So, here’s something unusual – designing costumes for animation as well as actors! I sat down with costume designer Alexandra Welker to discuss her work on The Squeakquel. It’s an interesting journey, one involving over 100 concept sketches and loads of approvals. Please consider The Squeakquel on a “write in” basis for this year’s Costume Designers Guild nomination ballot! The following is all you’ll ever need to know about the cutest helium-voiced rodents on earth.
Tell me about the genesis of Alvin and the Chipmunks –
Ross Bagdasarian Sr. created the original Chipmunks, the novelty recordings, back in the 1950s. Ross Bagdasarian Jr., and his wife, Janice Karman, who are the producers of this movie, took over the world of the Chipmunks; they did all the 1980s Chipmunks, the cartoons, Chipmunk Punk, all of it. Janice also created the Chipettes. I worked with them on the first film, and they are very, very hands-on. They’re really cool, and also really earnest about the Chipmunks. They feel a real responsibility to the Chipmunk fans because there are so many people who feel strongly about the Chipmunks, having grown up with them. They’re protective of the Chipmunks, as we all are. It’s funny because we all talk about them like they’re real characters. They want to make sure they maintain their sweetness, because that’s part of what’s appealing about them.
How did you get involved with the Chipmunk franchise to begin with?
I just went in and interviewed for the first film. It was very funny because one of the things that I’ve done, in the past eight years, is design stage wear for Spinal Tap for their rare appearances. As I was going through my portfolio in my interview, I turned the page and there was a spread of some of the Spinal Tap costumes that I had done. I laughed and I said, “This has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but it’s something I’m very proud of,” and Ross Bagdasarian laughed and said, “Well, actually it does!” He went on to explain that at the end of the first film there’s a bit where Ian Hawke, the evil manager, puts the Chipmunks in “inappropriate stage wear.” So for the first one I designed stage wear for them – silver lamé tracksuits, because they did sort of a hip-hop number.
When you are hired on a movie like this, what I think is interesting is the process. It’s unusual. It’s not like a “normal” movie, in that you get actors, make boards – it’s a little bit different, yes?
The first order of business, even before I had a script, was a meeting with the producers. One of them turned to me and said (with a very straight face), “The studio is very concerned about what the Chipettes are wearing. They want the girls in our audience to aspire to wear what the Chipettes wear. They have to be as fashion-forward as possible.” So I pulled tear sheets for the Chipettes, before I started sketching their costumes. Meanwhile, of course, the human actors were equally important, but I didn’t have any to fit for quite a while.
We had very, very late casting, for a number of reasons. We hoped that Jason Lee, who plays Dave Seville, was going to be on board, but there were all sorts of issues with his availability – we were filming as he was completing his TV series. We wanted David Cross to come back to reprise his role as the villain, Ian Hawke, but had to work out his stuff. Then we had a new character – we were hoping to get Zac Levi, but he was finishing his TV show, Chuck. So we knew these guys were looming, but their deals weren’t done. I was doing concept boards and things like that, because at least I knew what they looked like.
The script was undergoing revisions. We didn’t have a locked shooting script until the Friday before we started filming. Our First AD had something like five different one-line schedules made up for any contingency, because all of those factors were up in the air. I was only given five weeks of prep, which is, you know, pretty impossible. I spent those five weeks drawing Chipmunks and Chipettes. I designed three different costumes for each of the six of them, plus Alvin’s football outfit, plus the platform shoes for Eleanor. I also did cheerleading outfits for the girls – it’s not even in the movie, it was for a marketing trailer. At the end of the film, they added a bedroom scene, so I spent the last two days of filming and my wrap drawing pajamas for all six! I also designed the Eagle mascot for the school.
The process was the same for the Chipmunks and Chipettes as it was for the actors – I did character boards, and met with the Bagdasarians, and Betty (Thomas, the director). We had extensive meetings about what their characters were like, and so forth and then my sketches were submitted to the studio for final approval. I swatched all the fabric for the animators, because they needed them for visual reference. I actually had my assistant designer go out and thrift shop a denim jacket for them, and I brought in my motorcycle jacket from home so that they could see all of the hardware and the seaming for Brittany and Jeanette’s jackets. It was kind of a dream job. Because I work on contemporary projects, for the most part, on most of the films that I do (if I’m lucky) I get to design two or three of the costumes. Everything else is a purchase, or a rental, or a modification. It’s just the nature of the projects I work on. So it’s really fun when I get to build. This was kind of a dream job – five weeks of straight design!
