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How Artists Cross Paths and Departments to Create a Film’s Look

Production designers have the Art Directors Guild, costume designers have the Costume Designers Guild — two organizations that watch over very different disciplines. But that doesn’t mean the two types of artisans they represent can’t cross over into each other’s line of work — or that they can’t enlist the help of hair and makeup as they go about crafting the look of a movie. Indeed, collaboration among various below-the-line skill sets is a hallmark of creative filmmaking.

Take graphic textile designer Trey Shaffer, who generated the graphics for Spider-Man’s costumes in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Although he’s a member of the ADG, he also has considerable abilities as a textile designer, which allow him to be immensely helpful to the costume department. He knows how to create patterns and textures and has a fundamental understanding of the technical side of garments and how they’re put together. He knows pleats and seams — and how to make a stretch fabric appear woven, hiding that it’s actually spandex.

In the case of Spider-Man’s outfit, each piece of the costume was produced separately, but in the end “when it’s stitched back together, it must match what we see in the illustration,” says Shaffer. For example, all the spider web lines have to match up, from the arms to the chest to the legs.

That guild members rely on one another to create the right look is not lost on Oscar-winning special-effects makeup artist Christopher Nelson (“Suicide Squad,” “Bright”). He points out, for instance, that he can wind up working alongside a concept designer from any number of backgrounds, helping to form a team that can “whittle it all down to the finest details.”

As an example of such cross-disciplinary collaboration, Nelson cites the work he’s done with actress Karen Gillan, whom he’s made up as the character Nebula on three movies, including the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War.” Gillan has long, thick hair that needed to go under a bald cap — a procedure that’s typically part of the makeup process, but it can also start with an artist from the hair department — which is what happened on the latest “Avengers” film before Nelson and Emmy winner Alexei Dmitiew took over the makeup work.

Nelson notes that just because something looks good on paper — or in 3D sculpture — doesn’t mean it will work in reality. The eventual look depends on the skills of an individual artist. Success, he notes, often “comes down to the hands of the person” applying the makeup and prosthetics.

It’s that personal element that transforms ideas into art. “You can have the prettiest sketch in the world, but that doesn’t mean it applies [well] or whether it works on the skin,” says Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild president Sue Cabral-Ebert. The artistry is in the application, not the concept, she adds.

“You can have the prettiest sketch in the world, but that doesn’t mean it … works on the skin.”
Sue Cabral-Ebert, Make-Up Artists & Hair Stylists Guild president

Costume Designers Guild executive director Rachael Stanley echoes the sentiment. You can start out with an idea, she believes, but you need a skilled human being to “move in and turn it into reality.”

Another example of work across departmental lines: “NCIS: Los Angeles” graphic designer Jamie Neese is hired directly by the art department, yet the multiple skills he brings to the set are critical to the work of many fellow artisans, including set decorators and individuals working in props and construction. “I’ve made wallpaper; I do etched glass,” Neese says.

Neese’s work also appears on all the on-set video monitors that the actors consult as the show unfolds. The creation and execution of these designs fall into another gray area in the production process. On Neese’s previous show, “CSI: New York,” they were handled by a dedicated visual effects team. “Every show treats it a little bit different,” he explains.

Regardless of union or official jurisdiction, the goal is to produce the best product. “You have to trust in the people that you’re working with,” says Nelson. Everyone’s coming together for a common goal and “creating something totally new.”

And that, after all, is what audiences pay to see.

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