Costumes for Animated Films Like ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ Gain Recognition

Kubo and the Two Strings
Courtesy of Focus Features

For the first time, an animated feature has been nominated for a prize at the Costume Designers Guild Awards, to be presented Feb. 21 at the Beverly Hilton.

Designer Deborah Cook used her talents to bring to life ancient Japanese characters for the stop-motion film “Kubo and the Two Strings,” created by Oregon’s Laika Studios and distributed by Focus Features and UPI.

Although Cook didn’t receive Oscar love when Academy nominations were announced (the movie is up for best animated feature), her recognition by the guild represents a breakthrough for costume design — and a realization that serious sartorial arts belong in the realm of cartoons as well as live action.

Indeed, even producers of CG animation, such as Disney, are paying greater attention to the realism and authenticity of costumes, as exemplified by “Moana,” which is also Oscar-nominated for best animated film.

In earlier days, audiences for animation paid little attention to what characters wore. However, over the past two decades, with technical advances in both CG and stop-motion animation, costumes and character design have developed as animated art forms — much to the appreciation of viewers.

Costume construction “used to be one of the last things to be considered in animation,” says Cook, who previously designed the costumes for Laika’s “Coraline” and has worked on the company’s “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls.”

As technology advances, more real-looking costumes appear on the screen, and that “appeals to people,” Cook maintains.

To design the costumes seen in “Kubo,” she went to Japan to get a sense of how the modern population dresses, including what elements of cultural history are retained and adapted to the present.

“I collected fabrics from vintage clothing stores with authentic colors and surface work and threads, and studied how they were constructed,” says Cook, who originally took instruction in fine-art sculpture and learned upholstery techniques, metalworking, silicon casting, and mold making. She went on to apply her skills in theater, television, and film.

Cook also referenced historical Japanese costumes from the Jomon, Heian, Edo, and Meiji periods — basically everything from 300 BC to the present day. As she researched, she picked up looks that would inform the film’s characters and lend them a sense of authenticity.

“We weren’t representing one particular era,” she explains. “We were taking bits and pieces of those things and putting them into the finished product.”

While CG animation requires some assembly (the costumes are often designed and constructed in real life for maximum authenticity and then adapted to the computer in a virtual format), stop-motion lives entirely in reality. Yet, it’s not like dressing a human, where the movement of an arm will spur the natural movement of the fabric. In stop-motion, the fabrics need to be engineered in such a way that they replicate reality even though they exist in a miniature world.

“[Live-action] costume designers can create fabrics from scratch, and many do,” explains Cook. “There are also many existing fabrics they can rely on. But we have to engineer all of it. Our puppets are still, and they’re moved externally by an animator and shot at 24 frames a second. For each of those frames, the puppets and their clothing must be rigid enough to stay in that exact position yet also flexible enough to move into their next position.”

At Laika, animation work is often hybrid: Lead characters are physically built, but some secondary characters are created in CG to fit within the stop-motion world.

At Walt Disney Animation Studios, the methodology is different. While the Disney animators pay an equal amount of attention to historic accuracy and details, their characters and costumes are mostly CG creations. Animators, as opposed to costume designers, create the costume looks.

Neysa Bove was a visual development artist on “Moana.” “With newer technology, we’re achieving more details texturally in a [CG] film,” she says. “And the feel — or simulation, rather — of cloth is made to resemble real fabric more closely.”

Bove worked her way up from a costume-design internship at Disney World to graphic and apparel designer at Disney Consumer Products, then to designing costumes for Barbie at Mattel. Now back at Disney, she’s putting her skills to good use. Even in CG, she says, “we’re actually making real clothing patterns and draping them on the character, so it speeds up the process to have someone there who understands garment construction and draping.”

For “Moana,” the mission was to design authentic costumes that replicate the clothing worn centuries ago on the South Pacific islands, so the creators visualized materials that existed at that time, according to historical records.

“It not only makes the film more appealing,” says Bove, “it makes it believable. And the audience becomes fully immersed in the world of its characters.”

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