Sunday, November 11, 2018

Thesis_Part 4_Soul Searching

[In hopes of documenting my thesis process, I will keep a log of my experience.  These entries are by no means a comprehensive look into all I have to say on this topic but I hope these informal summaries and reflections will help me organize my thoughts and clarify what I am doing as I work towards my MFA in Costume Design.  For those of you who will be joining me on my journey, please ask questions and I hope this will give you a peek into my creative process.]

As I write this post and subsequent posts following I am officially DONE (!) with my Master’s Thesis. Hooray!!! Hopefully my posts will now sound less like present painful agony and more like past suffering and accomplishment! 

Coming up with the creative concept for HDM really had me digging deep into personal reflections about why I chose the piece, what it means to me, and what I want to convey through costuming this story.  I managed to break it down to a handful of topics below, all of which are also reasons why I choose to explore most stories or concepts whenever I start a project. 

Celebrations of Humanity

Lyra and Will and the other characters are meant 
to be human beings like us, and the story 
is about a universal human experience, namely growing up.

HDM is all about the human experience.  Pullman presents the good, the bad, the grey areas in between, and the beauty and natural wonder of human growth.  

There have been too many stories, especially in young adult fiction, where the main character transforms into something “more than” human in order to overcome the principle conflict.  In my opinion, this plot point doesn’t serve to inspire anyone to overcome obstacles especially in a world where so much pressure is put upon trying to be more than who you really are-to the point of suppressing your true self.  It is then difficult to believe that you can achieve similar things as the protagonist when they are no longer the human you are.  While it can be argued that this transformation is metaphorical to the character realizing their true potential, most of these stories tend to paint humans in a negative light, banal, and apathetic.   Why does anyone have to be super human to achieve great things in this world?  Throughout history, time and time again, all human accomplishments have been by humans.  Not all of them are any more or less ‘special’ than anyone else; they just took action and did what they felt was right.  Maybe a single action by these people doesn’t amount to much, but when these accumulated singular actions are viewed together retrospectively, they can be exceptional and through the combination of multiple individuals’ singular accomplishments, the result is extraordinary.  

Lyra is a normal girl, she’s feisty, wild, and just doing what she believes is right.  She makes mistakes throughout her journey, but she takes responsibility for them and works to right her wrongs.  She can read the alethiometer but she can also choose to disregard its messages.  Nothing about her is special in a way that the reader should also be, but the culmination of her actions is what makes her such a compelling character.  Through Lyra and HDM, Pullman demonstrates the potential and caliber of human accomplishment. 

" I write stories about what happens to real people. And about what it’s like to be alive."

Coming of Age


I find that coming of age stories are some of the best celebrations of humanity.  Children and teenagers becoming conscious of their life and of themselves in these stories serve as a guide, both good and bad, throughout a time of numerous endings and beginnings.  It’s the start of a new kind of magic in the human experience that allows for the discovery of self, potential, and power they hold through this awakening.  It’s the end of the grace of childhood and the slumber of ignorance.  It’s one of the first major conscious journeys through the Monomyth Archetype an individual has and it is fraught with beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, lightness and darkness, in other words, reality.  The journey of learning how to navigate all these contradictions is what makes us human.  



Stories are an integral part of the human experience. We live stories, we learn from stories, we connect through stories, we thrive on stories.   Storytelling is the reflection of the human experience.  We can tell stories of our past, we fabricate stories from imagination.  If I’m not caught up in a story or two, the repetitions of daily life feels bland and colorless. 

Lyra is a storyteller. She loves making up fantastical stories to entertain her friends and peers.  Lyra the liar they called her.  Her deceptions are what help her through various obstacles in her journey, from evading Mrs. Coulter to helping Iorek Byrnison regain his throne.  Her name, Lyra, from the Greek ‘lyre,’ is a small instrument related to the god Apollo, and musician, Orpheus.   Apollo is the god of light, truth, prophecy and many others.  As the patron god of Delphi, and the Oracle, he serves as the direct link between the Olympian gods and humans. As the reader of the alethiometer, Lyra plays a similar role in relating prophecy and truth to everyone who asks.  In the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus loses his wife to the underworld.  He ventures there to bring her back by charming Cerberus and Hades with his lyre. Though failing to save his wife, Orpheus becomes the first and possibly only living human to venture to the underworld and return alive.  This link to Lyra foreshadows her journey and return from the underworld.  Lyra’s efforts at deception are met with hostility by the harpies when she tries to tell them stories in exchange for passage to the ghosts.  However, she catches their interest sharing memories of her life in Oxford.  The Harpies, like the ghosts, want to know and remember what it is like to be alive, not escape the realities of life.  