Riddle me this: girls – full outfits. Boys – no pants. ??
Well, okay. There are actually a couple of things that go on in the design of the clothing for Chipmunks. On the one hand, when they are sitting up on their haunches, they’re vaguely human-like. Except, as I like to point out, they’re shaped like butternut squash! So you have proportion issues that need to be dealt with. On the other hand, they do get down and run around on all fours, so whatever they’re wearing has to work for that. There are also all these issues about “how clothed should they be?”
From the beginning, the boys have always only worn stuff on top, and it’s never been an issue that they’re not in pants. The issue with the girls was even though there’s no “there” there, you don’t want to raise the idea that there might be, because they are too innocent and sweet. Depending on the skirt length, however, you get into the danger zone of suggesting that there is. If you go too long with the skirt length, you have muumuus. They can’t run around on all fours, they can’t scamper the way they need to. They can’t do other Chipmunk-like activities, like scratching themselves with their hind legs, as the boys do. Theoretically, they needed to be able to do all of those things. There was a lot of debate about this, and I learned that everyone had a different idea of what the Chipmunk modesty zone was.
We used to joke about that – the “CMZ.” That was challenging. So, how do you do something that gives you the idea that “Oh great, she’s wearing a cute little miniskirt, “ without making it potentially risqué in a character that should never, ever be risqué? This is one of the reasons that, aside from the plot point of the platform shoes for Eleanor, the girls do not wear shoes. In some of the earlier versions we toyed with putting the girls in shoes, but I felt very strongly (and I was very happy that everyone agreed with me) that once you put shoes on them, you’re really making them human-like. It just starts getting a little weird. There was a lot of R & D (research and development) that went into “what can they wear that will allow them to move the way they need to, to have the freedom that they need?” while also not pushing them into the bad zone.
It was already interesting because in the first movie they were kind of like toddlers, not much older than that, in terms of how they behave and how they interact with Dave Seville, and in this one, we suddenly put them in high school! At the same time, they still needed to be sweet and innocent, and Theodore is still having nightmares and wanting to sleep with Toby. They’re flirting with girls, but it’s gotta be really innocent. Across the board, just conceptually, on this film there were a lot of discussions about what’s appropriate, what’s age-appropriate, what age are they, anyway? The costumes were all a part of that.
I noticed that the high school colors were also Alvin’s colors. Was that a “chicken and egg” issue? Or was that a happy coincidence?
I believe that that was a happy coincidence. We definitely brought color into the school. But those colors were predominant there (at the location).
I noticed that when the footballers are trying to get him to join the team, they’re all in their letterman jackets, and they are exactly the same color as Alvin’s red hoodie and yellow “A”.
Right. I think in that scene, we definitely wanted the two lead football jocks in their letterman jackets a lot, because that’s what those guys do, no matter the weather. We had some super-cold shooting days, however, and those lunch scenes, some of them were outdoors, and the kids were freezing. There were times when I hadn’t planned for them to all wear their letterman jackets, but they all ended up in them anyway. Betty liked the way it looked.
I thought it was great because it made it look like Alvin was already a built-in member of their team, with the red sweater with the yellow – it was like he was one of them already.
Right. I just think it was one of those fortuitous coincidences.
So you had a football team, cheerleaders, jocks, all of this branding, really, to create for the high school. There were a ton of people to equip with football gear, and I noticed that you probably had some promo deals. Do you want to talk about that?
We didn’t have as many promo deals as we thought we would. Unfortunately, a lot of that had to do with what was going on with the economy last year. So many of the companies that were our “go-to” companies for that sort of thing (because I’ve done a lot of high school movies in my career!) unfortunately had to cut back on what they could do promotionally, or they literally didn’t have the product in the volume that we needed.
We had a lot of kids on the football team. We had the cast and we had extras that were smaller-sized -when you’re making a movie about eight-inch-tall Chipmunks, you try to cast kids that are not super tall, just to get them in the same frame with the Chipmunks. For our actual football team (the ones who went out and ran the plays) we worked with a local junior college team. Of course, those guys are much bigger. So we had bigger guys we dressed to do the plays and smaller kids we dressed to be on the sidelines, or to be in the huddles. We needed a lot of football gear.
