Friday, November 01, 2019

Thesis_Part 7_The North

In Lyra’s world, stories of the north are recounted in books and conversations but not many have actually ventured there. Thus, the idea of North and Arctic exploration provide the possibility for enchantment and adventure into the unknown.  Winters are brutal and bleak but there is magic in the skies.  My overall research included exploratory instruments from the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Landscape research for mood started with auroras and winter scapes from Lapland and Svalbard. 


Trollesund is the first town Lyra and the Gyptians reach on their journey north.  It is a port town made up of a diverse group of townspeople and travelers.  The people are taciturn and wary of those asking too many questions.  The winter paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder really encapsulate my initial impression of Trollesund.  Somewhat industrial, a little bleak, not incredibly welcoming, but won’t give you any trouble if you do what you have to do and move on.  It’s all a little transient and given the mix of cultures. With the threat of Mrs. Coulter’s General Oblation Board, no one knows who they can or cannot trust. While the Trollesund in our world is in the southern part of Sweden, I decided to shift the regional costumes a little further north in Lyra’s World in order to provide greater differentiation of setting.

Costume designs for Trollesund are pulled from the traditional dress of various groups in the Arctic region between Lapland and Siberia as well as Arctic exploration furs from the Western Victorian and Edwardian Eras.  Native tribes include the Nenets, Nganasan, and Evenki. The risk of cultural appropriation was again present with this group as I was only able to do a broad stroke research into the dress of so many of these tribes and groups.  I do not have extensive knowledge on the nuances and history of each tribe, but as Trollesund is a town for travelers, the mix of costumes allow for greater diversity and representation.  In addition to this inclusion, the patterns and varying silhouettes provide the audience greater visual interest in terms of stage picture.  I realized very quickly that dressing everyone like Roald Amundsen just makes the Trollesunders look like a boring mass of moving fur.


Bolvangar is the facility owned by the General Oblation Board that experiment on kidnapped children. It is a bleak prison-like building located in the middle of the Arctic surrounded by fencing and guards.  According to The Golden Compass, Bolvangar means “Fields of Evil.” From the research I was able to do on the etymology of this name, I believe it is derived from old Norse. 
I’ve always imagined Bolvangar as a very sterile place devoid of character or liveliness.  My research into thes costumes come from early hospitals. Since organized medicine and research were still so new, a lot of experimental protocols were a necessity and ethical issues still blurred.  Everyone is in uniform, devoid of individuality, foreshadowing and reflecting the severance between human and dæmon.  

Svalbard and Panserbjørn

Svalbard is the northernmost setting in Lyra’s world, the land of the Panserbjørn. The brutal cold and ice of Svalbard conjures up many stark and severe visuals.  I pulled my visual research from the Svalbard islands of our world along with cold landscapes of ice.

The Panserbjørn, also known as the armored bears are different than bears in our world, they are conscious beings and masters of metalwork.  The Panserbjørn represent the instinctual and truest form of the self and cannot be deceived or lied to unless they go against their nature and pretend to be what they aren’t.  Ruled by King Iofur Raknison who usurped the throne from Iorek Byrnison, the bears live in an ice castle built in an attempt to gain favor with Mrs. Coulter. Raknison’s efforts to become more human-like blinds him to his own true nature of the bears and he is eventually overthrown by Iorek with Lyra’s help.  Like the armored bears, when Lyra went against her nature and tried to act in accordance with London Society, she found it stifling and horrifying as she discovers her direct connection with the General Oblation Board and Mrs. Coulter.  

Research for the armored bears was twofold: technical and stylistic.  I needed to first figure out how to create a silhouette for a performer that would read as a bear to the audience.  Apart from the dæmons, Iorek Byrnison is the first fantastical character the audience sees.  Luckily, the general anatomy of a standing bear is very similar to that of a human.  I just needed to extend the proportions in the right directions to make it work.  My research took me through costumes from The Lion King on Broadway to various additional puppetry by Michael Curry, and lion dancing. 
For the visual design, I began looking into bear and polar bear mythology.  I read up on Berserkers of the Norse, stories about Ursa Major and Ursa Minor constellations, and folktales from various indigenous tribes. 
 Eventually, I focused on the indigenous tribes in Lapland and Scandanavia with Polar bear mythology.  The Saami people stood out as one tribe with a strong cultural and religious connection to the polar bears.  Saami traditional dress designs vary according to region, class, gender, and occasion.  As with the people of Trollesund, the Panserbjørn are dressed in costumes from various regions of the Saami tribes. 


