“Alice in Wonderland” costume designer Colleen Atwood believes she and helmer Tim Burton found themselves collaborating on eight of his films for some special reasons.
“It’s rare to have such similar ideas, but we have the same design sensibility and we have the same kind of perverse sense of humor, which helps when you’re working on the kinds of projects we’ve done together,” Atwood says. “We have a kind of shorthand now that makes working together easy.”
Atwood’s collaborations with Burton include “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Big Fish” and “Edward Scissorhands.” The helmer’s vision for “Alice” meant that her costume design would be heavily enmeshed in the makeup and CGI created for this retelling of the classic children’s story.
He wanted to literally stretch the size and perspective of his characters so the audience would take the trip down the rabbit hole right along with Alice.
This worked out well for Atwood. The two-time Oscar-winner (for costume design on “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Chicago”) found working on a film with so much CGI opened up new possibilities. It didn’t change her design process, but she found that it made it possible for her to go deeper in developing the look of the characters.
“It’s great to be able to go and talk with the people doing the CG work and ask them, if I do a certain thing, are they able to do something that would take that idea even further,” says Atwood. “There can be great collaboration between the two areas.”
There are also pitfalls. At times, the CGI impacted Atwood’s color palate.
“You have to stay away from greens because of the greenscreen (work), but even that’s fine in many cases because of how advanced they are now,” says Atwood.
The costume designer had a solid rapport with the makeup department, run by Valli O’Reilly. Atwood would show the various makeup teams — there were several of them working on different characters — her costume sketches and ideas as the costumes came together. Both the costume and makeup teams would continue to adjust what they were doing until Burton’s ideas for the look of the film came through.
“When you work with Tim (Burton) it all comes from him and it all comes together because of the idea he has for the look of the film,” says Atwood. “We decided early on that we would be based in the 1860s to a degree and that certain things would happen, like when Alice shrank, her dress would stay huge, so I would create things at different scales.”
Not surprisingly, after her collaborations with Burton and other helmers on many of the most distinctive looking films in the past 15 years, Atwood has a very specific piece of advice for anyone who wants to do the kind of design work she does.
“Be fearless. Sometimes people are afraid to try things, but you don’t really know how things are going to look until they’re on someone,” she says. “So you might as well follow your vision of what something should look like and tweak it along the way until it’s what feels right.”
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