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, French, 1796–1875 MFAH

Pullman did not write the story solely for children, his intent was to write a story many people could read and comprehend.  I’ve always believed that children and young adult novels aren’t solely for the target market; adults can learn a lot about themselves and others through these stories. After all, most of them are written by adults and the best ones as Pullman says, “should be ‘about how to grow up,’ not about how to remain childish.”
…if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, 
then you write it for children. 
Madeleine L’Engle

The Importance of Play

The Rise of the Guardians (2012)

Play is an integral part of childhood development.  There are numerous articles detailing the benefits of play.  Children learn to solve problems, manage emotions, lean social interactions, and over all learn to deal with the world around them in a safe setting.  While play is crucial to child development, I don’t think it becomes any less important the older you become.  While the definition and activities can change and vary, I still believe that play is highly important to the well being of adults.    Play allows individual to not only safely express their purest sense of self but to also take on various roles which allow for considerations into the mental states and feelings of others.  

While HDM doesn’t deal thematically with the importance of play, Pullman provides a very real and respectful perspective on children and their relationship with themselves, each other, adults, and the world.  It is through the accounts of Lyra’s life playing with other children in Oxford that provide the reader with the best sense of her nature.  In addition, Pullman stresses the importance of self honesty and responsibility. There are also various instances where Lyra and Will go against their responsibilities and self only to find their situation taking a turn for the worse.  However, each time, they work to right these mistakes and learn for the future.

Magic and Wonder

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)
I’ve found that a lot of recent stories for children and young adults have been lacking in magic. I don’t mean magic in the literal sense of witches and wizards, especially with the current saturation of fantasy we have in this age group.  The magic I’m talking about is that inspiring sense of awe and wonder that’s brought forth from characters and worlds.  It is how the storyteller brings the audience into the world that they’ve developed in a way that captivates and gives the imagination permission to play.  It’s how the characters interact with the world that invites the audience to be a part of it and not just an observer. Metaphorically speaking, there’s too much prose and not enough poetry. 
The most effective magic are worlds crafted so definitively and purposefully that the audience sees and accepts everything as an integral part of the storytelling.  The pacing and time spent on certain aspects of the world are also an important part in creating the sense of wonder.  

The Rise of the Guardians (2012)

HDM is a great story to practice achieving this sort of magic because there is so much to work with.  Pullman has crafted layers of compelling worlds and characters that are already full of magic. His seamless weaving of the familiar aspects of our world with symbolic fantastical elements in Lyra’s world gives the reader a sense of the entirety of this universe.  Through visual storytelling, this magic can be further developed and a balance between both worlds can serve to inspire this magic in the audience. 
Spirited Away (2001)

PS: Yes I'm aware of Pullman's opinion of C.S Lewis' Narnia stories.  Nevertheless, the filmmakers did a fantastic job capturing the magic of the world in this scene


Relevance and Diversity


The relevance of this story in today’s political climate and globalization resonates more strongly than ever.  Especially about the suppression of human nature and universal growth due to fear, control, and power.  In addition, the persecution and oppression of children and people for the sake of religious political power and the ability for the human mind to justify deceptions that only feed the ego are things that we have been seeing over and over again in current media.  With modern access to the internet and globalization, diversity and acceptance are so much more important for the growth of the world as a whole now than it has ever been.  Ignorance is slowly becoming a choice rather than a circumstance.  With this access to conscious consequences, where and who then will take responsible?  I wanted a piece that would encourage conversation and thought.

The Ancient of Days: William Blake 1794 (Origins of The Golden Compass)

Pullman introduces the concept of the Republic of Heaven.  A concept that as conscious beings in this world, we have a responsibility to use this power of consciousness to make the world the best it can be.  In its most basic form, it’s about taking responsibility for ones actions and working toward what feels right.  Something I believe we should practice more of.

"What I don’t like is the notion that the world
 is a cruel and imperfect copy of something 
much better somewhere else."
Lastly, I wanted to choose a play where I could fully explore a variety of costumes from social class to gender, humans, non humans, animals, realistic time periods, fantasy, cultures, and see how they fit into one cohesive story line.  In short, I wanted a piece that would allow me to assess the extent of my learning and growth during my time in grad school.  I wanted to research cultures and costumes beyond that of Western Europe and modern America. I wanted the piece to be an exploratory accumulation of my breadth as a designer.  It was both a challenge and a test.

