There’s a new profession in animation town
Animated film productions have long had a blind spot when it comes to character development: their lack of professional costume design expertise.
In animation, anything is possible. In a completely imaginary world, there are no rules; everyday realities don’t apply and the laws of motion and gravity can be broken with ease. So how come this rich fantasy world of limitless creativity is very rarely reflected in the costumes that we see animated characters wearing on screen, including those that appear in recent big-budget releases?
An animated character is typically developed by a character designer or a visual development artist. They work on the character’s personality and motivations, their movement and silhouette and also develop the wider narrative.
The costume design is an essential part of this process: the clothes the characters wear reflect their personality and support the narrative in many ways.
However, as things stand at the moment, professional costume designers don’t tend to collaborate with character designers in the context of an established animation production pipeline, even though the benefits of such a collaboration are pretty obvious.
In my doctoral thesis, I investigate the inextricable union between character development and costume design. I look at the ways costume designers explore different aspects of an animated character’s personality and, conversely, how that character’s temperament and motivations influence what they wear. Costumes can also support story development and the scriptwriting process through the entire film production process.
Costumes could easily be employed to enhance the impact of both wider plot developments and individual scenes, especially in animation where the story is developed throughout the production prior to the film’s release.
One way that costume design and the costume designer can support animated narratives is by introducing costume-related ideas that shape a character’s behaviour. An excellent example of this is the scene from the DreamWorks computer-animation Shrek the Third (2006) where the ogres Shrek and Fiona are presented as king and queen at court. The aim was not to create historically authentic costumes for the characters but to mix together elements from different historical periods to create comedy. Costume designer Israel Segal drew inspiration from traditional Spanish court attire to create an outfit for Fiona that restricts and slows down her movements. To enhance the comedic effect, Segal added a wide millstone collar to both Fiona and Shrek’s costume ensembles, although these accessories were popular in completely different time period. This addition drives the comedy in the scene where Fiona and Shrek try to kiss but are unable to reach each other due to the size of their enormous ruffs.
New technologies and computer animation techniques are now available that allow designers to introduce new and imaginative fabrics, textures and ways of structuring garments without the pressure of actually having to create them in real life. This development was noted a year ago by Robert Ito in his article in The New York Times covering the release of Disney’s Frozen 2 (2019).
Disney themselves used their social media platforms to reveal how the costumes worn by their hugely popular characters Anna and Elsa were designed. However, the company opted to give the costume design credits to visual development artists rather than acknowledging that these specific designers could be also credited as costume designers. The power of digital animation was indeed harnessed for the costumes in Frozen 2, especially those featured in the dramatic sequence that sees Elsa enter Ahtohallan. Her dress transforms multiple times into new designs and shapes during the Show Yourself scene as she discovers that she is the fifth spirit. Her sartorial metamorphosis calls to mind Cinderella’s iconic costume change in Disney’s hand-drawn animation Cinderella (1950), demonstrating that costumes are used to mark important visual and emotional shifts in scenes that can remain memorable for decades to come.
Another excellent example of the opportunities available to designers is the character of Scarlet Overkill from Minions (2015). Her cage crinoline dress is made of shiny silk and decorated with ribbons and roses. During one scene however, the fabric suddenly transforms into iron and appears to reveal a stash of weapons hidden underneath it. Later in the film, the crinoline dress cleverly turns into a space rocket. The fact that this unrealistic change in dress material would not be possible in real life not only highlights the creative possibilities offered by animation, but also supports the sudden revelation that Overkill is, in fact, a villain.
From a costume design point of view, animation is a highly creative discipline and practice offering great innovative freedom to the designer. All too often, popular animated film productions fail to make full use of this potential during the character design process. Computer animation could be used more extensively to add fantasy elements to the costumes we see on screen, with free rein given to designers’ imaginations to come up with any garments and finishes they can think of.
Let’s unleash the potential of professional costume design in animation!
Maarit Kalmakurki is a Doctoral candidate at Aalto University’s Department of Film, Television and Scenography. Her diverse research interests combine stage and film costume history, dress history and the use of technological tools in design processes. Her doctoral dissertation investigates the different areas involved in digital costume design for computer-animated feature films.