Fantasy Animation & Costume: The Unexploited Potential of Costume Design and Costume Designer in Computer-Animated Films
From a costume design point of view, a combination of the words ‘fantasy’ and ‘animation’ directly creates an impression of visually innovative costumes. After all, in animation anything imaginative can be designed, breaking the laws of gravity (with costume) or establishing textiles which are not bound to or are replicated from the real life. What a fruitful starting point for costume design! However, unfortunately, mostly the words ‘fantasy’ and ‘animation’ are not reflected in many animated characters’ costume design in recent computer-animated films. As costume design in animation is integrated as part of the character design, at the same time making the character and the costume indistinguishable. This aspect of the animated characters’ design process makes it much easier to explore and execute the different possibilities of costume to represent the nature of the character. Furthermore, costumes are able to support the narrative due to the continuous story development and scriptwriting process throughout film productions. In doing so, costumes could be easily utilised to enhance the different changes in the plot and the power of particular scenes. Too often popular animated film productions do not integrate the full potential of costume into the qualities and complexities of character design. In this post, I’d like to discuss this remark through two different lenses: the many ways in which a critical consideration of costume could support the narrative or the mise-en-scène, and to demonstrate the lack of fantasy elements in animated character costume design. I am focusing on mainstream North-American computer-animated feature films, as I have discovered these remarks during my ongoing doctoral research studying those films.
Characters’ costumes traditionally have two main functions. As outlined by film costume designer James Acherson, ‘the very essence of costume design is to visually support the character and the narrative’ (in Landis 2003: 21). On rare occasions, costumes have been utilised to support comedic features in the narrative. In such occasions, fantasy elements are also generated by the style of the costume. One example is character Scarlet Overkill’s dress towards the end of the recent computer-animated film Minions (Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda, 2015). Her cage crinoline dress is made of shiny printed silk, decorated with ribbons and roses. However, the dress material suddenly transforms into iron and appears to hide a number of weapons underneath. Further on in the scene, her crinoline skirt even turns into a space rocket (Fig. 1). The unrealistic change in the dress material not only utilises the creative possibilities of animation, but also supports the sudden demonstration of her true personality as the villainous character. These two design features in the dress are exactly what animation medium can contribute to costume design, and vice versa.
Another example of the way costume design can support the narrative by creating comedic features through costume is visible in Princess Fiona’s costume in Shrek the Third (Chris Miller, 2007), in a scene in which ogres Shrek and Fiona are presented to the court as regents. In both of their costumes, the aim was not to depict a specific era authentically, but to mix different costume elements from the different historical periods to create comedy through costume. This is where a costume designer Israel Segal’s presence during the scriptwriting process enhanced the discovery of correct costume pieces, as his knowledge of historical costumes was effortlessly included in the narrative. As an inspiration for Fiona’s dress, Segal utilised the Spanish court dress (Fig. 2). However, to achieve more comedic features with the costume, he combined the design with a wide millstone collar from the 16th century and a white powdered wig, which originates from the reign of Louis XIV in the late 17th century (Fig. 3). Another scene also illustrates that Fiona’s historical dress is fastened with a zip even though zips were not popularized in clothing until the 1950s.
In the context of fantasy, new technologies can provide more creative visual solutions for costumes. Paul Wells (1998: 11) and Jane Harris (2005: 25) both remark on the possibilities of animation to challenge gravity and laws of the real world. In particular, Harris emphasises the ways that computer animation enables the introduction of new imaginative textiles, textures and constructions of garments, without the pressure of actually producing them in real life. The closest example of a fantasy costume that uses imaginative textiles takes place in Disney’s Frozen (Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck, 2013) in which princess Elsa’s mundane dress transforms into a gown with a train made of ice (Figs. 4 & 5). The transformation takes place in a scene that is a particularly important moment in the storyline, and as such the metamorphosis of the costume enhances the power of the “Let It Go” musical sequence and addresses the dramatic change of the personality of the character. Although such a dress does not defy the laws of gravity, the construction of the dress and its material represent something which cannot be achieved in real life. It is an example of the different possibilities that computer-animated textiles provide to support character costume design.
From a costume design point of view, animation is such creative discipline and practice, enabling innovative freedoms to the designer from many perspectives. Most computer animation is used to more accurately depict textiles and details in costumes, almost aiming for a photorealistic depiction of the real. Yet computer animation could be more strongly applied in employing fantasy elements in costumes, benefiting from the freedom of designing and executing any kind of garment construction, textiles and the creation of imaginative costumes. The different possibilities of costume design should be further taken into consideration within the character design, including a professional costume designer as part of the production pipeline.
Harris, Jane. ““Crafting” Computer Graphics – A Convergence of Traditional and “New” Media,” TEXTILE: The Journal of Cloth and Culture 3, no.1 (2005): 20-35.
Landis, Deborah, ed.). Sceencraft: Costume Design (Burlington MA: Elsevier 2003)
Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation (London: Routledge, 1998)
Maarit Kalmakurki, MA, is a scenographer with creative design credits across a diverse range of theatre, opera and film productions. In addition to her career portfolio, Maarit is also an award-winning costume researcher: her diverse research interests combine stage and film costume history, dress history and the use of technological tools in design processes. Maarit is a doctoral candidate at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Finland. Her doctoral dissertation investigates costume design and digitalisation for and within 3D-computer animated feature films. Maarit lectures subjects related to her research and design practises and presents in conferences worldwide.