Jopari is a shaman, and Will’s father who inadvertently travels from our world into Lyra’s world through a window cut by the Subtle Knife.  He and Lee Scoresby journey through the north to warn the bearer of the knife of the dangers ahead and to heal his hand.  After researching various shamans from the Arctic regions and beyond, I decided to base Jopari on the shaman of the Nganasan.


The witches were a hard group to design simply because there are so many visual meanings to the word “witch.” The Lapland Witches are women archers who fly on cloudpine branches with dæmons who are able to travel much greater distances away from their humans than regular mortals.  They are attuned to nature and the energies of the earth and live hundreds of years.  In contrast to Mrs. Coulter, who uses her power within the confines of Western Society to seduce and manipulate others to get what she wants, the feminine power and sexuality of the witches are much more free and natural.     

My initial research covered visuals from the occult, nature, folktales, fairytales, and mythology.  My challenges with the witches were much like that of my other characters.  Since they are more fantastical and less rooted in historical accuracy like those of Oxford and London Society, I could be a little more conceptual with their designs.  My first two designs still read a little too Western as I pulled from a lot of medieval influences, Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and the fantasy illustrations of Edward Rackham and Kay Neilsen.   While Pullman described the general clothing of the witches to be strips of black silk, I also struggled with textile choice and what I could use that would draw focus and also convey to the audience that these witches are not exactly a part of Western Civilization. 
Design Concept  001

Design Concept 2

Design Concepts 3

Ultimately I stripped down the concepts and really just looked at the shape language of nature itself.  I drew from Lapland landscapes and tree branches during the winter.

Final Concepts

As Lyra crosses the threshold into the new worlds, the overall look of the people will shift to reflect these different places.

Until then,
[Part 1]
[Part 2]
[Part 3]

[Part 4]
[Part 5]
[Part 6]
[Part 7]

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Thesis_Part 6_Lyra's World

Designing and Redesigns 

The creative process can be frustratingly slow and most times it feels as if you’re sending futile prayers to your mental muse in hopes of a creative miracle.  I generally approach groups of characters starting with the most stereotypical or literal idea and expand from there.  Depending on the color story and the shape language pulled from research and inspiration, the design can convey and evoke many different aspects of the story.  This can be especially recognized through the characters I had the most trouble designing: The Consistorial Court of Discipline, witches, Gallivespians, and angels. In this particular case, with so many balls to juggle, I never felt that I had enough time to sit and process my research in a way where I could then filter into strong designs of my own.  The first few developments of these characters were therefore nothing special; they’ve all been seen and done in various other films and media.  After completing the design of my entire show, I took some additional time during the summer to further develop these characters and I’m glad I did.  I will discuss the visual perceptions in greater detail with my re-designs as I move through each group in the following posts. 

Lyra's World (Finally, some designs!)

Lyra’s world is set in an alternate universe similar the one we live in but with the essence of our historical past and the presence of some fantastical beings.  There is a practical Steampunk feel to Lyra’s London with the mention of zeppelins, gyroptors, and anbaric lights.  

While the exact time period is not mentioned, I based Lyra’s world in the early 1900s right before World War I. While people tried to hold onto life as it once was, everything was in flux. They were caught in the throes of a major lifestyle transition through the mass adoption of technology that began during the Industrial Revolution.  Geographical and scientific discoveries were still being made that would further revolutionize daily life.  Challenges to strict Victorian gender roles and the rise of the middle class changed much of daily life in Britain and the Western world. This push and pull of the past and future created a very precarious present where ideologies that were once a solid foundation for life no longer seemed relevant.  Our world was quickly getting smaller, and political alliances and tensions created the atmosphere that set up the cataclysm of the First World War, similar to the events set in motion by Lord Asriel that eventually leads to the Great War in HDM.  The Church was a major power in many aspects of society and the economic division of social classes can be seen through each class’ access to new technology.  With so much still unknown and new, there was still a wide sense of magic and wonder.

