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From Stitch to Screen: Contemporary Canadian Costume Design (TIFF 11)

From Stitch to Screen: Contemporary Canadian Costume Design (TIFF 11)

I just moderated a panel on something I knew absolutely nothing about until two weeks ago when I began to delve into the job of a costume designer in film. A film is hard enough to make, so how could the job of costume designer seem even more difficult? The imagination involved, the convincing of the producer and director that the designer’s vision enriches their own vision for the film, the convincing the actor to step into into the character by wearing the costume, the management of cutters, sewers, the buying of clothes, of fabrics, ordering fabrics from China, making 30 copies of each costume, keeping the blood stains on each in sync with a film shot out of sequence…there is so much to do!!

30 bloodstained shirts, please (Alex Kavanaugh)

From the wild and ostentatious to the understated and subdued, from period drama to sci-fi, costume design is a craft that covers every fabric worn on screen. Celebrated Canadian costume designers gathered to discuss their trade, their role in bringing a story to life and the challenges facing their business and industry. Produced in association with The Canadian Alliance of Film and Television Costume Arts and Design (CAFTCAD) and Otherworldly: The Art of Canadian Costume Design, an exhibition opening September 2, 2011 in TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Canadian Film Gallery.

Alex Kavanagh – Costume Designer, Splice, Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, Repo: The Musical
Heather Neale – Costume Designer, Goon, Guy Madden’s Keyhole, both premiering in TIFF
Delphine White – Costume Designer, Videodrome, Tideland, Bulletproof Monk, Jim Sheridan’s Dream House coming out September 30

The job of the Costume designer goes way beyond design. From budgeting to research, organizational, presentation skills, ability to work under lots of pressure, hearing ideas and concerns of others, stamina, adaptable, making actors feel at ease…And it all starts from reading of the script and forming a picture in costumes which characterize each actor in his or her role.
• Costume vs. Style and Fashion. While Annie Hall created fashion, when the costumes were designed, they drew on style but even that was not as much “current” as “futuristic” because the film takes so much time to make, that by the time it is done and released, the “style” would be out-of-style. While the Devil Wears Prada had to go with fashion, most films create their own style and fashion; that’s why costume design is an art unto itself.
• Period vs.Contemporary. Even period is not a totally true recreation of the period. Today bodies are different, even from those in the 70s. Women had no muscle definition in the 19th century, whether they were thin or fat. Even in the 1970s women’s bodies were not toned as actresses’ bodies are today. The same goes for the men. A Japanese Kimono needs some tailoring to fit our modern eye. Clothes in the 50s need tweaking to appeal to our modern eye.
• Character-mood-color palette of film. Costume design must capture the character, the mood and the colors of the art designer, the time of year, the use of film or digital.

The Color Pallette of Bulletproof Monk
• Challenges, actors and comfort zone. Actors often need convincing that styles they don’t like or would never wear will help them step out of their comfort zone and into the character’s world.

Here are some points Delphine brought up when we toured the exhibit Otherworldly, on the 4th Floor of the Lightbox. See it while you’re here in Toronto!
• It’s interesting where designers get their ideas, who they work most closely with during production.
• It’s crucial to take clues from the script and to think in a wholistic manner about the script. By that I mean that the script gives us a whole world and provides clues about mood, lighting, the overall design. We all feed off one another and the more we bring to the table the more interesting the look becomes.
• Even with a sense of realism the look is designed.
• Period has its own challenges. I once remember another designer mentioning that she didn’t know how to put character into period clothing. Period work also means working within a 10 year span at least. I am sure many of us still have clothing that is 10 years old and we are still able to wear it.
• Where does a designer get information about clothing pre photography?
• Costume design is about developing and defining a character through clothing
• Challenges: Everyone wears clothes, everyone has their opinions, preferences. Getting actors out of their comfort zone.

“Bulletproof Monk combined comic-book fantasy with social and philosophical history,” says costume designer Delphine White. “From the Monk’s traditional beginnings, he becomes a wanderer, traveling the world in order to protect his precious scroll. He remains rooted in the past while he lives in the twenty-first century in a large American urban centre.

“I worked closely with director Paul Hunter and production designer Deborah Evans. My concept for the Monk, played by Chow Yun-fat, was to have his ‘civilian’ look in the palate of a Buddhist monk—the deep saffron of the robes—but used on contemporary fashions.” A similar approach applied to Jade (Jamie King), the film’s next-generation monk, whose outfit, says White, was a combination of street and traditional looks. “My research included visits to Buddhist temples, Tibetan shops and Army/Navy Stores, as well as consulting fashion magazines, historical documents and film and musical references from the 1940s.” Jade’s costume has become so popular that people have asked White where they might purchase it.

Where can I buy that coat?

Heather Neale also had much to say.

I realize I am an emerging designer and most of my work has not yet been released so I feel slightly disadvantaged in that regard. Over the years I have worked in various positions within the costume department but also had the opportunity along the way to design several independent features and documentaries. However the submission of “Keyhole” and “Goon” to tiff couldn’t be more thrilling and such opposite films in every way. I feel very lucky to have had such great Canadian directors to work with as well, both Guy and Michael were so professional and supportive, they both knew I was fairly new to designing but gave me the opportunity and trust to costume their films. I feel that when people believe in you and trust your choices you want to work harder for them and I feel I did. Going straight from a period film to a modern film was great! I started working on Goon about a month after Keyhole wrapped so it was quite a challenge to go from the 1930’s unconventional creative chaos of Guy Maddin to the straight forward fun of modern day hockey and all the challenges that entailed. Very difficult to manufacture hockey jerseys during the busiest time in the entire hockey season – I managed to make some important connections in China that really helped. Not something I would have done normally, but the reality of deadlines and budgetary restrictions made that so necessary.

