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