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HomeCraftsCostume DesignTransformers: Rise of the Beasts Costume Designer Ciara Whaley Pays Tribute to...

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts Costume Designer Ciara Whaley Pays Tribute to Clueless and Pretty Woman

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Transformers Rise of the Beasts
Ciara Whaley (Photo by Ciara)

Costume designer Ciara Whaley helps take audiences back in time. For Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Whaley filled streets and sets with costumes to recreate 1994’s Brooklyn, as well as Peru. It’s subtle period work, not always screaming, “Welcome back to the ’90s, audience members!

For the latest installment in the PARAMOUNT franchise, Autobots and humans once again join forces to defeat evil. Director Steven Caple Jr. and his team, including Whaley, wanted a balance between grit and pop in the sequel, which stars Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback. With the costumes, Whaley wanted authenticity, but also being a big ‘ol popcorn movie, fun as well.

The costume designer previously worked on the television series Leimert Park and the 2020 film, Holler. For years, she collaborated with her partner, Caple Jr., on his short films. The two met in Ohio, where they bonded over art and movies. “Wifey, she’s really good,” Steven told us in a statement. “She knew her passion before I knew what mine was. I picked up a camera at 10, but that was just for fun. When I met her at 15 or 16 years old, she was doing sketches, deep into fashion, and wearing clothes she was designing and putting together herself. She was so ahead of it. By the time we got to college, she knew exactly what she was aiming for and wanting to do.”

Recently, Whaley told us about her journey as an artist, her vision for the costumes in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, and her goals as a mentor in the industry.

BTL: I’m guessing you’re also a nineties kid, so even for the extras, did you put in anything just for your enjoyment?

Whaley: So the Paramount Warehouse where they house all of their old props from other movies, they had the Clueless stuff in there and I was so geeked [laughs]… I didn’t get to go through it, but cuz I was in Montreal, my assistant found the boxes and was like, “Oh my god, we need to FaceTime right now.” We pulled everything from that box that we could. So, that was my fangirl moment from the ’90s.  

BTL: So you used some costumes from Clueless?

Whaley: We did, but just on the extras, the extras in like the New York scene where Anthony has his interview is really the only place that we can sort of utilize these higher-end-looking clothing. No one was in Brooklyn wearing it.

BTL: Any other ‘90s references?

Whaley: For Elena (Dominique), I really pulled inspiration from Hilary Banks, from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That’s something I also talked about with her hairstylist. Not to speak for her, but we talked about how the curly hair is gonna play on her outfits. Because curls, especially amongst the black community now, could be so modern. How can we make even her hair feel ‘90s? How are we gonna pull from these ‘90s characters? And that’s where I got the suspenders and where he came up with some of the curly hairstyles.

Anthony Ramos (R) in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (Paramount)

BTL: You’ve worked a lot in the independent film world. How was it working on a canvas this gigantic? What was new? 

Whaley: What I was surprised about is that it was still like working on an indie film. It was just more people I had to speak with. But once I discussed my ideas with the main producers, they really let me have free rein and I stayed true to those characters. That’s what guided me through. Even with the extras, okay, we’re in Brooklyn, we can pull some fun brands and have some fun colors. Now we’re going to Peru, so let’s use some of these rich textiles that are already exist here. It was using the locations and the people that guided me through that, even on something this big.

BTL: How was researching Peru?

Whaley: That research started on day one. As soon as I landed, we got the boards together for all of our extras. The festival scene was insane. But I learned that each costume in Peru means something different. It could be somebody representing the area that they come from or it can be certain archetypes that they’ve passed down amongst families. I learned that some things can’t be taken out of context. There was a dress that I wanted for some of the group of women to wear, and I realized that it meant that they were the king’s concubines and I’m like, “Okay, maybe we shouldn’t use that without the whole story.” I just had to be sensitive. They welcomed us with open arms in Peru, so we wanted to be even more sensitive to what their culture meant.

BTL: It’s such a colorful movie, especially since much of it takes place in the daytime. Were there any colors, in particular, you wanted to emphasize with the costumes?

Whaley: For Elena’s character specifically, I wanted to keep this New York palette throughout, which was sort of red brick and yellow taxi cab color, which are primary colors that you don’t get to put on the screen all the time. I wanted to keep that when she went to Peru, and that’s where her red jacket came from. It was her New York element that was still gonna come to Peru with her. I knew we would have a lot of green from the foliage, so the New York pilot’s gonna pop beautifully out there. 

