Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

HUGO: Interview With Designer Sandy Powell!

HUGO is a movie, ostensibly for kids, directed by Martin Scorsese.  I say ostensibly, because it’s a very nostalgic piece that is also quite appealing for adults.  The film is about an orphaned child, Hugo, who lives in a train station, and the grumpy old man he befriends.  That old man, George Méliès, just happens to be a former pioneer filmmaker, now broken and on the skids.  The movie is a visual delight, and I was lucky enough to be able to talk with costume designer Sandy Powell about her wonderful work in this film.  Read on!

What were your initial discussions like with M Scorsese about the look and feel of the film?

THE LOOK AND FEEL OF THE FILM WAS LARGELY INFLUENCED BY THE ORIGINAL BOOK BY BRIAN SELZNICK. THIS WAS ALWAYS REFERRED TO IN PREP AND WHILST SHOOTING.

ALTHOUGH I DIDN’T COPY THE CLOTHES FROM THE ILLUSTRATIONS IN THE BOOK, THEY SERVED AS A STATING POINT AND INSPIRATION. M. SCORSESE WANTED EVERYTHING – SETS AND COSTUMES – TO BE SLIGHTLY HEIGHTENED AND UNREAL AS IF SEEN THROUGH THE EYES OF A CHILD OR LIKE ILLUSTRATIONS IN A PICTUREBOOK. AS USUAL IN DISCUSSIONS ABOUT THE LOOK AND FEEL FOR THE FILM, HE SCREENS FILMS FOR THE CREW TO SEE, THINGS THAT HE IS USING AS REFERENCE EITHER AS A FEELING OR AS A LITERAL RECONSTRUCTION. FOR EXAMPLE THE TRAIN DRIVERS ON THE RUNAWAY TRAIN IN THE DREAM SEQUENCE WERE COPIED FROM A SCENE IN LA BÊTE HUMAINE.

How much prep time did you have, and at what point in prep did you get your actors?

I HAD ABOUT 16 WEEKS PREP TIME, BUT CARRIED ON MANUFACTURING COSTUMES RIGHT THROUGH THE SHOOT. I GOT MOST OF MY ACTORS EARLY ON, WHICH MEANT I HAD THE LUXURY OF HAVING 3 OR 4 FITTINGS BEFORE WE STARTED.

Did the actors have special things they wanted for their characters, or ideas for their costumes that you incorporated?

SASHA BARON COHEN (WHO PLAYED THE STATION INSPECTOR) WAS VERY INVOLVED IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF HIS COSTUME. AS HIS CHARACTER HAD A MILITARY BACKGROUND, HE WANTED TO INCORPORATE THAT ELEMENT INTO HIS COSTUME. THEREFORE, HIS UNIFORM IS A LITTLE MORE EXAGGERATED AND MILITARY THAN AN ACTUAL STATION INSPECTOR’S. MOST OF THE ACTORS HAVE IDEAS THAT I LISTEN TO AND TRY TO INCORPORATE IF IT FITS IN WITH THE WAY I SEE THE COSTUME. I THINK THE COLLABORATION WITH THE ACTOR IS A VERY IMPORTANT PART OF THE PROCESS OF UNDERSTANDING THE CHARACTER AND THEREFORE GETTING THE COSTUME RIGHT.

How much of Méliès’ work did you watch as you prepped for this project?

HUNDREDS OF FILMS OVER AND OVER!

Did you endeavor to copy his films’ designs literally, or to take some artistic license with them?

A FEW OF THE COSTUMES WE TRIED TO COPY EXACTLY, THE LOBSTERS AND THE DANCING SKELETONS FOR EXAMPLE, BUT OTHERS I JUST DREW INSPIRATION FROM AND DID MY OWN VERSION.

How many of Méliès’ costumes, total, do you think you (re)created, and what was the most challenging part of that?

WE RECREATED, OR DID SIMILAR VERSIONS OF, AROUND FIFTY OF MÉLIÈS’ COSTUMES FOR THE STUDIO SEQUENCES.

IT WAS DIFFICULT SOMETIMES TO WORK OUT EXACTLY WHAT THEY WERE WEARING IN THE ORIGINAL FILMS AS THEY MOVED TOO QUICKLY, OR IF FREEZE-FRAMED WERE TOO BLURRY. IN THE END, I HOPE WHAT I CREATED SHOWS THE ESSENCE OF THE ORIGINAL COSTUMES EVEN IF THEY WEREN’T EXACT REPLICAS.

