“We have to sell an illusion… Reality is boring.” BAFTA Film Craft Costume Design Talk

I was scrolling through Twitter earlier this week, the prime example of procrastination, and stumbled upon a BAFTA announcement of a costume design talk. Luckily I was in time to grab a pair of tickets so yesterday Hannah and I made our way to BAFTA 195 Piccadilly to hear a conversation between Sammy Sheldon Differ, Jany Temime and Steven Noble.

Sammy Sheldon Differ with one of Keira Knightley’s costumes from ‘The Imitation Game’.

Sheldon DIffer and Noble are both nominated for BAFTAs tonight for The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything respectively. Temime is currently working on Spectre but remained tight-lipped.

Jany Temime.

Jany Temime.

The conversation was intended to be inclusive rather than specific about certain designer’s films but inevitably these conversations came up too. The whole event was fascinating because we were able to see designer’s interact with each other and it is not that common to see this. The Hollywood Reporter hosted a round table with the costume design nominees back in 2012 but there hasn’t been one since.

Steven Noble (this is pretty much how he was dressed yesterday - I love it).

Steven Noble (this is pretty much how he was dressed yesterday – I love it).

The first topic of conversation was about the process of designing costumes for a feature film. Sheldon Differ started by talking about reading the script and then starting the research. She collected research about the period (if its a period piece) and also some more abstract research about the emotion of the story. Then comes the creation of boards (to display and organise this visual research), leading onto sketches and then making; where possible. The job is “personifying through research”. But the process can change from job to job because every film has different needs.

Noble agreed with Sheldon Differ’s process and treats the first read of the script as an audience member – the first perception of the characters and the story. It’s a “very organic process”.

Temime had a slightly different process as she said that after she’s read the script she wants to talk to the director right away to find out what his or her vision is. It isn’t Tempe’s film so she wants to make sure that they’re on the same page.

Noble: “Do you ever go back to those first impressions?”

Temime: “Sometimes.”

Then came the discussion of what the deciding factor for working on a film is. Temime said straight away that for her it is the director. If she loves the director then she’ll do the film regardless of the genre. You want to work with people you love. (And the director is normally the one to choose the costume designer.) Noble agreed but said that for him it was 50:50 between the script and the director. Temime agreed that the story is vitally important but the script itself will evolve throughout the process. She said that the script for Spectre is probably on its 13th draft so if she just went for the script which version would she choose? Noble has just finished working on A Monster Calls (directed by J.A. Bayona) and said that in the end they had no script and no shooting schedule! Never an ideal situation when shooting a film.

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The focus then came to Tempe’s work on Bond – more about Skyfall than Spectre (both directed by Sam Mendes). Temime was definitely aware of the “history behind you” and being “responsible for an image”. She made the analogy that a Bond film is like a Christmas tree. Every year you want the same general idea but something different. She feels the need to give the audience what they expect but also to surprise them.

This then lead to a discussion about the constraints of working with a brand or with product placement. Temime is currently obsessed with the watches in Bond – because she has to be due to their contract. She feels that it is more difficult to work with a brand than not – they have a distinct expectation of you. Noble added that people working in fashion work in a much different time frame than costume and film. The fashion brands want to see the script, see where their product will be worn and tend to veto the use if it will be damaged or is worn in a death scene or something they don’t want associated with the brand. Sheldon Differ interposed that she has had occasions of fashion houses getting back to her once filming has finished. Noble concurred this situation. Temime ended saying that she has found fashion people very difficult to work with (no-one’s forgotten Black Swan yet, right?) because “fashion people are completely different from us”. Costume designers are expressing so much more through clothes.

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The Imitation Game (directed by Morten Tyldum) was the next discussion launched. Sheldon Differ said that the difficulty she had was making the design faithful and interesting. Nothing that takes the audience out of the story. She looked for reference of colour and happily found some so that the film never looked muted. She tried to be as truthful as possible but there is always this contrast for the audience between realism and view of the period. This is why period films designed in different eras tend to be “visible” (the 1970s version of The Great Gatsby versus the 2014 version for example). Sheldon Differ only met Turing’s nephew after he’d seen the film and he said the costumes were very representative of what he knew of Alan – best compliment she could receive.