Dominique Fishback in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (Paramount)

BTL: There’s so much communicating and delegating on movies of this scale. When you’re working with such a large production team, how do you try to best communicate your vision?

Whaley: First I make sure that the director and I are on the same page. I have my initial discussions with Steven, and I’m like, “What are you trying to say with your actors?” You know, coming into a big project like this, the script isn’t always honed in. You’re still getting new pages up until day 42 of shooting, so I’m not necessarily going off of a script on something like this. 

I’ll ask, “What do you want your audiences to feel?” I’ll let that ruminate and then get a lot of mood boards together for costumes. That’s my language. It’s like, “Hey guys, I put together a Wix-like website for every character. I share that with all of the producers because I realize with me talking, they’re not necessarily visualizing what I am.

Steven and I have such a shorthand that if I say “red jacket,” he gets it. I try and say that to the producer and they’re like, “What?” Which is totally fair. I realize I have to bring visuals with everything because one producer is here in Montreal with you, the other’s in LA, and someone else is in New York. The easiest way to get an idea across and get your answer is to have a visual, so they can say, “Oh, we like this, and here’s why.” 

BTL: You’ve said before you want costumes to always project individuality. Even with as many extras as you had here, do you still strive to treat every character like a main character?

Whaley: Everyone’s a main character. With the subway scene after Noah gets denied in his job interview, that’s the first time we actually get to get up close in a New York location. I’m like, “Okay, these kids are skipping school. This mom is on her way to work, and she’s late because her son was sick.” I’m thinking of a backstory on why these people are wearing what they’re wearing. Why is their top button unbuttoned? Because they are this tired already in the day, and here’s why. I’m telling my team, “Come on, we have to be creating these backstories for people. Don’t just give me beauty.” [laughs] That’s partly because I know how Steven wants that extra grit. Sometimes you can’t always explain what it is but you feel it.

BTL: For creating that individually for every character, New York City must be a dream location for you then, right?

Whaley: New York has no dress code. I lived there for a little bit in college and I felt it was the first time I just was seen and fit in and was ignored all through the same time, and I loved it.

BTL: That’s a great part of New York.

Whaley: Oh, I wanted to tell you something now that we’re talking about individuality. There was one moment that we snuck into the film during Anthony’s interview. I don’t even know if it made the cut, but it was a Pretty Woman moment. Remember the brown polka dot dress she had when they went to the polo match or the races? We snuck that one in the movie and that one just popped in my head [laughs].

Transformers Rise of the Beasts
Dominique Fishback in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (Paramount)

BTL: What’d you study in college?

Whaley: Fashion merchandising. When I was in New York, I thought I could do something with fashion brands. I wanted to work with runways and do that glamorous life. I had one more year to finish up at my college, so I went back to Ohio to finish up and my husband, Steven – we were boyfriend and girlfriend at the time – he was gonna come to LA to do grad school. I ended up making my way out west after I graduated and I got on my first film. I was like, “You’re gonna pay me to just dress these people? How can I do this all the time?” That took focus over fashion life in a crazy way. Where you live and where you’re located really can change what you do in your career. If I wasn’t in LA there’s no way I would be doing this cuz the access here is just everywhere.

BTL: Mimi Maxman was your first mentor, right?

Whaley: Oh my gosh, she broke me in, in the best kind of way. I wasn’t even living out here yet. I was coming out to visit Steven while he was in grad school. Steven’s friend knew that I did fashion, knew I did a couple of Steven’s short films and he’s like, “Hey, I’m producing this movie for my professor. His costume designer, Mimi Maxman, is looking for assistance.” I’m like, “Hey, sign me up.” The first time I met her, she took us to a costume warehouse and my jaw dropped. I’m like, “There are just warehouses full of clothing. What? There’s an accessory room and a gold room. How do I do this?” [laughs]

BTL: [laughs] What’d you learn from Mimi?

Whaley: She broke everything down by hand with a pencil and lined paper. She didn’t use a computer. She took photos with a regular camera. She didn’t use her phone. I learned how to just do everything the basic way without needing everything extra. It allowed me to approach every other job that way. Whether it’s Transformers or an Amazon film, I’m able to look at the script, figure out who my key players are, and break it down. It’s just me and a pencil [laughs]. I think that helps me to navigate whether it’s a huge budget or a small budget. 