How much of the costumage of the film was rented vs. built?

ALL THE PRINCIPALS AND KEY SECONDARY CHARACTERS WERE BUILT, ALONG WITH ALL THE MÉLIÈS COSTUMES IN THE 1900’S AND QUITE A FEW OF THE EXTRAS IN THOSE SCENES. HOWEVER, SINCE THERE WERE THOUSANDS OF EXTRAS THROUGHOUT, THIS WAS THE MAIN BULK OF THE RENTALS. WE ALSO PURCHASED ORIGINAL CLOTHING FOR PRINCIPALS AND MANY OF THE EXTRAS, TOO.

I noticed a lot of really nice knits in the film – I presume you had them custom made (for the kids, especially)?  How did you go about doing that – sourcing fibers, dyeing, etc.?

WE HAD TO HAVE THE KNITS MADE FOR THE KIDS, ESPECIALLY SINCE THEY NEEDED DUPLICATES.

HUGO’S SWEATER WAS BASED ON AN ORIGINAL ONE I FOUND, SO I HAD TO FIND WOOL TO MATCH. IF THE COLOURS WEREN’T RIGHT, I DYED THEM TO THE EXACT SHADES I WANTED.

ISABELLE’S COLOURS WEREN’T SO UNUSUAL; I WANTED A VERY ‘FRENCH’ LOOK FOR HER SO SHE IS IN A LOT OF NAVY AND BURGUNDY WHICH ARE COLOURS EASILY FOUND NOW. I DID, HOWEVER, WANT TO USE A WOOL THAT WAS MORE VINTAGE IN FEEL, WHICH MEANT IT WAS A LOT LESS COMFORTABLE THAN A LOT OF WOOLS USED TODAY AS IT WAS SCRATCHY! ALL OF M. FRICK’S KNITWEAR WAS DONE BY HAND, AGAIN USING WOOLS WITH COLOURS AS CLOSE TO THE PERIOD AS I COULD GET. LISETTE’S BERET AND SCARF WERE ALSO MADE FROM ORIGINAL 1920’S PATTERNS.

If I may, what was your budget?

ABOUT 1.2 MILLION BRITISH POUNDS STERLING – APPROXIMATELY $1.87 MILLION US DOLLARS (today’s exchange rate)

How did you make the budget work, with all of the things you had to do to get the show off the ground and looking the way you wanted?

I WAS LUCKY IN THAT I DIDN’T HAVE TO FIGHT TOO HARD TO GET THE BUDGET NECESSARY TO MAKE IT THE WAY I WANTED. I ALSO HAVE A LOT OF EXPERIENCED PEOPLE ON MY TEAM WHO HELP TO FIGURE IT ALL OUT IN A PRACTICAL WAY.

The background in the film is extraordinary – how big were your biggest days?  What kind of staff was required to pull it off?

OUR BIGGEST CROWD DAY WAS ABOUT 550 PEOPLE. WE HAD 15 OR SO TO DRESS IN THE MORNING AND UNDRESS AT NIGHT, 4 PEOPLE ON SET AND 4 AT NIGHT TO TURN AROUND THE LAUNDRY AND SET UP FOR THE NEXT DAY.

Can you talk about your strategy in terms of manipulating the budget to cover the costs of dressing large numbers of people in very different environments – the train station, the movie sets, the gala at the end… it’s not like there is a lot of crossover in those big background setups, so as a designer, how do you strategize about it?

THIS HAPPENS AT THE BEGINNING OF PREP WHEN YOU ARE GIVEN ALL THE CROWD NUMBERS FOR EACH SCENE.

FIRST YOU HAVE TO WORK OUT THE NUMBER OF COSTUMES NEEDED TO FIT THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE (YOU ALWAYS NEED MORE). YOU THEN CAN WORK OUT ROUGHLY HOW MUCH THAT WILL COST TO RENT ALL THE COMPONENTS. IF THE BUDGET YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN IS NOT ENOUGH, IT MEANS YOU HAVE TO GO INTO NEGOTIATION WITH PRODUCTION TO EITHER INCREASE THE BUDGET OR DECREASE THE CROWD NUMBERS. I ALWAYS BUDGET THE PRINCIPALS SEPARATELY AS THEY ARE ALWAYS BUILT AND COST A LOT MORE THAN AN EXTRA. HAVING SAID THAT THOUGH, ON A FILM WITH EXTRAS ON THIS SCALE, THE MAJORITY OF BUDGET IS SPENT ON THE CROWD.