His Dark Materials is a story that has been with me for a long time.  Every time I revisit it, I find something new to consider.  The visual potential of this story along with the layers of meaning provide an amazing arsenal for creative collaboration.  To be honest, I don't think there was any other story I could have done for my thesis that would leave me satisfied with my work and decision.  Of course, improvement and redesigns are always going to be an option, but for what it is and has become in the time I've had to work on this, I think it's a pretty good culmination of my work so far.  Stay tuned.

More of my struggles
[Part 0]
[Part 1]
[Part 2]
[Part 3]

[Part 4]


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Addendum_Costume Rendering

Shortly after posting the "Importance of Effective Costume Rendering," I met Jess Goldstein and became absolutely smitten with his costume renderings.

They are small and simply done but convey all the ideas and silhouettes needed to produce the costume. He usually renders these designs prior to swatching and therefore colors and textures are not an exact match to the fabric. The reason his illustrations work is that he is able to specify textured, patterned, and trimmed parts of a costume fabric swatches accompany each illustration place and are organized in such a way to communicate his intent.  I'll finish off this short addendum with some Ever After illustrations.  

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Ripe Frenzy

As my final produced show for Boston University, I had the privilege to design for the National New Play Network's 2016 Smith Prize for Political Theatre, Ripe Frenzy by Jennifer Barclay.   This production is a part of the rolling world premiere in collaboration with The New Rep Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance.

 In the wake of school shootings that have taken place in the last few years, Zoe, the historian of Tavistown takes us through the events leading up to the tragedy that occurred at Tavistown High. The story explores the issues and questions pertaining to gun violence in schools and the community that has to deal with its effects.

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
Designing costumes for a contemporary show is different from designing historical shows mainly in that most of the pieces are shopped in stores.  Not a lot of pieces are built if any at all.   The plus side is that clothes for a contemporary show definitely exist and can be acquired. The down side is that sometimes there are too many options and not the perfect one.  Because the audience and design team is living in the same time period as the play, we all have an idea of what contemporary clothing should look like and what it conveys about each character. While this perception is true for historical period shows, it is much more subtle and real in contemporary shows.  It's up to the costume designer to have a sense of this and balance out what is believable to what looks good on stage.  While shopping as a job may sound easy in theory, the costume designer is not shopping purely for personal aesthetics.  They have to find items that would be realistically worn by these characters and contribute to the overall stage picture. 

When conceptualizing contemporary shows as with any other show, character delineation is the most important.  Instead of sketching costume renderings, collages of ideas are usually fine unless there is a specific piece that will be built.  Shopping requires an idea of what the characters may wear plus a sense of how they will all look together, as an individual ensemble and as ensembles in the stage picture.  Fittings are very important in this process to see how these clothes fit the actors.  Sometimes the perfect piece of clothing found in stores won't work for the body type, skin color etc of the actor and sometimes a "maybe" piece magically brings the entire character and stage picture together.

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
I was very fortunate that the design team for this was so open and collaborative from the get go.  Communicating about set design, lights, and color palette helps us all work to complement one another's design on stage to create a cohesive overall vision.  Depending on these elements, costumes can fade or get lost in the design or stand out and bring an extra visual element to characterization in addition to the work of the actors.

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
While the issue of gun violence may be too close for comfort at this time, the discussion and dialogue should be open and encouraged.  I urge anyone who can see this play to please do so if only to begin this conversation that will hopefully develop into action.

Photo by Kalman Zabarsky
Ripe Frenzy runs at the Studio One Theatre in Boston University College of Fine Arts (855 Commonwealth Avenue  Boston, MA 02215) from February 26-March 11.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The importance of effective costume renderings

EDIT: I added an addendum here!

Costume renderings serve two important purposes;  (1) to visually “sell” the conceptual idea to the creative team, and (2) to provide enough details for the costume department to create this costume.  If a design is not rendered well, it can give the creative team the wrong idea about the costume which could cost them the job if they’re pitching ideas, or leave the creative team with differing expectations. 

Unlike technical designs in the fashion industry, renderings or illustrations in costuming are usually the only visual representation one will see in order to create this costume.  There is no technical package with flats detailing proportion, stitch type, etc. to tell a draper how to exactly construct this particular outfit, most times, the draper is in charge of working together with the designer to make this happen.  

