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Foundation Costume Designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh Takes on Sci-Fi

November 1, 2021 09:40 | By
Foundation

Laura Birn and Cooper Carter in Foundation

In Foundation, streaming on Apple TV+, humanity is a thing of the past, ushering in a band of the banished who  mount a colossal undertaking to save and rebuild civilization amid a falling Galactic Empire. Even if you’re not a sci-fi aficionado or galactic geek for that matter, you can’t help but be impressed with the out-of-this-world creations from Costume Designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh

A known and revered designer in her hometown of Ireland, she was nominated six times for Best Costume Design by the Irish Film & Television Academy. Working on such productions as  Brideshead Revisited, Ondine, Calvary, and most recently The Professor And The Madman, she brought her big-screen sensibilities to the streaming smaller screen. Mhaoldomhnaigh welcomed the challenge to apply her aptitude for designing period pieces into the fantasy realm of Foundation for ten episodes.

Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh

Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh

Her goals, however, have always been the same, which is to costume the actor playing the role in order to fully absorb themselves in their character. For Foundation, what they wore had to believably exist in this other-worldly galaxy created by the award-winning novelist Isaac Asimov.  The pious-looking multi-layered golden garb for Brother Dusk, played by Terrence Mann, offers theatricality suited for the unrepentant, and not to be underestimated, retired Emperor. While the bronze-shaded suit of armor for Phara represents the majestic power of a Seldon (the math genius who predicts the demise of the empire) supporter in the series. It also provides a much-needed fierceness for Kubbra Sait portraying the role. The flowing peach-colored A-line dress with matching cape worn by Demerzel gives Laura Birn a regal, robotic quality as the loyal advisor to the Emperor of the Galaxy.  

Below The Line spoke with Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh while on location in Ireland, about her inspiration for fitting period designs into sci-fi mode, and discusses some of her favorites. For each of these costumes, which are theatrical at their core, she discusses working closely with the actors. Mhaoldomhnaigh was delighted to design each costume with a romance and nuance not necessarily found in a science fiction production. 

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White Robed Woman costume

Below The Line:  These are not your typical science fiction costumes. Can you describe how you mined your expertise with romantic period pieces into this genre?

Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh:  I do a lot of period movies, but I’ve never done sci-fi. It’s not very often that a science fiction project comes to Ireland, so I just really wanted to get involved. My agent contacted producer Michael Malone who I initially met with nearly two and a half years ago now in Dublin. He said [Executive Producer/Writer] David Goyer would be really interested to meet me over Zoom. [Director] Rupert Sanders was already on board to do Episode One and wanted to bring his own team, which was fine, so I signed on to do two to 10. The White-robed woman had such a small role, but there was something about that costume that really just came together. It’s wonderful to see these beautiful, feminine, almost romantic costumes in a science fiction production. We almost feel in science fiction that things have to be hard and everybody has to look battle-ready. There’s definitely that in science fiction, but there are places there for people and characters who are ethereal. The actress [Clare Agius], who wore that costume is a dancer, so it was just fantastic the way she moved so gracefully and made the costume work.

BTL: Are you a sci-fi fan at all?

Mhaoldomhnaigh: No, and it’s so awful. When I told my husband I’ve been meeting about this science fiction project, Foundation, he said, “You mean Isaac Asimov?,” and I’m just deeply embarrassed. It’s not my thing, but my husband, my son, my friends are all really clued in about it.

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Dusk costume

BTL: So how did you wrap your head around these designs for a sci-fi project?

Mhaoldomhnaigh: We were given a lot of free rein, which was really great. We talked about once they had episode one done, what was I going to do with the rest of the characters and to move the already established characters on. I never worked with another designer before, so it was really exciting to bounce ideas off other people. [Kurt and Bart designed Episode One.] The three of us started in August 2019 and they were finished in December. I was doing a lot of drawings, and we were getting a lot of concept art done and showing that to Goyer. It was a mammoth kind of a task.

BTL: What was the inspiration for the Brother Dusk costume?

Mhaoldomhnaigh:  I love doing men’s costumes because they’re so hard, and I love designing for men. I suppose because I do a lot of period film, the way for me to approach it was to think of it in terms of period costume. I was thinking about the Catholic church, the religious pomp and ceremony around the Vatican, so I based it on that. I was thinking in terms of Renaissance costuming and Medici. I didn’t want it to feel like a royal family kind of thing — I wanted it to feel more like a sect, because for me, Foundation feels like a religious sect. If you follow, you’re very devout about it all. 

BTL: What happens after the actor gets into the costume? 

Mhaoldomhnaigh: You’re giving the actors something they can really work with and make it work. Terrence and I got on really well. He’s a big Broadway star, we usually sang our way through the fittings. (laughs) We had a bit of a game where somebody would say a word and we would try to think of a song. So, we had these very Broadway fittings and we had great fun. He loved the costume and the way that it felt, very ceremonial. Terrence is just great, because he loves the theatricality of it.

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Phara costume

BTL: What were you thinking when you designed the Phara costume?

Mhaoldomhnaigh: I think that’s probably one of my favorites. Kubbra Sait, who played Phara, is so dynamic and energetic. She came over in December 2019, and we had very short notice that she was coming to the studio in Ireland. We had been working on elements of the costume, so we were pinning things onto her and pegging bits of fabric to her, and she was so excited. I just really wanted to build her a suit of armor, but it had to look like wood. We used leather with 3D etched into it to make it look like bark. She looked amazing. It made her look really strong and powerful. We put so much work into it. There was a lot of craft involved with it. There are under layers as well, because there are times when she has to lose the armor and they were just as beautiful as the outer layers. It was exciting to make armor from leather that was really functional. She was able to fight and work wearing it in different environments; hot places and cold places. She looked brilliant and always was really excited putting it on. Visually, it was very satisfying.

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Carter with Lee Pace (center) and Terence Mann (R)

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Demerzel’s costume

BTL: What about the colorful maiden costume that is worn by the character Demerzel?

Mhaoldomhnaigh: We wanted the colors on the maiden to kind of reflect the colors in Malta where we shot it. There’s a lot of sandstone and those pinky peachy colors. This is where Brother Day [Lee Pace] discovers that she is actually a follower. She needed to look like she was part of that group and her own. There is also a costume that she wears when she’s on Trantor where she is very restricted and that steel gray is beautiful, but we wanted something that is more feminine and flowey and shows another side of Demerzel.

BTL: What will happen to the costumes, and what has been most rewarding in designing them?

Mhaoldomhnaigh: I have asked David Goyer if we could have one or two for the archives [The Irish Costume Archive Project]. The archives we have are really trying to tell the story of production in Ireland and Irish films. It really is important that we preserve this because it tells a story and society is reflected in film and how we portray ourselves. It’s a great educational tool. We’re sending costumes everywhere now for archives. We have a costume in Australia for the museum in Melbourne and we’re sending costumes to film festivals. It’s great to show people the craftsmanship that exists and scale that goes into making these costumes. I hope the characters come through with the costumes. For me, it’s all about the story and the character and I hope people will see that and enjoy it.

Foundation is now streaming on Apple TV+. All photos courtesy Apple and Ms. Mhaoldomhnaigh.