So we went out to vendors. I delegated the whole uniform thing to my costume supervisor, Julie Robar (who is amazing). She really researched it thoroughly. It ended up being a combination of purchase and donations. Nike donated the actual jerseys and then we had to get all the numbers and everything put on them ourselves. Nike also donated the cleats for the featured team members only; they just really scaled back last year, and didn’t have a lot in their warehouse.
How about Schutt? I saw their logo on the helmets –
They did the helmets and they were great. We had a wonderful technical consultant that hooked us up with them, and we did research as well, because there are a lot of different types of football helmets. The face guards vary, not only depending on the position you play, but whether you’re playing for high school, college, or professionally. The helmets that the kids, and Alvin, wore (because I then based my Alvin sketches on an actual helmet), they were the latest, newest, safest Schutt helmets for high school players.
Then we got all the decals made.
The decals were beautiful!!
We had a lot of fun. It was funny because Tom Rothman, who is the big gun at Fox, is a big football fan! He’s also very involved – Tom had the deciding vote on all of my sketches for all the Chipmunks and Chipettes. He was very involved in the process and early on he forwarded pictures of football players with the stickers on their helmets, and said, “I think this looks really cool; can we do this?” So we – meaning me, and my set costumers Amelia Buhrman and Christina De Masi – we stickered our key boys’ helmets. We had to make them match, because there were stunt doubles and photo doubles for our actors. For the rest of the team, we literally went out while they were practicing and said, “Here guys – here are your helmets; here are some stickers – go crazy!” and they all were like, “YAY!” and just pkh-pkh-pkh (makes sticker-applying gestures), covered everything in stickers. We thought it was more authentic that way.
So Wendie (Malick). We’re talking about Dr. Rubin. Her costumes were devoid of color. Black, white, grey. Tell me about that decision, which is very specific, and which was very noticeable to me… tell me about that.
One of the things about children’s movies (or family movies, because this is really a movie that we hope appeals to kids as well as adults) is that they tend to be very bright and very colorful. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Betty (Thomas) comes from an edgier place, and she wanted to make it less “hyper-real,” bright kids’ movie, and more like a “real” movie. So the color palette was extremely important. At the school you have so much color going on, so obviously those school colors are very dominant.
The Chipmunk colors are also very dominant. The Chipmunks are color-coded. Alvin is always red. Theodore is always green. Simon is always blue. Anything that has to do with them, whether it’s their clothes or their luggage or their sheets, or anything, it’s in their colors. The same goes for the girls – Eleanor corresponds to Theo, so she’s in green. Jeanette is in blues and purples, and Brittany is pink. Their vanity dressing tables, everything comes in those colors. Those colors need to pop, as well, though we tried to be subtle about it.
With Dr. Rubin, I felt strongly that she is this figure of authority who then turns out to have a softer, playful side. We very much wanted her to present a steely exterior because the boys are really intimidated by her at first. Because there is an absence of color, your eye does go to her in the frame and you pay attention, because she’s in charge. And Wendie loved it, and Betty loved it too.
I also wanted to ask you about the use of neckties. There are an awful lot of neckties in this film, for not having a lot of people in the business world that would normally wear neckties. We have a bowtie on the guitarist in the Paris concert, neckties on the Chipmunks at the Paris concert, necktie on Brittany in her “regular” outfit, and necktie on Dr. Rubin at the final music showdown. Was there something going on there?
No, the neckties on the boys (when I say the boys, I am referring to the Chipmunk boys) that was again when I was pitched different ideas about what their stage wear would be. That’s a look that has had a real revival in indie-rock circles in the last couple of years. Being a child of the 1980s myself, I really love the look of super-skinny jeans, and neckties on boys, and blazers. All of those things have come back in style. You see fifteen-year-olds and 20-somethings wearing that, and I think it’s a great look.
When we talked about the Paris concert that kicks off the movie, this big benefit concert that the ‘Munks are headlining, I came up with this idea of black satin skinny blazers, and then ties in their colors. That was the start of it. We then dressed the band (Honor Society). Their whole look, in real life, is kind of “clean-cut-preppy-meets-punk.” They’re really cute and they had a great look, so I talked with them about what they usually wear, and then I dressed them in a version of that. Again, we had photo doubles to contend with. They all usually wear ties, so I had to put at least one of them in a tie because it’s a cute look for them.
