Various forms of historical research aided the creative minds behind J.J. Abrams latest film, Super 8 as they costumed actors and vivified visuals.
Director of photography, Larry Fong, whose credits include 300 and Watchmen, has been friends with Abrams since childhood and the pair has worked together over the years on various projects including the TV series Lost. As one of Hollywood’s top cinematographers, he was able to capture visuals ranging from intimate to eye-popping, which added to the film’s tactic of taking an ordinary setting and adding a layer of the extraordinary on top of it.
The film’s production designer, Martin Whist, who previously collaborated with Abrams on Cloverfield, was responsible not only for bringing life to the prototypical American mill town of Lillian, Ohio, but also for placing Lillian in 1979.
“We wanted it to be subtle, but the era is an ever-present visual influence in the film, especially in the strong colors,” Whist said. “They stand out because we don’t really use a lot of those colors anymore like olive, burnt orange and ochre. I think I used more shades of brown in this movie than I ever have in my life before!”
Abrams’ Super 8 magazine collection, filled with advertisements of the era, was a great resource for the filmmakers’ research.
“To me, the secret to creating the authenticity of an era is to be understated,” Whist said. “It’s the cumulative effect of small, visceral moments that make you feel you’re in another time, and that’s what we aimed for.”
Costume designer Ha Nguyen, whose costumes were seen in such films as Shooter and Mask, also drew on publications from the 1970s for inspiration. Magazines, clothing catalogues and even old yearbooks helped indicate to Nguyen what real Midwesterners would have actually been wearing.
“We didn’t want the wild ’70s styles you might see in fashion layouts,” Nguyen said. “We wanted people to look real.”
With so many military costumes needed for the latter half of the film, Nguyen brought in a military costumer, N. Edward Fincher, to work with her.
“Ed took care of all the uniforms for us to make sure it was all done very authentically,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen also had the opportunity to highlight the six distinct, young personalities of the film’s main characters. Some of these personalities develop as the film’s story progresses.
“We especially had a lot of fun with Joe’s clothing which changes as he goes from being more soft-spoken to really gaining confidence,” Nguyen said. “The colors he wears get stronger and stronger, building towards the climax.”
Dressing Elle Fanning as Alice was another intriguing challenge. The character is described in the script as being very beautiful, in spite of being very young.
“That’s not hard to get across with Elle because she, herself, is absolutely stunning,” Nguyen said. “J.J. also wanted her to be a bit tomboyish. I found softer fabrics for her t-shirts to give her a little more shape, but still kept her tomboy look by using a slightly rougher fabric for the outerwear.”