Lyra’s Jordan

Lyra’s story begins at Jordan College in Oxford surrounded by traditional academia and predominantly male scholars and professors.  Her time here represents education (in relation to the larger topic of knowledge vs. wisdom), structure, tradition, and theory.   As a child is wont to play, Lyra feels stifled by the continuous intellectual discourse of the scholars, she is an individual of action.  While Lyra’s formal costume is one of scholarly uniform, her base costume allows for freedom of movement and play.  In contrast to this, the scholars are in darker colors and heaver wool fabrication.  Range of movement is less important than academic tradition and formality, especially for those who spend much of their time studying indoors.  

Lyra’s Oxford

Contrary to Lyra’s Jordan and its urbane and monotonous silhouettes, Lyra’s Oxford provides a glimpse of the bustling everyday life in the streets of Oxford.  Lyra spends much of her time here in the chaos of children at play (remember my previous mention about the importance of play?), navigating relationships between her peers and adults, and really discovering who she is.  Patterns and color palette is expanded to represent more of the everyday wear of working class society.  The clothing is more practical and utilitarian.

Lord Asriel

Lyra’s intimidating father, Lord Asriel is a “tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face.” (TGC Ch. 1) Asriel’s name alludes to the angel Azrael, the angel of death.  According to Jewish and Islamic angelology, Azrael is the angel who separates the soul from the body at the moment of death which foreshadows Asriel’s actions at the end of The Golden Compass.  In some mythologies, Azrael is also seen as Satan, further developing Lord Asriel’s role as he builds his army in The Subtle Knife and leads the epic war against the Authority in the Amber Spyglass. An imposing figure, Asriel is a man of travel and action and his costume therefore reflects this while still giving off the air of a gentleman and lord. Research into Lord Asriel’s costume came from explorers in the era including John Hanning Speke, and Roald Amundsen.  

Mrs. [Marisa] Coulter


Lyra's mother and Lord Asriel's lover, Mrs. Coulter is head of the General Oblation Board, the branch of the Consistorial Court of Discipline that experiments on the connection between children and mons.  She is alluring and beautiful and uses these traits to her advantage.  Marisa has Latin and Hebrew origins meaning "Of the Sea" which alludes to the Goddess of Love and Sexuality; Aphrodite, whose lover is Ares, God of War (Lord Asriel).  It can be argued that the reason Mrs. Coulter and her mon’s name is kept so generic* is that without a set identity, they both represent the evil that is capable within humanity when given political and religious power.  To Lyra, Mrs. Coulter embodies femininity, sexuality, high society, and deception.  She is the first upper class woman of power Lyra ever meets and she becomes enchanted and fascinated by this woman.  Coulter first shows up wearing a fox fur coat, which not only represents her economic status but foreshadows and symbolizes her sly and underlying cruelty as mons take the form of animals.  When interpreted in this manner, Mrs. Coulter is essentially wearing the skin of a dead mon for the sake of flaunting her status and power.

Mrs. Coulter’s silhouette starts off closer to the women of the era, with shaping in the torso that falls into soft and delicate fabrications.  With greater power and agency, Coulter’s costume shifts to one that is more freeing, modern, and masculine as she journeys through various worlds in pursuit of Lyra. 

*Coulter's mon is eventually named in a short story released by Pullman after the end of the trilogy.

Lyra Party


After meeting Mrs. Coulter, Lyra is whisked away from Jordan College into London society.  It is through her experiences and time with Coulter that she learns about the rules and refinement of the upper class.  While glamorous and beautiful, the expectation of children in society is to be seen, not heard.  Mrs. Coulter treats Lyra more as a doll, expected to behave at all times in order to be admired by her peers  rather than a child.  During one particular evening party, Lyra is dressed up in a light frilly dress, obviously unsuited to her needs or personality. 