I don’t know how noticeable this was, because it’s a really busy scene, but they are basically in black, white, and the Chipmunk colors. Red, green and blue are used as accent colors, because they’re the backup band.
I thought it paid homage to Britney Spears’ first video, Baby One More Time?
A little bit… For Brittany in our movie, there was a tear sheet from Teen Vogue that was a really cute little outfit with a tie and a little cropped motorcycle jacket and we were all like Fqussh! (makes “focusing” gestures with hands), and that’s basically where that came from.
Wendie’s tie – she actually wanted to wear one. Wendie’s so much fun to dress because she’s long and lean. I love a tailored look – bold, clean, no frills, and she wears it so well. I had put her in a sweater vest with a very tailored shirt, which looked great, and she suddenly said, “What if I add a necktie?” Again, it was just kind of something that we all liked. When you see her loosen up and rock out at the end, it gave her one step further to go, from how she presented herself at school to when she really let her hair down, so to speak.
About the other performing acts at the music competition – that B-Boy group, I was like, Hmm!
I love those guys. Those guys – I don’t know if you ever watch America’s Best Dance Crew – they won that competition. They’re super cool; they’re just the nicest guys. Purple is their color, and even though they weren’t performing as themselves, I still wanted to let them be themselves as much as possible. So I chatted with their manager before they came in for their fitting. We shopped a bunch of stuff in different color groups, so I had a whole purple color group and then I had some other color groups – a neon group, a black-and-white group. In the end, we went with the purple. I’d say half of it was their own stuff and the other half of it was our stuff. We sort of mixed and matched to try and get the look. I thought they had such good style!
That was a good collaboration!
Then Charise, the little girl (who sings in the music competition) – she was a huge Internet phenomenon at the tail end of 2008. We made this movie at the beginning of 2009. She’s fifteen years old, she’s from the Philippines, and she’s been singing since she was three. She had become a pop sensation, and she was on tour – they arranged for her to come in and play on our film. Her own style is not that developed, so we wanted to make her just a little bit edgier.
The bracelet was hot!
Oh, thanks! That was just a look that I put together for her that was a little sexier than what she would usually do, but still again not too over the top because it was a high school musical performance. The idea was to make her a little hipper. But that voice – it’s so stunning. She’s a pretty reserved little girl, and when you talk with her she’s really friendly, and has kind of a normal speaking voice, and then she opens her mouth to sing and… wow.
I don’t know how much you can actually see what’s going on, but we had full groups of extras dressed as the other “competition” at the performance for those backstage scenes, near the side of the stage, and so forth. We had a drum line, we had an emo band, we had a garage/indie-rock band, we had Charise’s backup band – I dressed all of them in matching red and black outfits – we had a lot of fun with it. We had the Flight of the Conchords guys – these two guys who happened to look like the teenaged version of the Flight of the Conchords. It was fun.
So you had to deliver the fabric to the animators – how much fabric?
It was usually about a half-yard piece. It had to be large enough that they could actually move it. They’re rendering everything into 3D. They had to have a sense of the weight of the fabric, and what it did, how it moved.
Did you make those dresses that David Cross hands to the girls?
Yes. That was something that started on the first film. In the first movie, we actually had a scene where Jason Lee’s character cuts up his old sweatshirts and makes hoodies for the boys to wear. He physically had to have something to be sewing and then handing to them. If the actor’s holding it, it’s real; once the Chipmunks get hold of it, it’s virtual.
