The Costume Design race at the 93rd Academy Awards heated up in the last few days when the prescient Costume Designers Guild awarded top prizes to the craftspeople behind the garments in Mulan and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — the now presumptive Oscar frontrunners.
In Mulan, German Costume Designer Bina Daigeler teamed up with director Niki Caro to create over 2,000 garments for the live-action adaptation of the 1990s Disney cartoon. The film tells the tale of Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu), an adventurous girl living in Imperial China while harboring military ambitions and facing limitations to these desires based on her gender. Telling the story required a vast array of different costumes, from the poorer Chinese villagers, to the fearsome warriors of the Empire and those who would crush it, and to the mythical villains that stand in Mulan’s way — including most notably Xian Lang (Gong Li) as a shapeshifting witch who mostly takes on the form of a fearsome raven. The result was a rich, textured, and colorful set of garments that jump out of the screen from start to finish, and that make a formidable contender for this year’s statuette.
Daigeler — a Hollywood veteran — was more than up to the highly-involved task. Her screen credits include subtler collaborations with Pedro Almodovar (All About My Mother, Volver and Broken Embraces), as well as indie films such as Dumplin. This was perhaps her most ambitious project to date, resulting in her first guild and Academy Award nominations.
Below the Line spoke to Daigeler, fresh off her Costume Designers Guild win, about her experience this awards season, and about how she pulled off the incredible feat of bringing so many vibrant designs to the screen.
Below the Line: Congrats on your win at the CDG last night. How has this awards season experience been for you?
Bina Daigeler: I was so happy — this was the first time I was nominated by the costume designers, and I feel like that award is the best award ever. I was super-honored and appreciated so much being among so many talented costume designers at work. It is such a great feeling.
BTL: Tell us about how you started with the creative process — what was your source of inspiration and how did you go about putting it into reality?
Daigeler: I had worked with Niki Caro before, and we have very similar creative and visual language. I had an intuition for what she was looking for — she wants to do an epic movie about a Disney warrior, a Disney hero. A girl who is not a princess, but instead she is a fighter with a lot of courage and spirit. That gave me the right intuition — I wanted to translate the word “epic” into my costumes. I began doing research into all the Chinese dynasties and I actually travelled through China to see some of the garments in person. Chinese history was my principal source of inspiration, and that in and of itself was an amazing experience.
BTL: What role did you want the cartoon from 1998 to play in how you designed the costumes?
Daigeler: The cartoon was an inspiration. The cartoon is a classic and it was my children’s favorite Disney movie, so I knew it from the bottom of my heart. When they heard I was going to do Mulan, they got really emotional about it, so I wanted to translate some of the cartoon tones into the live action version. There were a lot of little details in the dresses and warrior armor that we put in there, but of course when you do live action you can do a lot more detail. We wanted and achieved richer embroidery, detail, pattern, and color. That is what was exciting about this project — to take the cartoon and make it even more impressive.
BTL: What about Chinese culture and history did you want to convey, if any, in your costume design for the film?
Daigeler: I designed many of the costumes to be completely accurate to how the Chinese warriors looked in the Tang Dynasty. What kind of armor the Emperor himself used, the type of jewelry he used. That was all completely accurate. But on the other hand we were doing a Disney movie, right, so we wanted an element of fantasy that makes it more accessible to a bigger audience. It is not a documentary after all. So we had some room for that in the costumes of the villagers and the more mythical characters.
BTL: Talk to us about that and especially the Xian Lang character — how did you design that?
Daigeler: That was a very interesting and complex character to design. Costume design is always based on the script and the character — what are the feelings of the character and what are the interests of the character. We started making her airy and like floating. We then realized she was much more of a warrior, but she was imprisoned in her own skin. So we gave her armor in the end. This contrasts to Mulan who gets rid of her armor to show her female character, the Witch character could never do it. The colors were inspired by the hawk, like a hawk skeleton and the colors that you would see a hawk flying in.
BTL: Let’s talk about Mulan herself — she has to pretend to be a man. Did this present any challenges and how did you approach this task?
Daigeler: When you are working with armor, as Mulan was wearing most of the time, you want it to look natural so it has to be heavy. To achieve this armor and make it able to move with her and to adapt to all of her fighting scenes and stunts, you had to make it flexible. A lot of her movements were Tai Chi inspired, and I wanted to make sure that the armor could move there. We made a lot of prototypes for this costume to make it sturdy but movable enough, we rehearsed a lot with it and changed the costume until it was able to be stiff but still somehow move with her with ease.
Then, when she changes from man to woman and loses her upper armor, I changed the pattern of it a little bit to make it even tighter so you can see her tiny female body. You can see she is strong, but she still has a different body.
BTL: Were there any other characters that you really enjoyed working on, and why?
Daigeler: That is a tough question, because I enjoyed all of them! But I loved doing the Emperor because of all the embroidery and all of the various layers of pleated patterns and textiles. There are so many, some you don’t even see. I also enjoyed developing his head and the dragon wings.
The family in the village was enjoyable because it was simple but beautiful, and the Matchmaker was very fun as well. That one was inspired by a statute I saw in China, at least for the shape. Then I got a lot of beautiful vintage Chinese fabrics and pieces and played around with them, until we finally got to how she looked.
BTL: Was there any particular costume that was harder than you originally expected and why?
Daigeler: The biggest challenge was the Witch costume. It was a process and since we started with one idea and changed it, that made it tougher. We wanted to develop a costume that looked cool and also was able to move, but also expressed the feeling of the complexity and internal torture that this character is feeling. We really wanted to do something breathtaking to telegraph how important this character was, and it was a long road to get there.
BTL: After this experience, is there any particular kind of work you’d like to do, particularly given how successful this project was for you?
Daigeler: What I love about my job is that it is always new. You never know what is coming next. I love to repeat with directors, because you have a shortcut that allows you to get deeper into ideas. I also like to alternate between big projects with a huge crew and large preparation, and attention to little things, and then smaller indie movies where the budget is smaller and you have to be very judicious. So I choose my work based on this alternation, and on the script, and what is important to me at this particular moment.
BTL: Well congrats on the CDG win, best of luck at the Oscars! Will you attend?
Daigeler: Thank you! Sadly, no. I think the Oscars are coming to me, here in Berlin, but we are very excited to be watching that day and it has been such a beautiful and humbling journey so far.
All sketches courtesy Bina Daigeler (click to enlarge) and other behind-the-scenes photos as labelled.