Costumes and Makeup: Activity 3

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Costumes: Painting the Frame

Costumes are part of the visual composition of each frame of film. Just as the elements of a painting work together to create a harmonious image, costumes must work with the lighting and sets. Color, shape, line, and texture are all considered when designing costumes for a movie. Color, one of the most important elements in the designer’s tool kit, suggests the mood and atmosphere of a story. Warm reds produce a different effect from subdued blues, for example.

A dismal, oppressive future world, such as the one depicted in the film Blade Runner (1982), with costumes designed by Charles Knode and Michael Kaplan, used cool, dark shades to evoke a bleak mood. Costume designer Nancy Steiner used different colors to subtly indicate the personality of each member of the dysfunctional family in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). While the costumes’ colors may go unnoticed by the audience, they subconsciously affect viewers’ perceptions of the characters.

Costumes are also used to focus attention on the major actors and the important action in a scene. Jeffrey Kurland, costume designer for Erin Brockovich (2000), dressed the secondary characters in colors that would not detract attention from star Julia Roberts. The sandy earth tones of their costumes echoed the film’s desert setting and provided a neutral background against which Roberts’s bright and provocative outfits stood out.

Costumes can change the shape of an actor’s body to reflect the period and the personality of the character. Revealing, close-fitting clothes look sexy, while clothes that hide the body could make a character seem conservative or shy. Soft silhouettes lend characters a vulnerable or compliant quality, while stiff, tailored clothing conveys authority. Iconic characters like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp can be recognized just by their silhouettes.

Pads may supply a very slim actress with a few extra pounds or a pregnancy, or give a well-built actor the appearance of narrow, stooped shoulders. Pads, girdles, and other garments can even make an actor appear to be a different gender, the way they transform Gwyneth Paltrow at one point in Shakespeare in Love (1998), or Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).

Designers often work from the inside out when creating a character. Period underwear from the 19th century or the early 1950s may never be seen by the audience, but the way it affects actors’ movements also affects both their silhouettes and their performances. An actress wearing a corset or a girdle, for example, stands more erectly and moves with much more difficulty than if she were wearing lightweight modern underwear. Each historical setting demands different garment shapes—from the soft drapery of Roman togas, to the rigid hoopskirts and bustles of the Victorian era, to the miniskirts of the 1960s.

Shoes also affect the posture and gait of an actor. The bowlegged stroll of a cowboy in boots, the bounce of a high school student in sneakers, and the strut of a fashion model in high heels speak volumes about each person. Often, costumes help actors discover their character. In the 2006 film Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, costume designer Penny Rose presented actor Stellan Skarsgärd with a pair of shoes that were one size too large. Rather than discard the shoes, Skarsgärd invented a distinctive walk for his character, sailor “Bootstrap Bill.”

Texture is the way fabric feels to the touch and looks to the eye. Fabric textures range from the roughness of burlap to the smoothness of silk. A garment’s texture may hint at a character’s profession, social status and economic situation. A farmhand might dress in rough coveralls, while an arctic explorer might wear reflective nylon clothing filled with down.

Because the camera and lighting affect the way colors and textures look on film, costume designers work closely with cinematographers. Certain fabrics are distractingly shiny in front of the camera. Patterns and textures that look great in person may be ugly or overwhelming when magnified on a movie screen forty feet wide. When there are doubts about a certain fabric or the look of a character, the director may ask for camera tests to make sure the costume has the desired effect.

Show your students a scene from one of the movies listed above or from a movie of your choice. Ask them to describe the main character(s) in the scene. Explain what happened in the scene. Have them analyze the color palette of the scene, the different textures used, the silhouette of the costumes. Ask them what each of these elements revealed about the character(s). Discuss the ways the costumes distinguished the main character(s) from the background and secondary characters in the scene.

Supplemental Activity

Using the library and the Internet, have your students research how the look of costumes in a specific genre, such as Westerns or science fiction, has changed over time. Discuss the

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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