The final costume on David Cross –
Oh, yes. Well that was also something that went through a lot of R & D. Betty and I had a lot of really funny conversations about how, at the last possible moment, in a desperate measure to save his money, how Ian would try to pull this off. We figured that he would only have access to what he was wearing himself, and what he could find backstage at the Staples Center. This didn’t make it into the movie, but the idea was that the gold piece of fabric that’s wrapped around him, the theory is that it had been cut out of a curtain, so there was this shot where you went past the curtains and saw the big piece fabric that had been chopped out. We had joked about the old stagehands with ponytails, and that we’d have a shot of one of them missing a ponytail because he would have hacked that off to make the curls… We went through a lot of different ideas. David is amazing because he’s so up for it. He’s so game. Betty was like, “This has to be the most humiliating outfit possible!” There was a version where the hair on his head was a mop, I mean, all sorts of things. The only thing that cannot be explained in his whole outfit – because I mean, he’s got his own dress socks on his hands, he’s made the curls out of rope, there’s bits of cardboard, gaffing tape, whatever, the curtain dress – is that he is actually wearing a chipmunk tail. I had to make him a chipmunk. So he has a fake fur chipmunk tail that was wired so it would stand up. We just felt, “We can’t explain the tail, but he has to have it!” Maybe there’s a glimpse of it when he’s being thrown in the dumpster, but I don’t think you even really see it. But it’s there.
I just have to talk about David’s costumes in general –
The polkadot shirt! The robe!
David’s character, Ian Hawke is a record company executive who became wildly successful in the first movie, because he discovered the Chipmunks. The whole idea is that he’s always been a dandy, but at the same time, he’s always had appalling taste. We had fun with that. On this one, at the start of the movie, because he’s been ruined by the Chipmunks abandonment of him because of his bad actions, he’s living in the basement of Jett Records. The robe is actually his robe from the first movie. In the first film, the Chipmunks moved in with him, and he lived in this horrible McMansion. He wandered around in this kimono that I built for him, with Japanese sandals and split-toed socks. We figured, okay, he’d have a few of his clothes from the old days, including the robe. That’s where that came from! He’s sort of wearing the last of his decent clothes as he’s launching the Chipettes’ career.
Did you do your sketches digitally? How did you get them to so many places at one time?
Oh, no, no; I’m very old-fashioned! I draw! With these sketches I was doing magic marker, because I didn’t have the time to actually paint. I draw with pencil. I color them in by hand. I was both scanning and emailing, and printing out hard copies that our producers would then take to the studio. So it was always both – then once people signed off on them, they went to the visual effects crew. I worked very closely with our animation supervisor and our visual effects supervisor.
I had printouts of pictures of what the characters looked like, and then at a certain point in the process I got – I don’t know what the official name for it is – I called it “the lineup.” I got a 2D printout of each character in 3D, so it was like a police lineup – you get profile, front and back. For the girls, the huge issue was tail placement, with their skirts. I did different versions – what would work best, was it the split skirt, the hole in the skirt, the suggestion of a skirt that was shorter than where the tail was? Each girl had different fit issues. For Brittany, like many women I know, her thighs were always an area of concern, though she’s very slim through the waist. As Theodore so eloquently put it: Eleanor is kind of like an adorable green gumdrop. So she had fit issues, too. Jeanette’s kind of taller and bonier than the other two, so you know, she doesn’t look very good in pants. For all of the girls, pants weren’t really a “go” for them. The only pants that came into play were their pajamas, and then they ended up being under the covers the whole time anyway, so we couldn’t really see what they were wearing. But they had really cute pajamas!
When I started working on the first film, I was not a huge Chipmunks fan. I was aware of them, I grew up with them like everyone else, but I wasn’t like, “Oh! The Chipmunks!” I was kind of like, “Sure, the Chipmunks. Fine.” As I was out shopping, swatching fabrics, talking to friends, however, I was fascinated that nine out of ten people that I talked to got so excited by the fact that we were making a Chipmunks movie. And then the tenth person would be like, “A Chipmunks movie? Huh?” I sort of felt like I was that tenth person. I was happy to be working, I thought it was a cool idea, but I wasn’t really, “Woo hoo! The Chipmunks!”
By the end of the film, just through the process of working with them, I became a Chipmunks fan. Part of it is that I love and respect the Bagdasarians so much, but it’s also that these are wonderful characters, and generations of people literally have connected with them. I can honestly say that I love them all, though I have very strong feelings for Theodore. I adore Theodore; I just think he’s the cutest thing possible. He always makes my heart flutter a little. I love the girls, too – each one is so charming in her own way. So after two movies with the Chipmunks, I’m totally like, “Woo hoo! Chipmunks!!” I’m like Wendie Malick’s character.
Have you gotten a tattoo?
Thank you, Alexandra, for your time and your wonderful insight into the world of the Chipmunks!! It’s really amazing to know what went in to the making of this film!