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Noble had a similar issue when designing The Theory of Everything. Director James Marsh told Noble that he didn’t want to create a social realist film and he didn’t want to document each decade. He was much more interested in showing an emotional timeline. Noble had to argue for some kind of guide to ensure that he was working from the same period as the make-up, hair and production designers. That symbiotic relationship is key to creating a seamless film. The design is able to travel through fairly smoothly. Key pieces were placed on background artists and a mixture was created. In the same way that you don’t suddenly have a new wardrobe every year, neither do film characters. The costumes needed to be true to the period but fresh for the audience.

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Gravity posed a particular difficulty for Temime. One directive she was given by Alfonso Cuaron was “do not have two teletubbies”. The costumes for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney needed to be completely different from true astronaut suits but still look realistic. It was a technically boring film for Temime because she needed to research precise reasons for the positioning of parts of the suit so that she’d be able to move them. Then there was the issue of white. She thinks they worked with around 50 different shades to allow for different shooting. Temime agreed to Gravity because she wanted to work with Cuaron again.

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Sheldon DIffer talked about the difficulties of working on Ex Machina to create a very specific costume for Alicia Vikander’s Ava. There were experiments with UV powder to try to get the wire mesh to glow in different light but this never worked as intended. Eventually the fabric was made using a metal powder and they were able to generate this undulation to make it look as close to “skin” as possible. Another constraint was that the director, Alex Garland, didn’t want to see any seams. (He was one of the main reasons Sheldon Differ signed up.) The suit had to be weaved together and Vikander had to squeeze into it. (So much so that she fainted during one of the early fittings.) Sheldon Differ had to work very closely with the visual effects department so that she could give them the best result that they wanted.

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Under the Skin posed different problems for Noble mostly because Scarlett Johansson only wears two costumes throughout the entire film. Jonathan Glazer had been working on the film for about 11 years before Noble came on board and he wanted to protect his “baby”. There were limited special effects in the film so Noble doesn’t class it as a science fiction film in the same vein as Gravity and Ex Machina – he shies away from them and has great regard for Sheldon Differ and Tempe’s work on them. Johnasson’s character in the film was envisioned by Noble as an Eastern European view of the West. The way things are put together in a way that doesn’t look bad but doesn’t have a Western eye. The majority of Johansson’s clothes were from the high street (Next, Forever 21 and River Island) except for a Dolce and Gabbana camisole and Mulberry boots – that had to be heavily adjusted for the scenes in the wood.

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Harry Potter has been mentioned earlier but this was the first time the series was fully examined with Temime. The question was whether she felt pressure entering a series but Temime said that she started working on The Prisoner of Azkaban before The Chamber of Secrets had come out and by that point the films were just successful children’s films. Cuaron wanted to make the film for teenagers so both of them went into the process knowing that they would be changing the aesthetics of Potter dramatically. The films got bigger as she went along and generally the process got easier – Azkaban was the most difficult film. The problems Temime had were making the cast look younger on screen and getting them to separate themselves from their characters. Allusions were made to on-set antics from the cast…Temime clearly has stories to last a lifetime! There was mention of The Goblet of Fire being less easy to work on due to Mike Newell taking a more “Chris Columbus” view of the series but when David Yates came on board with The Order of the Phoenix she was able to continue with her established style and had more and more freedom.

The final point came with requirements of a director. Talent, vision, clarity and an understanding of the process of a costume designer.

Questions were a little monopolised with my most loathed question: what advice would you give? The designers were all helpful and generous with their advice.

Overall, the talk was fascinating and the three designers gave the impression of being long held friends. Temime in particular was full of joy, laughter and you can be sure that with some alcohol in her she’d tell you some wonderful gossip. I wish the best of luck to Sheldon Differ and Noble tonight at the BAFTAs but in my heart of hearts I believe that Milena Canonero has got the award sewn up for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Unfortunately neither are nominated for the Oscars but they are both nominated in the Period Film category at the Costume Designer’s Guild Awards (once again against Canonero).

Hope this was an interesting round-up and sorry if it went on – they were all so fascinating!

S x

(This talk only referenced a few of each designer’s films so don’t forget to check out their other work!)

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What’s The Score?: Oscars Week Special – Gravity

First off, I should say that these editions of What’s The Score will be significantly shorter than the previous ones (the world cheers!), because they take a while to do and I’m trying to do one for each of the nominated original scores. Guys, that’s five WTS posts. I’m only one huge woman. So these will be condensed overview versions looking at a couple of important cues, rather than the closer looks I try to do normally – also, these are scores that have been nominated for an Academy Award, so there is already information out there about the soundtracks because they are obviously worth writing about. This is just my DTSFT take.

