The promise of technology is that it will add ease and speed to our work and lives–someday. Did the 3D printing make her job easier? “No. Not at all-because you’re still coordinating with a third party. They were great, but we had meetings at least two or three times a week.

“You aren’t running around doing all this shopping, but every day, you’re trying a new technique,” Zophres said. “It was really good for me, like using a different muscle I hadn’t used before.’’

Every Costume a Stunt Costume: “Jupiter Rising”

In a memorable moment in the sci-fi adventure “Jupiter Rising,” Mila Kunis appears in a stunning wedding dress covered in hundreds of silk flowers and thousands of Swarovski crystals. Though the dress commanded a lot of press attention, it wasn’t the crowning achievement of Kym Barrett’s international team of costume makers.

“There were lots and lots of much more elaborate costumes that had a lot more R&D built into them,” she said. The film required that she outfit a planet populated with robots and a race of clone-spliced beings who are half human and half animal. And virtually every costume was part of a stunt or a visual effect.

She collaborated with an international assortment of craftsmen who used a mix of old and new world skills to create futuristic effects.

“We finish most of the costume and do a halfway version so that visual effects can join onto it. We do a lot of collaboration with visual effects,” said the designer, who pays special attention to costume colors and textures. “We have to be very aware of if it’s a green screen or blue screen,” she said.

To create a robot, she used rubber bodysuits with sections the color of a green screen to allow visual effects teams to insert robotic features in post-production.

She also built all of the jewelry, helmets and accessories in 3D. The items were printed in nylon and given a gold metallic plating.

“I got to really learn a lot about that technology and meet a lot of different printers from around the world,” she said. The printers had experience in making parts for aviation and computers, but clothing? Not so much. She leveraged their expertise and technology and created cutting-edge solutions.

“I had to do a gun and holster for Channing [Tatum], but some of it had to be hard, and some soft. I found a printer who could print all in one piece from soft to hard. It comes right out of the machine and you can paint it,” she said.

Barrett found 3D printing a problem-solver for stunt costume elements. “With 3D printing, you can make an intricate hard piece for close ups, and then make that 3D-printed element in a soft version,” she said. “So every time you see someone fall or get crushed, all those stunt people are wearing the soft, rubber version. So 3D printing, you don’t have to reinvent a soft version. You mold from the original mold as many as you want, for a relatively simple amount of money.”

Though the onscreen result is stunning, for Barrett the real reward is in the costume design and construction process.

“The collaboration with all of these artists is amazing,” she said. “You pull together. You don’t know anyone. And you somehow manage to get it out on time and on the budget. And that’s not easy. That’s something everyone should be proud of.”

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