Costume designer Ngila Dickson is no stranger to fierce battles. She marshaled an army of costume assistants and craftspeople in wardrobing thousands of characters for New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” She then took on the Herculean task of producing 250 sets of authentic armor for Warner Bros.’ “The Last Samurai.” Come Oscar time, she may find herself in the midst of a different kind of conflict — the enviable position of competing against herself.
If that happens, Dickson says she will feel like she’s died and gone to heaven. She received an Oscar nomination in 2001 for the first “Lord of the Rings” movie, and a BAFTA for the 2002 release, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences voters tend to favor such historically accurate films as “Last Samurai” to fantasy epics like “Return of the King,” yet Dickson may break the mold with her historically anchored designs for the mythical kingdoms of Middle-earth.
“In the very beginning, I saw it as a timeline through history,” she says of the entire project. For the hobbits, she referenced 18th- and 19th-century village life; for Rohan, a medieval look; for Gondor, a Byzantine Romanesque style; and for the elves, the early Christian era.
Dickson employed 85 craftspeople to give the costumes historical detail and texture. Fabrics were woven on ancient looms, embroidery was done by hand, and fabrics were dyed and aged to give them a lived-in look. “We wanted you to sort of smell them off the screen,” Dickson says.
In addition to creating a wholly believable world through unique designs, distinct color palettes and attention to detail, Dickson’s costumes subtly contribute to the characters’ story arcs. She imbued the costumes worn by Aragorn (Viggo Mortenson) with deeper shades of royal red as he transforms from anonymous Ranger to king of Gondor.
Color also played a key role in her efforts on “Last Samurai.” After amassing an enormous volume of images from the Meiji period and interviewing Japanese and American historians, Dickson chose rich, dark shades for the traditional clothing of the samurai villagers.
She dressed samurai leader Katsumoto in deep blues and earth tones that reflect his zenlike quality. For Taka, the woman whose husband has been killed in battle by the man she nurses back to health, Dickson made her kimono colors lighten and brighten as she blossoms under the influence of Capt. Algren (Tom Cruise).
For the samurai armor, Dickson couldn’t borrow existing pieces for fear that they would be destroyed during the battle scenes. Prototypes were fashioned out of copper, then reproduced in eurothane. Jewelers applied decorative discs, symbols, filigree, grommets, rivets and chainmail to create authenticity.
Dickson oversaw an 80-member team in Japan, the U.S. and New Zealand to create 2,000 costumes for the samurai, the Japanese imperial army, flashbacks to the Indian wars and Japanese street scenes.
A New Zealand native, she credits her achievements to the Kiwi can-do attitude. She began her career as a fashion designer, and then became editor of the now-defunct fashion-forward magazine Cha Cha. She segued into musicvideos and commercials, then began working on TV by doing 10-day turnarounds on New Zealand-lensed “Xena” and “Hercules.” She first hooked up with “Rings” director Peter Jackson on his feature “Heavenly Creatures” (1994).
Dickson says she has developed a love of doing whatever it takes to get the job done, of collaborating with other departments to create a unified artistic vision and of discovering hidden talents in the people she hires.
Nonetheless, she adds, she never could have undertaken such epic jobs if she hadn’t been so naive.