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Art of fantasy

Futuristic, sci-fi scenarios allow costumers' creativity to run wild

If ever there was a growth industry in motion pictures it’s the area of fantasy and sci-fi costume design. Twenty years ago it virtually didn’t exist. But in the wake of “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” and more recently, the onslaught of technology that has enabled the realization of virtually any fantasy and futuristic scenario, the challenges (not to mention the workload) for costume creators has gone into hyperspeed.

“I find it relatively easy,” says Bob Ringwood, who has designed, among other films, the first three (and part of the fourth) “Batman” films and the upcoming “Alien Resurrection.” “While for others it’s a nightmare.”

Adds Colleen Atwood, whose work in this area includes “Gattaca” and the Tim Burton pics “Edward Scissorhands,” “Mars Attacks!” and the upcoming “Superman:” “I like it because it’s a total escape from the mundane. It’s dynamic.”

Ringwood’s main dictum is to make the costumes look like clothes. “Otherwise they come out looking too theatrical, Fellini-esque or like the male chorus of ‘Tannhauser.’ And when the camera hits the costumes they wind up looking like a bunch of old socks.”

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But unlike a Henry James period piece or a contemporary film, the sci-fi or fantasy film is often creating a world that doesn’t (or will never) exist. “That’s why you need a concept and a vision,” says Atwood.

Unlike films that exist in an already defined world, a unanimity between director, production designer, cinematographer and costume designer is crucial. And the design elements cross-pollinate and influence one another. Working with the talented Barbara Ling on the “Batman” series, Ringwood’s decisions on the Mr. Freeze costume, for instance, inspired Ling to change her original plans for the guns, trucks and other paraphernalia in the villain’s world. Those items then came to be more organic with the look of Freeze’s costume.

Researching a futuristic universe or even a post-apocalyptic world cannot be accomplished by folding through historical archives — although in some cases, designers most definitely do such research, drawing elements from “everything from comic books to international design to Asian fashion,” says Atwood. “Part of the fun is that you can use stuff from all times.”

Thus the look of the Martian girl (the sublime Lisa Marie) in “Mars Attacks!” was a potpourri influenced by the original playing cards and elements as disparate as Marilyn Monroe, the Vargas girls and Barbarella. All these combined to create “the ultimate sex goddess from outer space,” according to Atwood.

Ringwood assiduously avoided the “Batman” comic strips or the original TV show finding such designs “cutesy, two dimensional and not sexy.” The bizarre costume for the Penguin in “Batman Returns” owes a nod to Will Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. The design for the character played by Danny De Vito grew out of a discussion De Vito had with Ringwood expressing his desire to one day play Richard III. “If you look at it, the costume is a version of Richard III with a Dickensian twist, like Scrooge meets Richard III.”

In creating the costumes for Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld,” designer John Bloomfield studied “cultures that have had to face isolation.” When he discovered that Eskimos in Alaska, with limited materials at their disposal, used fish guts to create clothing, he worked that into the concept for “Waterworld,” where water and fish are about the only elements that abound.

For Costner’s upcoming, “The Postman,” again set in a post-apocalyptic universe, Bloomfield found that specificity was important to the final result. “I always start with the script. It’s not as poverty-stricken as ‘Waterworld.’ The guidepost here was the supposition that no one has bought anything new after the year 2,000, which is when the war happens. So you’re looking at hand-made items based loosely on the fashion that’s available now in malls and in catalogues, but used, used, used, so that it takes on a whole strange look.”

Contemporary design also influenced the look of “Gattaca,” says Atwood. “I call it haute sci-fi, picking elements from the ’20s through today, but always the most modern design from each period.”

Thus, the look is contemporary and classic at the same time, which, she opines, will prevent the look of the film from dating and limn closer to timeless sci-fi movies like “Metropolis” and less like “Star Wars,” which she says “very much dates to the time it was made.”

Ringwood says the same is true for “Barbarella,” the victim of a disco world in which plastics had just come into fashion, which immediately places it in the ’60s.

And this brings up a central conflict in the creation of fantastical worlds. The costume designer has now become “orchestra leader,” says Ringwood, to a team of metal workers, mold makers, electricians — a far larger family than in traditional costume design.

Maintaining the central vision with such an expanded crew — not to mention finding the best and the brightest available in each of those new disciplines — can make or break a film. “You could wind up with spacesuit-looking crap or that shredded animal thing, which is very boring by now,” says Atwood. For “Superman” she will utilize new materials and aerodynamics to update the super-hero’s costume (though the color palate will remain the same). “You have to go places, you can’t stick with leotards and fake muscles.”

However, there are limits to the use of technology as an enhancement — or in some cases — a replacement for true design, these costumers warn. “There’s an underlying thought that computers can do everything better than it’s been done before,” says Ringwood. “But it’s a dead end. When designs are created on a computer, they have that soft-edge, Walt Disney embryonic feel about them. There’s no sex in it. Computers are best used to enhance the image.”

Some of the basic rules in costume design are always the same, regardless of the genre. “You still have to establish the color relationship between the characters as in other films and it has to be as true as in a period drama,” says Bloomfield.

Thus, whatever the vision, it’s the actor who makes the costume, not the other way around. “A bad hat sits on the head, a good hat becomes part of the head. It was true with Garbo and Dietrich and it’s still true today,” says Ringwood. “If you don’t believe in the people and what they’re doing, it gets in the way of telling the story. What you’re selling is the actor’s physical presence. That’s where it begins and ends. And you must never forget that.”

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