BTL: Costume designing is a field that’s very dependent on mentorship. Are you mentoring anyone at the moment?

Whaley: I am mentoring at the moment. 

BTL: What kind of mentor do you want to be? 

Whaley: I really wanna be available to whoever needs that step up because I think sometimes there’s this mentality of there’s not enough space for everyone. There are so many projects that are happening and so many streaming services; there’s room for literally everyone who wants it. But it’s an industry that’s still, like, you have to know someone to get in. You just do unless you’re lucky. 

I wanna be the person to pull the next one in and tell them, “Come on now. You got this.”That’s how I was pulled in, and I just wanna be that person, too, to keep giving. There’s this one girl who I work with whenever I can. She reminded me that we met through Craigslist [laughs].

BTL: Really?

Whaley: I had put out a Craigslist ad way back in the day for someone to assist me with a short film. I didn’t remember I did that. I thought we were just always friends when I moved to LA [laughs]. I bring her on every project that I can. She wasn’t in the union when I was doing Transformers, which is why she didn’t work on that one for me. But I wrote her a letter after I got back from Transformers, her recommendation letter. I’ve written maybe six recommendation letters now for costume designers for the union. I think as creatives we’re so afraid to ask for those letters, and I’m like, “Come on, I’m here.”

BTL: It’s scary for a lot of up-and-comers to just ask for help or even just coffee to pick someone’s brain. 

Whaley: It is [scary], but I realize a lot of people are just open to doing that. Every time I’m given the okay to do something, I wanna pass that along to someone else so they’re less afraid for the next one. My biggest regret but eye-opening experience in LA was when I first moved out here.

BTL: What happened? 

Whaley: I was sitting in a Starbucks waiting to get interviewed by a swimsuit designer. I’m sitting there, this guy comes up to me and he’s like, “Hey, what do you do? What’s going on?” And I’m like, “I just moved here. I’m a college student, whatever.” I had been doing short films at the time and before he left he’s like, “Oh, I just wanted to say hi. My family owns a costume shop up the street. I was just on a break but have a great day.” What if I had been able to own who I was at that moment? I could have had a costume job way sooner. And so, I never want that to happen to any other costume designer or creative. 

Transformers Rise of the Beasts
Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback in Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (Paramount)

BTL: “Own who I was at that moment,” that’s a lovely way to put it. How’d you get over or accept some of the early challenges and fears in the industry?

Whaley: Early on when I was doing a lot of short films and gearing up to do my first feature, I was toeing the line of, do I really wanna do this as a job? I was afraid, honestly. I was working full-time for a fashion trade show and doing all of my creative work in the evenings and weekends. I thought, “I like having paid time off and benefits, but I don’t care about it, but should I stay here?” You know, cuz your family, your family doesn’t want you to fail. A lot of times they give you advice that doesn’t help you out, help your soul out. They’re just thinking of what they would’ve hoped for.

When I sat down with myself, I was like, “You know what? Now’s your time to go for it.” I put those two weeks’ notice in to go to Cleveland and do the first feature film. It was the first hurdle that I had to get over. And then for a while, I got stuck in the independent world because I loved it so much. It was special working with directors for their first movie and that nitty gritty feeling you get on a passion project and rolling up your sleeves and doing it. 

BTL: How’d you get stuck exactly? 

Whaley: I got stuck there for longer than I probably should have because I felt, again, afraid to move beyond that because I thought if I had something big there wouldn’t be any heart involved. I sort of lied to myself like, “Oh, it’s all this heart in the indie world, stay here.” So, Transformers is another hurdle that I recently had to get over, which was allowing myself to just paint on that canvas in a bigger way just get it done and see how I like it.

BTL: It’s also very nice you and your partner made Transformers together and just in general get to make art together. 

Whaley: Oh my gosh, yeah. We’re fans of the art form in general. We still go to the movies all the time. We’re always watching movies, maybe too much [Laughs]. When I think about it, we don’t do anything else. I mean, being from a place like we’re from Cleveland, Ohio, it’s just a way that you can dream. Movies were our escape. The fact that we can have that as a job and do it together, we look at each other sometimes, like, “For real?

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is now playing in theaters.

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