The Big and Bold Challenge for Costume Designers

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You only need to take a look in your local department store to see the immense size and quality of modern television screens aimed at the common family. Ultra-high-definition has given every broadcast a strangely smooth quality full of contrast and impeccable detail.

Unfortunately one of the production departments with the biggest tasks with rising to this new standard of television is the costume department who, if our poll on the state of the costume industry is anything to go by, probably can’t afford to see their work in 4K glory. Besides more intense scrutiny for details, the new technology requires intense lighting that can easily bleach out much of the costume work. Colours have to be bold, which also means weathering and ageing effects have to be exaggerated. In a world where social media has allowed errors to be highlighted in an instant, the pressure on the costume department has never been greater.

Shadows and Lines

“Great costumes are dependent on the right lighting, particularly since the advent of high definition,” said BAFTA-winning designer Phoebe de Gaye. “The thing with HD is you have to put a lot of detail into everything. And now, with 4K, you really can see every single stitch.”

“We use this wonderful, sticky stage dirt to give them a fantastic disgusting look because we wanted everything to be of this place,” says Cynthia Summers, costume designer for A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix. “Absolutely every piece of wardrobe goes through my breakdown department,” Summers said. “Especially for characters like [Olaf’s acting] troupe, everything of theirs is gnarly and awful so it gets broken down and dirtied and greased up and specific holes and all sorts of fun stuff.”

Summers keeps the colours bold and vibrant to stand out in the dark cinematography, leaving room for them to be adjusted in post-production. “Even the pieces that don’t get broken down to that degree, get shaded so that we’ve got lots of different shadows and lines when we light it,” she told The Credits. “The lighting is very unique. It’s very dark. It has a filter that basically desaturates all the color so when you see the final on camera you just know that it’s probably 10 times brighter in real life than what you’re seeing on camera. We have to gauge that, so everything comes out looks like, ‘Oh my god, it’s bright hot pink!’ But when we see it on camera it’s very muted. It’s a bit of a science project in that regard.”

Live and Dangerous

Much the same problem affects live performance TV like Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Saturday Night Live where tight schedules mean pieces may not be tested on camera beforehand. “Purple is a perfect example of how HD can affect what you’re doing because it’s a mixture of red and blue so you don’t really know how it’s going to look on camera, and we don’t do camera tests because there’s no time, and sometimes we get a request for something on a Friday that will air on Saturday,” said costume designer Tom Broecker, the 2014 Emmy winner for Saturday Night Live. “For us it’s also a whirlwind because of how fast things change in politics, and the writers will want to do something with that right away.”

Header: Netflix, A Series of Unfortunate Events