How far did you go in dressing the background – did all of the ladies wear corsets (in the earlier period scenes) or was it more like catch as catch can?

I HAD TWO KEY ASSISTANTS WHO WERE IN CHARGE OF DRESSING THE CROWD – WHICH ALSO INVOLVED MAKING UP CHARACTERS FOR A LOT OF THEM. I WOULD BRIEF THEM ON WHAT I WANTED AND SHOW THEM REFERENCES BEFORE THEY STARTED. ONCE FITTINGS WERE UNDERWAY, I WOULD USUALLY DO A FEW AT THE BEGINNING MYSELF, BUT THEN LEAVE IT TO THE CROWD FITTERS TO CARRY ON. I WOULD THEN LOOK AT EVERY EXTRA ONCE THEY WERE FINISHED USUALLY IN GROUPS. AT THIS POINT I WOULD MAKE ANY CHANGES I THOUGHT NECESSARY.

IN THE EARLY SCENES ALL THE WOMEN WORE CORSETS OTHERWISE THE DRESSES WOULD NOT HAVE FIT PROPERLY.

Your crew in general, was huge!  Can you talk a little bit about managing a creative department as large as this – how do you keep people on the same page artistically and creatively, and how do you keep them motivated and enthusiastic about the work?

MANAGING A HUGE CREW IS ONLY MADE POSSIBLE WITH GREAT KEY ASSISTANTS AND A GOOD SUPERVISOR. EACH OF MY KEY ASSISTANTS WOULD BE ANSWERABLE TO ME AND I WOULD DISCUSS WITH THEM THE LOOK AND FEEL AND PROVIDE REFERENCE. THEY IN TURN WOULD HAVE PEOPLE WORKING FOR THEM WHO THEY WOULD WATCH OVER TO MAKE SURE EVERYTHING WAS AS IT WAS MEANT TO BE.

A FILM ON THIS SCALE IS A HUGE ADMINISTRATIVE TASK AND HAVING AN EXPERIENCED AND ENTHUSIASTIC SUPERVISOR IS ESSENTIAL, AS THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DAY-TO-DAY RUNNING OF THE SET. THIS IS A FILM WHERE MIRACULOUSLY EVERYONE IN THE DEPARTMENT HAD FUN. I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT TO GIVE MEMBERS OF YOUR TEAM RESPONSIBILITY AND ALLOW THEM TO MAKE CREATIVE DECISIONS FOR THEMSELVES TO MAINTAIN THEIR INTEREST AND ENTHUSIASM. DELEGATION IS AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY.

I THINK IF A DEPARTMENT CAN SEE THAT THE DESIGNER IS EXCITED AND HAPPY WITH HIS/HER WORK, IT CREATES A POSITIVE ATMOSPHERE.

Any advice to a young person wanting to get started in the costume end of the film business in the UK?

THE BEST THING FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN GETTING INTO COSTUME IS TO LEARN ABOUT CLOTHES AND IN PARTICULAR, HOW THEY ARE MADE. IT REALLY HELPS TO BE ABLE TO UNDERSTAND CONSTRUCTION AND TO BE ABLE TO SEW. AFTER THAT THEY SHOULD OFFER THEIR SERVICES FOR WORK EXPERIENCE IN THE COSTUME DEPT ON A FILM. IF THEY ARE ENTHUSIASTIC, HAVE SOME PRACTICAL SKILLS, LOTS OF COMMON SENSE, ARE PREPARED TO WORK HARD, LONG HOURS AND LOVE COSTUME THEY SHOULD GET NOTICED AND HOPEFULLY BE OFFERED MORE WORK.

SOMETIMES THE BEST JOB ISN’T THAT OF THE DESIGNER. A GREAT ASSISTANT OR SUPERVISOR WILL NEVER BE OUT OF WORK.

Thank you, Sandy Powell, for your thoughts and your stories!!!  Hugo was a beautiful film, and I encourage you all to see it this holiday season!

– KMB

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