Budget is such a huge factor – working on “Keyhole” was difficult because I had to design a feature film with some famous talent as well as designing about 30 short films simultaneously (“Hauntings”) with a combined budget of under $8000 and a very limited labour budget. Initially we were supposed to film about 70 short films at the same time but that became an impossible goal early on. I had only the help of trainees and volunteers in my department – it was pretty tricky. Guy was very wonderful though and I have known him for over 20 years so I was up for the challenge, my husband has appeared in most of his films including “Keyhole” – that was nice as my daughter also had a brief cameo in the film and was included in many of the short films we made (“Hauntings”). So even though the pace was gruelling, my husband and daughter being around was comforting. At least they got to see what the workload was and understood why 16 hour days seemed ‘normal’ for a while?


“Goon” was also tough and really required a huge amount of stamina. I feel it was almost like working on 2 films at once, the hockey side and the the non-hockey side. I barely slept and worked 7 days a week, there was just an overwhelming amount of work to do on that and the timelines were so tight – Alex and Delphine of course know all about the realities of these situations and I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

Winnipeg has a great film community and I feel like the various crews are like family in a way. I probably learned the most by watching other designers and working along side the out of town designers especially – I worked closely with Alex’s sister Leslie on a film called “Mother’s Day” and I can’t tell you how much she impacted my career. I feel everyone teaches us something and I learn from everyone and every experience. I’m also happy to share what I learn and give others the opportunity to gain insight into this industry and in particular our great department. Sydney this is the best job in the world and I am so grateful to do what I do, it is tough and hard and not at all glamorous – but so worth it!

Alex Kavanaugh who often works with her sister Leslie Kavanaugh.

Splice’s genetically engineered creature, Dren, appears as both a child and an adult—a challenge for the film’s designer, Alex Kavanagh. “We made the dresses for the child,” she says. “They were simple and short-sleeved with little embroidered flowers, and we had to shorten them to highlight the triple-jointed legs.” The adult Dren’s clothing also had to accommodate a unique body, notably a CGI tail. “Most of it ended up coming from retail stores: simple, short, dark dresses that had a ruffle or frill to evoke girlishness without being distracting.

Splice: Dren’s Dress from J&M

“We created leg pads and a tail stump out of foam and green fabric so the dress would be sitting at right angles for the digitally created legs and tail. Delphine Chanéac, who played the adult Dren, wore either green or blue stockings so her legs could be removed from mid-thigh down and replaced digitally. Her wings were also digital; we made a dress that could rip open by pulling on monofilament, so that when Dren’s wings appeared, they seemed to be tearing through her dress.”

Ginger Snaps 3: The Beginning is a prequel set in nineteenth-century frontier Canada. In one scene, Brigitte (Emily Perkins) seeks answers from a Cree Elder (Edna Rain).

“We wanted something wolf-like for the Elder, but it had to be dramatic and scary to help with the otherworldly experience,” says costume designer Alex Kavanagh. “I went to a taxidermist’s in Edmonton to look at skulls and skins. He had wolf skulls, but they weren’t as big and toothy as the bear skull that I decided on. The construction department cut the skull for me, and I created a skullcap to which I affixed the skull and wolf pelt with glue. Howard Berger from our special-effects make-up department painted the skull to look gnarly. I added bits of hair, feathers and bone.”

Ginger Snaps 3: The Beginning Canada, 2004
Director Grant Harvey
Costume Designer Alex Kavanagh

Alex Kavanagh worked with the wardrobe department at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre to create several replicas of each cloak for Ginger Snaps 3.

“They were so beautifully made that I didn’t want the stitchers to see how badly we distressed them,” she says. “But all the characters had been out in the winter in a dirty fort, chased by werewolves, and they had to look filthy!”

Mud splatters on the cloaks were created by acrylic paint mixed with Ben Nye powder and acrylic medium.

A bird-skull necklace is a recurring prop in the three Ginger Snaps films. Designer Lea Carlson originated the necklace in the first Ginger Snaps (2000); for Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed (2004), Kavanagh had to recreate them.

“On the first film, Lea discovered the real skulls that she had sourced were too fragile to use in the stunt sequences, so the special-effects department made simplified, acrylic facsimiles. The problem was that the acrylic was heavy and hurt when it bounced as the actors ran. On the second film, I commissioned a props maker in Calgary to create new skulls that were lighter and detailed. The new skulls looked like the real thing, but were made from a flexible, two-part foam that didn’t break.”

For the corsets in Ginger Snaps 3, Kavanagh chose a longer style. “It looks more like a corset than many of the shorter ‘stays’ that were popular with young ladies in the early 1800s. I had the
eyelets sewn by hand, as grommets weren’t invented until 1859.”

Survival of the Dead
USA/Canada, 2009
Director George A. Romero
Costume Designer Alex Kavanagh

Alex Kavanagh has made three films with celebrated director George A. Romero, including Survival of the Dead, and for each she tries to create a unique look for his zombies.

“I like to give a back story: who they were, how they died, how long they’ve been dead. We distress and age the clothes to look worn and dirty. George lets me dress the undead in anything: one is a jogger; another a bride, or in their pyjamas. George has a great sense of humour, which comes through in his films.

“In Survival of the Dead, the Muldoons have been keeping the un-dead prisoner in hopes of a cure, but a bite will infect the living, so they have created zombie leashes to help herd the walkers
around.” Adam Smith did the leather work on the leashes.

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