Spotlight On: Gina DeDomenico Flanagan, Costume Design Illustrator

May 2015

By Valli Herman

Is the movie industry becoming a numbers game? It certainly seems so, if you’re looking at it through the eyes of Costume Design Illustrator Gina DeDomenico Flanagan.

In recent months, the veteran illustrator has sketched costumes for “The Hateful Eight,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Ridiculous 6.” Though their titles may seem like a series of sequels, none are. “The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of the 1960 Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen classic. “The Hateful 8” is director Quentin Tarantino’s next gorefest, and “The Ridiculous 6” is an Adam Sandler comedy. What they all have in common, besides Flanagan, is a Western storyline.

While Flanagan was busy rendering the 1800s American frontier, Hollywood slyly revived the once-reviled Western. For Flanagan, the unusual series of projects shows that the genre is still ripe for reinterpretation, including hers.

While she can’t reveal too much of her approach to these unreleased films, Flanagan shared insights about how she works with Costume Designers and directors to achieve a look that helps steer the costumes, characters and even the story.

Flanagan brings a rare skill set to her jobs. She blends a career working with actual paint, paper and charcoal with digital tools that have expanded her style and skills. She also holds a fashion design degree from Parsons School of Design in New York, where classes required that she make her own clothes, allowing her to visualize the important details of a costume.

“I spent a lot of time in draping and pattern making,” she said. She also studied costume history, knowledge that eases her communication with designers and her feel for the mood of illustrations.

“That education is great. I know the name of every seam, every sleeve,” she said. Flanagan also was rigorously trained in the details of precise illustration, a talent she applies to making flats, the line drawings of costume pieces that guide construction.

After graduation, she worked in the city as an assistant designer for a sportswear company, learning the specifics of clothing production on a large scale. It wasn’t exactly what she had in mind, given her training to be a designer and illustrator.

“After a year, I decided the only place I could be was in the movies. I did research and found I had to get into the Costume Designers Guild.” To enter, she needed a portfolio. That was a piece of cake for the highly skilled illustrator, who was soon hired by Ruth Carter.

Though Flanagan held membership cards for the Motion Picture Costumers Local 705 and the Costume Designers Guild Local 892 of the IATSE, she found a single path. “I never stopped illustrating after that and never considered being a designer,” Flanagan said.

Now she has become the indispensable collaborator with noted designers. As the longtime illustrator for Costume Designer Sharen Davis, Flanagan teamed up to work with her on “The Magnificent Seven.” Flanagan and Davis have partnered before on “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Earth 2,” “The Help,” “Django Unchained,” “The Book of Eli,” “Looper,” “Godzilla” and “Get On Up.”

For many projects, she and Davis meet and review the designer’s vision to illustrate character concepts. Flanagan works with Davis about twice a year and the process requires three to five weeks. If time and conditions permit, Flanagan reads the script and begins to imagine the story’s setting, mood and how the characters exist within it and then the collaboration begins. Their routine is similar to how Flanagan works with other designers.

“She tells me who we are going to work on and she gives me where they are at in the development of their character,” Flanagan said. “For example, there is a woman in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ who starts out as a hard-working farm girl and she turns into a gunslinger.

“I began with three poses: a farm girl; then as she’s transitioning into the gunslinger, her weight is different. She’s on both feet. For the third, she is leaning into her gun, like, ‘Come on!’ We discussed the arc of the character and how we were going to illustrate and costume all of them. Then she’ll either pull a costume and say, ‘It’s like this–this top and this bottom–and give me fabric samples. She gives me photographs or actual pieces of clothing, ‘Use this waistband, but with this other skirt.’ And then I have to put all the pieces together on this one illustration.”

“Sharen then takes my illustration and to the director and they get kicked back or everything is great and they go on to the workroom,” Flanagan said. “My illustrations are the way that Sharen communicates to the director, what her vision is.”

Though her field is small and specialized, it’s also vital to filmmaking and Costume Design.

“You have to have an illustration when you are building costumes,” Flanagan said. “I don’t know how they communicate without illustrations when the costume doesn’t exist yet.” Though not every proposal includes a budget for illustration, projects that do set aside a budget find illustration to be a time saver and a great communication aid. “I think it’s a money saver too, so things don’t go the wrong way.

“Illustrations are maps for the workroom–and the designer doesn’t have to be standing over their shoulders all the time,” Flanagan said. Yet costume illustrations can’t be so literal that they fail to express a feeling for the story, the director’s vision and the character’s emotions.

For her recent string of Westerns, she ran the gamut of looks and moods.

Tarantino’s “Hateful 8” is a post-Civil War drama that’s full of the director’s signature gory imagery. The teaser trailer’s title features so many blood spatters, the type looks inspired by Ralph Steadman or Jackson Pollock. Costume Designer Courtney Hoffman developed the look for Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” which stars Channing Tatum and Samuel L. Jackson.

“It was gritty, bloody and aged,” she said. She sketched Costume Designer Courtney Hoffman’s concepts digitally, in a charcoal-like effect, “so it looked like I had sketched in charcoal,” and printed them on Bristol paper and hand painted them with gouache.

“Quentin likes hand-done work. He wants art. He doesn’t want a printed picture. He’s tactile,” said Flanagan, who learned how to feed the thicker illustration paper through her printer.

Though her illustrations are in some ways a sales tool to help the director understand the Costume Designer’s vision, her illustrations also are a storytelling device that can show a point in time.

“For ‘Hateful Eight,’ I did a female character who has been beaten up. She’s torn up, dirty, she has blood on her, her eyes are swollen,” said Flanagan. “The character dictates the mood of the drawing.”

By contrast, in what promises to be a spoof, “The Ridiculous 6” has Sandler heading a wildly divergent cast, including Steve Buscemi, Steve Zahn, John Turturro, David Spade, Terry Crews, Will Forte, Nick Nolte, Taylor Lauren and Danny Trejo. Working with costumer Ellen Lutter, Flanagan developed illustrations that mirrored the fun mood and divergent cast.

“It was whimsical…there was no blood,” Flanagan said. “Add blood to any illustration and it starts looking gritty.

“The colors were brighter and the characters had distinct silhouettes. There are silly faces and puffed-up chests. Some of them were goofy. So you draw a character that’s goofy and it has a spirit of its own,” Flanagan said.

Though the projects, subjects and even the tools of her trade change, Flanagan can rely on the consistency of her illustration style to help Costume Designers do their work. She even sketches sample illustrations for designers to use in job interviews where a vision board would be too unspecific. Never one to let her skills be dormant, Flanagan also launched a mural painting business for public and private buildings.

And what’s up next for the busy illustrator? More numbers, of course. She worked again with Davis on “The 5th Wave,” the upcoming film by director J Blakeson, a sci-fi thriller that visits five modern plagues on Earth, and also on the soon-to-debut “Pitch Perfect 2” with Costume Designer Salvador Perez. She can’t say much about the plot of “The 5th Wave,” but for once, she won’t be drawing cowboys.

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