Reel People: Character, Costume and Cinema [Another Talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis]

At this stage I think I’m getting fairly close to stalker stages with Deborah Nadoolman Landis. The minute that she recognises me is when we’re really in trouble…


This talk took place at the London Film School (“hidden” in Covent Garden) and there didn’t seem to be many costume related people there. This talk was aimed at students at the LFS, so mainly directing and screenwriting students. Landis mentioned that she had been speaking at the Glasgow School of Art and at World Stage Design in Cardiff in the previous few days and was feeling nearly talked out! I think that also explains the presentation she showed – it was definitely aimed at some beginners to costume.

Costume is not about the clothes. Fashion and costume have very little in common. They run in parallel… Fashion is a commodity. Our commodity is the movie… We’re helping to sell the movie.

The Bourne Ultimatum movie image Matt Damon

I’m always a fan of statements that Landis makes regarding costume and its importance within the film industry so much of this will probably just be statements that I scrabbily wrote down.

[Costume designers] Make an audience believe that everyone in the cast had a life before the movie… If you don’t believe the people are real, you don’t care what happens to them, you’re not interested in the movie.

Landis started with the thoughts behind that statement asking questions (rhetorical) about people’s clothing choices. (This is something she said that she does at USC but pulling people up and fully questioning everything they’re wearing.) Where did you get it? Why are you wearing it? (There was a guy wearing a beanie and it wasn’t particularly cold at – why? Landis was particularly fixated on this!) How much did it cost? When did you get it? These are all the questions that a costume designer has to ask of a character. This section also showed clips from the Hollywood Costume exhibition where members of the public were asked these same question

Your closet at home is made up of your history… There’s no reason to believe that the people in your movie are less complicated than you.

Henry Cavill in Man of Steel, as Clark Kent, left, and as Superm

Landis then went into the two key aspects to be considered for costume design:

  1. Narrative Context
  2. Rectangle (looking at the composition of the frame)

Movies are about the people.

Much of the rest of the talk focused on aspects of costume design that I’ve already referenced in past posts whether to do with Deborah Landis, Anthony PowellSandy Powell, Jenny Beavan or Susannah Buxton but brief bullet points:

  • Costume design helps to shape the identity of a character – just as it does for you
  • Costume design isn’t just limited to the obvious Oscar winners. Michael Wilkinson designed the costume for Superman and for Clark Kent in Man of Steel; Lindy Hemming designed Batman and Bruce Wayne (Landis’ favourite).
  • The primary function of costume design is storytelling.
  • Costumes are sourced from different areas; the same as clothing. (For example, Mad Men uses vintage pieces and specially made pieces.)
  • Every choice in the frame is telegraphing or explaining.
  • Colour is the easiest and quickest way to tell the story.
  • Colour affects the entire frame; from lead actors to extras. One clear example for this was The Bourne Ultimatum. Jason Bourne was dressed in costumes to allow him to authentically hide in a crowd but the audience never looses sight of him.
  • Think about point perspective – if the audience can’t see the actor they won’t be able to hear him.


These were the main points to be taken from the talk but any time to be in the presence of Deborah Landis is worthwhile! If you’re interested in Landis and her personal history within the film industry then I thoroughly recommend you check out her interview on The Costume Cafe Podcast – a great podcast with great interviews!

My final “thought” on the talk comes from a question I heard from a fellow attendee before we went into the talk:

Is this where the fashion talk is?

Shock. Actual shock that someone in this environment asked that question and that I was interrupted before I could answer “the COSTUME talk?” indignantly. Still fuming.

S x


6 thoughts on “Reel People: Character, Costume and Cinema [Another Talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis]

    • It’s just great to be able to attend any talk or event about costume. And NOT fashion. (I have no issues against fashion but there needs to be a greater understanding that the two are not interchangeable!)
      S x

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