Sunday, February 17, 2019

Thesis_Part 5_ Conceptual Research and Process

I’ll admit the visual research for this project was incredibly messy and hard to organize, mostly because my actions couldn’t keep up with my mind.  Now that I’m sitting down to organize my thoughts into blog posts, I realize that my original plans to write these while working on everything would have helped sort my research and made everything so much easier.  It would have saved me from the countless wasted afternoons I spent in panicked indecision.

I started my visual research collecting images referenced in Pullman’s interviews and ideas I’ve kept throughout my many years reading the series.  His Dark Materials is an inverted allegory of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and draws largely from the writings and illustrations by and William Blake.   Throughout Lyra’s journey, her experiences with people and the places she visits explore the topics of innocence and power, knowledge and wisdom, and society’s support and hindrance of human growth and actualization.  I split the research into four categories: conceptual, historical, setting, and character. This post will discuss general mood, inspirations, mood, and production research.

I drew a lot of inspiration from illustrator Keith Thompson, particularly his character designs and works in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. There’s something in the quality of his dark and detailed steampunk designs that resonate with the essence of HDM.  Similarly, Tony DiTerlizzi’s older fantasy work and designs for The Spiderwick Chronicles add to the more child friendly fantastical elements in HDM.  

In addition to hoarding pictures, I looked into films with young female protagonists, particularly those that visually represented events through their point of view.  I paid particular attention to how costumes aided visual production, character development, world creation, and narrative.

Next, I began to think about how this production would realistically be produced. With so many fantastical elements and scene changes, I wanted to somehow utilize technology in a way that blended as seamlessly as possible with human driven devices.  Since the story is about the human experience, I did not want to conceal those aspects in the production. I wanted to showcase the fact that all this magic is accomplished by humans. 

The original production of HDM at the National Theatre took advantage of the Olivier Theatre’s drum revolve stage and projections to help with the storytelling.  The daemons were played by puppets designed by Michael Curry, who is best known for his work in The Lion King on Broadway.

Because this is a theoretical piece, a comprehensive production plan was not necessary but there were still questions that had to be considered. Since the original production in 2004, there have been major advances in technology. So what can be done today that couldn’t not have been achieved 15 years ago? What could be improved or re-worked to supplement my vision of this production?  I found that theoretical production plans were more challenging for me because I was unable to experiment with materials and technology that would aid in designing such a fantastical show.  Instead, I had to look into what was already being done and extrapolate upon what could potentially be developed for the play. I started with puppetry and then looked into other methods of storytelling that could be visually represented on stage including animatronics, holographic projections, and costume/stage manipulation.


The term “swatching a show” involves attaching fabric and trim samples to a design so people know the materials that will be used to make the costume.  

Swatching is probably one of the most time consuming, mentally and physically exhausting steps in the costume design process.  It involves visiting fabric stores and grabbing sample swatches of fabrics that would be used for the designs.  You never know what you’re going to find and you never know if your design will change so the smartest method of action would be to grab as many swatches as possible. This also has to be done within reason because store proprietors can and usually will give you the side eye if you swatch their entire store. Chances are their selection would be so large it wouldn’t be feasible to swatch their entire store anyway.  The best that can be done when preparing to swatch is to have an idea of what types of fabrics you want and in what color palette.  Had this been a realized production, extra care would be taken to catalog details on each and every swatch from fabric type, content, yardage, location, and cost. This information will then help the production houses in determining budgeting, quantity, care, and ease of purchase. 
A fraction of the swatch mountain

Once the initial hoarding is complete, it’s time to sort and make sense of the chaotic pile.  Swatches are sorted depending on what makes sense for the story and for the character(s). Certain colors or types of fabric can be grouped together that works well in a costume ensemble.  Sometimes, initial plans for costumes can change depending on the swatches gathered. Most times, additional trips to the fabric store are needed in order to fill the holes in swatching as the show slowly comes together in the microcosm of these small pieces of fabric.
There are times when you may not find exactly what you’re looking for at a fabric store, or you know that the fabric needs some treatment done to it in order to get the effect you need for the costume.  This is when you can dye or treat the swatch to exactly how you like in order to accurately convey your intent. 

Creating Multiple Worlds

At the very least, the costume designer creates one cohesive world within a production through garments and accessories.  This curated world conveys the time period, character, mood, and background to the audience. For example, Lyra’s Jordan takes place in an alternate Oxford University based on our own.  Characters in this setting would be dressed in academic garb or something more professional and professorial.  In contrast, outside of Jordan College, in the Oxford streets, you will see a greater number of people in work clothes and middle to lower class street garb.  The differences in these two groups allow the audience to recognize the change in setting and the shift between academic and utilitarian lifestyles.  Each ensemble or setting can then be broken down into individual characters.  How the individual wears their clothes denotes their status, personality, and lifestyle.  A meticulous student at Oxford will have their uniform buttoned up and pressed dress shirts whereas perhaps a less studious one would wear wrinkled dress shirts with their uniform only partially buttoned.  Creating worlds through costumes always has to be a balancing act.  

The biggest challenge I had throughout this thesis process was in HDM world creation. Not only are there multiple “worlds” within Lyra’s World by way of its diverse settings, there are literal alternate worlds that Lyra journeys to outside of her real.  The costumer has to find the balance between creating Lyra’s World by drawing from silhouettes and items that are recognizable to the audience but somehow different enough to show that it’s not a purely historical place in time within our own universe.  Additionally, the worlds outside of Lyra’s World have to utilize silhouettes and designs that are different enough to set them apart but also similar enough to fit into the story as a whole.  
  Hopefully, in the next few posts, my efforts to differentiate and unite these worlds through costume are successful to the audience.

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