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Academy 2007 StandAlone – Costume Design

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From shopping for early period costumes in Paris flea markets to previewing costumed characters on a set through the computer technology of pre-visualization, costume designers use their creative techniques to bring characters to life with their designs.With Academy Award season upon us, what should voters look for when judging costume design? Film costumes enable actors to transport themselves and the audience to a particular time and place. So the challenge for the costume designer is to build costumes that actors can live and move comfortably in, while also defining their character and contributing to the narrative of the film. For costume designer Joanna Johnston (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Munich, War of the Worlds, About a Boy), “Costumes tell you the country, the time, the class of the character. What’s most important is merging the character to the story with their costumes. You don’t want costumes that jump out of the scene into your face unless the character calls for that.”You have to be clever with costumes. You want to enhance the character and the scene with the perfect texture,” she continues. “You don’t want anything out of balance. You want to subliminally see the person.”For Academy Award winning costume designer Sandy Powell (The Departed, Mrs. Henderson Presents, The Aviator, Shakespeare In Love), “Nine times out of 10 the costumes that win Academy awards are either connected to the most popular film or are the biggest and glitziest! There is a common misconception that biggest is best, and that the costumes have to be period or fantasy to even qualify. So, what should be remembered is not that biggest is best or period or fantasy are harder and therefore more worthy of recognition, but that costumes should be judged on their relevance. Whether they have helped create or identify a character or whether they have enhanced the mood or helped recreate a period or place.”Apart from Priscilla Queen of the Desert, she notes, a contemporary film hasn’t won an Academy Award in years. “This is because if the costumes are good in a modern film they don’t get noticed. It is easier for bad costumes in a period film to get acclaim than excellent ones in a modern setting,” Powell said.To authentically create the character’s world, it’s important, according to the designer, to put in plenty of research. “I usually start with books, but will look everywhere including photographic libraries, watching relevant materials such as films and documentaries. I will also visit museums and galleries , particularly if the period I am researching is pre-1860s, before photography.” That type of research will show in the film’s finished designs.Working on tight schedules and tight budgets has its influence on costume designers, making it difficult at times to pit one film against another in terms of the quantity and detail of the costume design. “It is difficult sometimes to judge one designer’s work against the other when both films can be totally different,” continues Powell. “What people often don’t realize is that one costume designer could have millions of dollars and a six, seven or eight-month prep period to produce the same number of costumes as a designer working with a much smaller budget producing miracles in a few weeks, but to the same effect.”Collaboration with the director and art departments is crucial to the merging of character to their clothes. “It’s a visual marriage between sets and costumes,” says Johnston. “Lighting plays an important part too. I work very closely with the production designer and am often inspired by what I see in set design. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle fitting all the pieces together. Seeing the picture as a whole. The lovely thing is sharing ideas with the other art departments and collaborating with the director to ensure that we are in the same direction, that we’re on the same racetrack.””It is the costume designer’s job to enhance the vision of the director,” concurs Powell, “and if the costumes fit perfectly with a well-directed, well-acted film, then they have been successful.”Voters can appreciate good costume design when, according to Johnston, “the costumes are brilliantly quiet. That is the most difficult to execute.” She feels that judging costume design in a film is a matter of personal taste. “Everyone has different taste, they will vote from their gut. What pushes the buttons for them—the costumes that help define the story or the ones that help the underbelly of the story?””I think there is a tendency for beauty to be praised over realism,” says Powell. “But sometimes ugliness and reality are worthy of recognition if the right atmosphere has been created.” The costumes should work with the film, she says, as part of the whole, as opposed to being seen on their own. “If the only thing remembered from a film is the costumes, then they are not necessarily successful as they have been a distraction. If by the end of a film the viewer feels totally convinced by the characters and has enjoyed watching them, then the costume designer has succeeded.”

Written by Kathy Anderson

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