Costume Design in the Digital Age: A Panel Discussion

AMPAS panel

Todd Wawrychuk, AMPAS

Costume Design in the Digital Age was a panel presentation held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Aril 24th,  in conjunction with the Science and Technology’s special exhibit, "Dressed in Color: The Costumes."  The panelist set out to explore the changes in technology and their effect on the role of the costume designer.

Dr. Deborah Nadoolman Landis and Academy governor Bill Taylor introduced a panel that included cinematographer and ASC President Daryn Okada, color scientist and VP of Imaging Research at Technical Digital Intermediates Joshua Pines, and costume designers Jeffrey Kurland, Ellen Mirojnick, Ruth Myers, and Michael Wilkinson.  Landis began the evening with some slides from popular movies such as “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Departed,” “Juno” and “Indiana Jones.” The slides first presented a scene in a recognizable state, and then had a color modification to illustrate the importance of the choices made by a costume designer.   After several examples illustrating various mood and tone changes, Landis stated that the costume designer has a role in the technical as well as the aesthetic qualities of a movie through choice of color and texture.  She indicated costumes themselves have a split role: to serve the narrative and text, and to enhance the visual quality of the frame.

Okada and Pines took turns explaining the nature of color and how light balance, focus, and the camera used can effect the quality of a costume’s appearance on film.  Pines explained the Macbeth Color Chart, a series of pure, true colors that all photography is measured against in production.  Okada illustrated a test run between four different cameras that clearly presented a well-balanced grey scale in all four, but varying degrees of color accuracy.  An additional test in a low light situation highlighted the color discrepancies within each camera.

Pines defined the original technique of seeing color as being a three part equation: a light source, an object, and the receptor (eye).  Modern filmmaking has expanded this process into six parts: light source, object, camera, color correction, display, and eye.  Pines then provided an example of his work on "The Aviator" to illustrate the problems that arise when working on sophisticated film stock that effect the technique of color, indicating a two to three strip conversion was changing a mustard colored dress worn by Cate Blanchett into a canary yellow dress, and adding darker hues to red lipstick.

Each panelist shared examples from a selected movie they worked on, and discussed how they dealt with providing the best costume designs for the camera and the movie.  Jeffrey Kurland discussed the difficulty of finding grey fabric for the suit worn by Tom Cruise in "Collateral."  The movie used many low-light and various bright light situations the characters travel through during one evening.  A multitude of camera tests were done to discover what fabric would react best under such variables.   He used a wool blend with mild texture, and made 28 different suits to accommodate different action scenes.

Ellen Mirojnick spoke of the difficulty she had working on "The Chronicles of Riddick." The script was constantly evolving and there was no time for camera tests.  She had to employ all her skills and knowledge to make the best choices possible.  A dress worn by Dame Judi Dench was designed out of spun crystal to provide the illusion of light and space passing through it as Dench walked.  Because no camera tests were done, the dress was over-lit, and CGI was employed to provide the effect in post.  This is an example of an extra expense that would have been avoided if camera tests were done.

Ruth Myers spent five months in pre-production for the costumes used in "The Golden Compass."  All fabrics were created specifically for the shoot.  Synthetic fur was manipulated as to not conflict with the various animals that consistently appear alongside the actors.  To modify the fabrics and textures for the best in-camera results, Myers painted, burned, and applied acid wash to all fabrics.

Michael Wilkinson provided slides of computer generated costume renderings he created for "300."  He learned various computer programs to best understand how to create costumes for the HD and digital movies he works on.  He described the difficult balance he had in creating costumes he felt were too simplistic or too garish, describing his uncertainty in knowing how the film bleaching technique would affect the appearance of helmets and the blood red capes used in the movie.

Although there was no opportunity for questions and answers from the packed auditorium, the panelist did remain available at the conclusion of the event to speak individually with audience members.

"This was just such a great presentation,” said attendee Gwendolyn Stukely.  "I feel like I really learned something.  I’m so glad I was able to get a ticket!"

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