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Flights of fantasy

Oft-told tales get visual lift in 'Peter Pan' and 'Big Fish'

“Big Fish” and “Peter Pan” soar in different ways, but both reached heights of whimsy and fantasy. Helping lift the hearts and imaginations of audiences was a particular challenge for the designers behind each film, as they tried to balance reality and fantasy, conveying each with different looks and styles using period design and costumes.

Sony’s “Big Fish,” helmed by Tim Burton, stars Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor as yarn-spinner Edward Bloom near death and as a young man, respectively. Pic retells his oft-told, over-the-top stories about his life in the South from 1939 to the present in flashbacks sometimes based on what “really” happened and sometimes based on Bloom’s picaresque elaborations of reality.

By contrast, the classic children’s tale “Peter Pan” famously sets dour, drab Edwardian London against a colorful, magical Neverland. In Universal’s version, the tradition-minded script is enlivened by a torrent of intense and striking images that even author J.M. Barrie never evoked.

Both films presented designers with a hefty challenge: to effectively distinguish between real and fantasy worlds while remaining true in some fashion to the period in question and the story being told.

“We wanted to create a huge contrast between London and Neverland,” says production designer Roger Ford, whose striking work on “Babe” and “Babe: Pig in the City” attracted the eye of “Pan” director P.J. Hogan. “For London, the colors were kept to a monochrome of browns and grays to create a cold, dark place you’d want to leave.”

But for Neverland, designers’ imaginations flew as freely as Pan himself. Surreally verdant landscapes and hypersaturated colors contrast strongly with London’s grim grays. The contrast is driven by far more than a color palette. Ford and his creative team — director of photography Don McAlpine and costume designer Janet Patterson — consciously tried to expand Neverland beyond J.M. Barrie’s original tale, finding inspiration from sources such as Maxfield Parrish and other surrealists and fantasists of the past 100 years.

“Children have access to so many images nowadays, we felt we had to push the look further than a natural tropical island,” says Ford. “We wanted to create this world that would delight children and appear to have magic to it. We didn’t just do clouds, we made them magical and added more color, more forms and more shapes. We were always trying to be brave and bold with the look.”

For her costume designs, Patterson tapped the original “Peter and Wendy” books and Romantic-era paintings, along with Hogan’s visual “bible,” a scrapbook of sketches and art references the director had compiled during pre-production.

Like the sets, the clothes underscore the contrast between London’s chilly streets and Neverland’s liberating, if not quite libertine, atmosphere. Jason Isaacs’ Hook is a deadly dandy in silks, velvet and gold brocade, the finery a diametric opposite of his look when he plays Mr. Darling, in prissy buttoned-up suits. Mrs. Darling, played by an ethereal Olivia Williams, was dressed as a gorgeous earth mother whose glow suffuses her scenes.

“Mrs. Darling was dressed in warm and sensual colors and fabrics. I used a lot of knitting and softer things to create a world of maternal love,” says Patterson.

The party dress Patterson designed for Mrs. Darling’s evening out with her husband was modeled on the creations of Italian-French portrait painter Boldini. There was a bit of creative license involved in borrowing from that time period for the swathe of jewels and sparkling crystals, she admits: “I wanted to make her beautiful when she leaves her children, like this marvelous Mummy God.”

In “Big Fish,” the distinction between reality and fantasy had to be drawn more subtly. The idea was to keep audiences guessing until the very end about the true extent of the yarn-spinner’s fantasy world. Indeed, the whole film revolves around the difficulties others have in telling the difference between Edward Bloom’s fantasies and the less-entertaining actual details of his life.

“The real world that is modern and today was more reality-based and softer, with less vibrant colors,” says Colleen Atwood, whose costume design in “Chicago” won her last year’s Oscar. “When we went into the fantasy world, we amplified the color, made the clothes more extreme and gave them a quality of the time exaggerated in memory. It was like taking the truth of a time and giving it the same kind of twist that Albert gives to the story and looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses.”

Production designer Dennis Gassner worked with d.p. Philippe Rousselot in creating a subtle tonal shift between the film’s two worlds. “We didn’t want it to be, ‘Here’s black-and-white footage and here’s color footage.’ We wanted it to be mercurial,” says Gassner, Oscar nominated last year for his art direction on “Road to Perdition.” “(We were) keeping the audience a little bit on its toes but putting a slight veil of the past onto the flashback scenes.”

The film’s surreal cast includes a midget, a giant, a circus master, an old witch and Siamese twins called Ping and Jing. It’s never quite clear who is real and who is merely part of some tall tale or another.

Karl the giant, played by Matthew McGrory, is indeed quite tall at 7 feet, 6 inches, but his bit of the tale turns out to be real. Dressing the massive McGrory was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a tall order for Atwood, but even more of a challenge was designing the clothing for Ping and Jing (played by real-life identical twins Ada and Arlene Tai).

“We made a dress to make them look like they were hooked together so they looked like one person, but then we had to make separate dresses for digital effects,” says Atwood.

In fact, many of the film’s most striking effects aren’t computer-created post-production work but old-fashioned camera tricks.

“We shot Ping and Jing and actually pulled it off ourselves,” recalls set decorator Nancy Haigh. “This wasn’t a fantasy movie with a lot of CGI work; it was a fantasy movie where we actually did it,” she adds.

“That was the nice part of this movie,” agrees Gassner. “It didn’t feel visual effects oriented. What was on the scene felt right for the scene.”

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