London Society


As Lyra interacts with the people within Coulter’s circle, she quickly learns that the power and sophistication afforded to them only breeds deception and corruption.  The restraints and devious roundabout habits of society prevents the free growth of human expression and individuality.  Color Palette, fabrication, prints, practicality

This opulence and limitation can be seen in the structured forms of their costume. The jewel tones and fabrication in silk chiffons and taffetas convey the decadence and vanity of each costume. Delicate lace and jacquards contribute further to emphasizing their social class since their ability to afford and wear such textiles means they are likely not doing any physical labor. 


After escaping the deceptive confines of London society, Lyra is taken in by the water faring Gyprians.  The Gyptians are based on the Romani (Gypsies) and Irish Travellers from our world.  In Lyra’s world, Gyptians are freshwater nomads who congregate in the Dutch fens, a location which was drained in the 1500s for land reclamation in our world.   Their nomadic lifestyle and communal style of living serve as a contrast to the structured and stifled society of Mrs. Coulter.  

The Gyptians are the first major group in my design process where cultural appropriation can be an issue.  The Romani and Irish Travellers have had a long history of appropriation, prejudice, and oppression by Western Civilization.  While the primary responsibility of fair treatment and representation of the Gyptians lies with the author and the story, costumes serve as a key visual representation with the audience.  Since I have no primary experience with these groups, a lot of research into their lifestyle and history was tantamount in developing a consciousness of this visual representation.  Even equipped with all my research, I am still unsure as to whether I have a comprehensive understanding of these topics, so if I have misrepresented the Gyptians or any of the other following groups of people or, please inform and educate me on these issues and I apologize.  

In contrast to the blues and dark neutrals of Oxford and the pastel and jewel tones of London, the Gyptians’ costumes have a much warmer and natural palette.  Printed cottons and linens not only provide a lighter silhouette and freedom of movement, it also adds a greater sense of vitality.  Like the costumes of working class Oxford, the Gyptians costumes are more practical and reflect their nomadic lifestyle. 

Lee Scoresby 


A Texan aeronaut named after famous Italian Western gunslinger, Lee Van Cleef and Arctic explorer William Scoresby, Lee Scoresby provides Lyra and the Gyptians with adequate transportation in the North.  I kept fairly true to Van Cleef’s costumes as I felt that it reflected Lee Scoresby’s easy-going and sardonic character.  

The Consistorial Court of Discipline


The Consistorial Court of Discipline serves as the main political and religious power in Lyra’s World. Drawn from Christianity, the dominant religion of Western Civilization and its shaky history, the Consistorial Court serves as Pullman’s criticism of the corruption of power that occurs when religion is used as an excuse to commit atrocities against marginalized groups and those with less power.  

Personally, I struggled quite a bit in designing the Consistorial Court for various reasons.  The first is that as a non-Christian I am unfamiliar with the nuances of the rituals of Christianity and all its denominations.  My personal knowledge comes from a literary and academic background and from growing up and living in a society in which Christianity is so prevalent. Since the religion has such a long, large, and complex history, it was difficult for me to delve as deeply into my research as I would have liked given my limited time and remaining thesis work. While I am aware that religious garb and vestments hold strong symbolism and history, fully understanding each and every historical religious garment would have led me to the completion of a wholly different and separate thesis altogether.  My fears of misrepresentation led me toward a design that was much too literal.  

After completing the remainder of my thesis, I reevaluated the role of the Consistorial Court in the story.  While they are a religious group, they also hold political power and a blend of WWI military silhouettes with religious detailing brought greater significance to what they represented in the story.  It also allowed me to add an extra layer of important historical context that was missing in my initial designs. The addition of militaristic details not only adds to the power and influence of The Consistorial Court, it also alludes to the historical colonization by Western Civilization through the military and the forced assimilation of the oppressed through religion (ie. The Inquisitions) further emphasizing Pullman's theme about the abuse of power when religion is mixed with politics.

With the foundations of Lyra's Western World properly established, I was ready to move into designing the more fantastical and unknown world of The North.

In the mean time, how about some back reading?
[Part 1]
[Part 2]
[Part 3]

[Part 4]
[Part 5]
[Part 6]
[Part 7]

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