Costumes and Makeup: Activity 2

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Costumes: Creating Characters

In real life, people don’t always wear an outfit in which everything is brand new. A teenage girl might wear a favorite well-worn skirt, a pair of earrings from the local mall, and a birthday scarf from her best friend. Although the audience meets film characters when the movie starts, like real people the characters must seem to have lived before the story begins.

Before shooting starts, hidden motivations in a character’s personality—anxiety, depression, money troubles, a drinking problem—and the character arc (the emotional and psychological transition the character makes through the film) are analyzed by the director, costume designer, makeup artist, and actor to determine the most effective way to tell the story. Costumes convey information about the characters’ social and economic circumstances, their personalities, and their role in the story before one word of dialogue is spoken.

In In Her Shoes (2005), Maggie, played by Cameron Diaz, is a free-spirited young woman and dresses in sexy, colorful prints, while her down-to-earth and welleducated sister Rose (Toni Colette), wears business-like, solid-colored suits. Designer Sophie de Rakoff accentuates Maggie and Rose’s contrasting personalities with subtle and specific choices of accessories.

Costume designer Sharen Davis’s costumes for the 1950s girl group in the musical Dreamgirls (2006) reflect the course of the girls’ career from amateur talent contests to worldwide fame. When they first start out, these young singers wear simple, homemade dresses. With greater success, their costumes become more sophisticated and glamorous.

Costumes may be purchased new, rented, or manufactured. When necessary, costume designers use a variety of techniques to make them look realistically lived in. Garments are darkened, faded, or frayed in places where this process would happen naturally over time. After a few wearings, all jackets, jeans, and shirts show wear on the cuff, collar, and hem. Jeans bag at the knee and pockets are stretched by car keys and cell phones. A mechanic’s uniform might have grease stains where he habitually wipes his hands.

To age or “break down” a costume, the designer and costume crew begin by washing or dry cleaning new or newly made garments multiple times. Aging tools include suede brushes to scrub leather, dye to color clothes, and mineral oil to add “sweat stains” to hats. The crew uses a combination of bleach, airbrushes, sandpaper, razor blades, files, seam rippers, and hammers to fray and discolor the costumes. A sterile clay product called fuller’s earth is often used in Westerns to make cowboys look like they have been sleeping out on the dusty trail.

If costumes are purchased or rented, they must be altered to fit each actor. After actor Harrison Ford tried on many different hats for his role as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), costume designer Deborah Nadoolman devised a hat with a lower crown to flatter his face, and a narrower brim to keep Ford’s expressive eyes exposed to the camera.

Although Nadoolman might have purchased a vintage leather jacket for the character, because the script called for action sequences using stunt doubles, she instead designed and manufactured a dozen new leather jackets. Each jacket was then aged to look identical on screen.

Costume designers also provide costumes for supporting actors, stunt doubles, extras (also called background talent), and even animated characters. Each of these has special considerations. For example, stunt performers wear exactly the same costumes as the actors they are doubling in an action scene, but their costumes must be constructed to accommodate safety features such as padding and rigging for gunshots (squibs), high falls, or stunt driving.

Costumes for background talent are designed in the appropriate period and style. Bugsy (1991) costume designer Albert Wolsky says,“I care a great deal about extras, because they’re like scenery. They set the tone. You can’t just create the period with your principals; it has to be the extras.” Background talent and supporting actors’ costumes should have the right colors and style for the film’s setting, but be understated enough that they do not draw attention away from the stars.

Read a character description from a screenplay or book. Have your students list everything they know about the character, including age, social status, attitudes, background, and gender. Discuss the character’s arc and list the challenges or turning points he or she faces. Ask them what the costumes should say about the character at each important point. Have them consider what colors, patterns, accessories, and clothing accents, such as buttons, lace, ribbons, and neckties, would be appropriate for the character and why. Have the students create a costume design for the character using drawings, collages, pictures from magazines, or clothing to show what the character would wear, and have them explain their choices to the class.

Supplemental Activity

We all choose different outfits for different occasions. Divide your students into small groups. Give each group a specific situation, such as a job interview, a date, or hanging out at home. Ask them to create an appropriate costume using items from their own closets. Have each group present the costume in class and ask the other students to guess for what occasion the student is dressed. Then have them discuss the reasoning behind the choices they made. Discuss how the costume would change if the character were older or younger, from a different ethnic or socioeconomic group, or from a different part of the country. How does each part of their costume contribute to the final effect?

Costumes and Makeup: Character By Design

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Costumes and Makeup Activities Guide (PDF)

Activity 1: Costumes: Telling the Story

Activity 2: Costumes: Creating Characters

Activity 3: Costumes: Painting the Frame

Activity 4: Makeup: The Beginnings

Activity 5: Makeup: Creating the Character

Activity 5: Creating the Character

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