***UPDATE***

Congratulations to Steven Price for winning the 2014 Oscar for Best Original Score for his work on Gravity!

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So first up, Gravity.

There are clips on Youtube with the score, but here’s the URL for the soundtrack on Spotify (you’ll need a Spotify account), and check out this preview from Soundcloud:

If you get this film on DVD or watch it on your laptop, whatever you do make sure that you either use headphones or a good surround sound system. Steven Price’s quite frankly brilliant score is meant to envelop you and create a simultaneous feeling of claustrophobia and expansiveness, which has been achieved by some masterful sound engineering and editing.

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One of the things that makes this score so effective is the contrast between the loud and quiet moments in the film. Right from the off, we start with some words on screen telling us that there’s basically nothing in space apart from, well, space. In about 30 seconds, we go from quiet to ear-crunchingly loud  over the title screen and then the sound cuts off – we’ve been reminded that there is no way for sound to carry in space, then we have no background score under the dialogue, which is transmitted through radios between the characters.  This is actually one track called ‘Above Earth’ split in half, the other half starting when Kowalski stops to appreciate the view of Earth. There are a few instances in this film where the beautiful, appreciative shots of Earth from space are accompanied by this quiet, sweeping and reflective music. It’s space porn, quite frankly.

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‘Debris’  cues up as the team get their orders from Houston to abort the mission, and here Price equates dynamics and volume with speed and distance; starting with an ominous and low two-note motif that repeats and builds tension, the music gradually builds with a shrill, rising chord as the debris starts to rush past and devastate the telescope. There’s a string ostinato low in the mix (melodically not unlike the Twilight Zone motif) that is just loud enough to enhance the spinning and rotating movements on screen, adding to the dizzying effect.  There’s a lot of movement in this scene, not just on screen but in the music and sound which pan and sweep from left to right. It is followed more or less straight on with ‘The Void’, which continues the same material but with a focus on the synths and electronic noises, remaining quiet but tense while Kowalski tethers Stone to him and they plan to make their way to safety.

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A little further on, we’re on board the ISS.  The ‘Fire’ cue plays as Stone discovers that there is, well, a fire on board just as she thinks she’s safe. The music builds rapidly from the peaceful, reflective moments of Stone looking out at Earth, with an electronic alarm beep that cuts through and makes way for the shrill crescendo that builds with the panic.  This is followed by ‘Parachute’; the actual bit with the parachute in the film is pretty intense and dramatic, but the cue starts before the problem does, with a quiet and foreboding bass that suddenly pics up as the parachute causes Stone more problems in her attempted escape to safety. That two-note motif comes back, accompanied by more militant strings. It continues as Stone goes out to fix the problem on the outside of her little shuttle, and as she reaches for the tool that slips from her hands, she notices the debris coming her way again – the music doesn’t spend too much time building up to it, supporting the earlier statement about no sound in space, so we’re just as oblivious as Stone is until we see the problem. The effect of the debris on the satellite is devastating, and the cacophony of noise overwhelms as much as the visuals do. A side note – I love the line that comes just as the wreckage passes: “I hate space”.

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Skipping forward to when Stone is finally going to make it back to Earth, there is an insurgence of ethereal vocals and the strings start to edge out the synths and electronic sounds in ‘Tiangong’ and ‘Shenzou’, which both have a more traditionally symphonic form. I love that there is virtually no music as she watches the remains of the shuttle falling to earth, when the score just a few moments ago was so loud and dramatic while she was in space, contradicting the idea of there being no sound in space. It’s great.

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There’s more of a melody here, one with a triumphant nature; soaring strings and female vocals paired with the beautiful visuals are again overwhelming and stunning. Price’s technique of building in dynamics and pitch to demonstrate approaching objects is used once more as Stone’s capsule hits the water, and after that the music is practically muted, a simple electronic ringing in the background with some quiet synths as Stone struggles out of her suit underwater. There is of course a reappearance of the dramatic and triumphant music as the final cue, ‘Gravity’, starts while we watch Stone shakily walk away, having survived the whole ordeal.

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Sometimes less is more in music, but this is space and there is no ‘less’ – there’s nothing, which is why music fills the void.  By pairing a loud, ominous score that combines electronic synths and orchestral instruments with low-key noises that reflect what the characters would hear in their space-suits – heavy breathing, clicks and smaller sounds – the soundscape of this score is huge and unforgiving, and I loved it.