Catherine Martin: Australia 2008_Nicole Kidman

A few good points to an effective costume rendering:
  • Shows character
    • This can be conveyed through the model/figure, pose (the importance of body language), and facial expression
    •  The costume itself should also fit the character (consider also movement and stage directions)
  • Accurate fabric and detail depiction
    • If you're planning on having costumes made, be sure to have actual swatches of the fabric you intend to use and to render these fabrics onto your illustration accurately. 
    • This includes scale of print, color, texture of fabric, and any fabric treatments (ie. pleating, distressing, beading, etc.)
    • Remember, you can't make a fabric do what it's not made to do.  If you draw a fur cloak that looks like transparent lace, no draper would want to touch that project.  Also, you're essentially selling a product that can't really be done. 
    • Seamlines should also be included to give the draper an idea of how it's made.  
    • The same thing for buttons, zippers, buckles, etc.  
    • Is there something special on the back of the costume? Draw a detail of it next to the figure
  • Scale of illustration
    • The size of your rendering is important to not only show to the creative team but to also effectively depict details.  If your design includes a lot of detailed beading or large scale pieces, it would be a good idea to work in a larger scale so these details are accurately illustrated.
    • Renderings that are too small are too difficult to see and can lead to miscommunication
    • Renderings that are way too large can also be too difficult perceive and also a pain to pack and travel. 
Gregg Barnes: Follies

Friday, January 26, 2018

Thesis_ BTS_The Creative Costume Design Process

Photo: Jess Benjamin        Actor: Annalise Cain
When boiled down to the basics, the process of costume design is much like any other design processes:
  • Have a concept/purpose
  • Research concepts and brainstorm
  • Sketch ideas and refine ones that work
  • Finalize ideas
  • Execute ideas
Of course, there are sub-bullets within these detailing logistics, timeline, budgeting, etc.  What makes costume design different from any other design process is of course the details and the medium.  There are probably quite a few posts I can write about the psychology of clothing and identity and what it says about society etc. etc. but for the purpose of this post, just consider how much you can perceive about a person simply by what they wear and how they wear it. Below lists my own theoretical creative process in costuming. As with many other processes, steps sometimes blur into one another or switch order. Sometimes (when time and budget is low) some of these steps are either done on the fly or even disappear altogether, but generally they are as follows.
  1. Read the play. Or in more general terms, know the story. 
    1. Get an impression of the characters in their world and how they interact with one another
  2. Research background of the play, playwright, and current events when it was written.
    1.  In essence, why was this play written and what were the influences? 
  3. Analyze the play with research lens
    1. Now with your research under your belt, what does all this inform you about the story and the characters? 
  4. Develop character plot and basic character ideas
    1. This includes how many changes a character has, how often they are on stage, what happens to their costume throughout the story-blood? dirt? tear?do they take something off? 
  5. Choose overall "look" of the play
    1. Time period, how historically accurate should this be? How will this restrict/inform character movement?
  6. Research preliminary mood board
    1. The research for conceptual imagery. This creates an essence of the world and gives an idea of how you are approaching the story-whether its a darker and more sinister production or maybe a lighthearted or satire. 
  7. Create world
    1. Here I like to use something I learned in 7th grade world history-an acronym called PERSIA (Politics, Economy, Religion, Society, Intellect, Aesthetic) Consider all six to create your world and environment 
  8. In depth analysis on characters and what they would wear
    1. Who in this story prefers certain colors? Austere dress? Who is least put together? Who is always put together? Any rebels? Any flamboyant goofballs? What uniforms need to be covered and how important is accurate representation? For example, military officers are tricky if you're basing it off real world uniforms and don't know the subtleties of badges, ribbons, pins, hats, colors, etc.  Much accurate research should be done here.
  9. Collage character breakdown and preliminary "ideal" casting
    1. Collage or thumbnails would work here. 
    2. "Ideal" casting of actors or models will help inform characters based simply on how they look. (The risk of superficial type casting is noted)
    3. Consider race, age, disability, gender, sexuality, etc etc. 
  10. Sketch preliminary roughs and think about color palette  
    1. When thinking about color palette, consider who is on stage with whom, lighting, set color and design, as well as story. (Color psychology is real)
  11. Analyze sketches for full scope and look of the show
    1. Look at all the designs that have been sketched, do all these designs represent and fit the characters as they should? What is missing? What should be added or changed in order to complete the look of the entire ensemble?
  12. Refine sketches to streamline full composition
  13. Mix color palette, color, and swatch
    1. If water coloring/painting, it's a good idea to mix your palette first so you won't have to re-mix part way through and risk the miscommunication of a discordant color palette. 
    2. If coloring with markers or digitally, track color numbers and hexidecimal codes 
    3. Procuring swatches usually happens during preliminary sketching so the fabric can inform the design.
  14. Label and sign (Own that design!)

Personally, steps 5-10 are the most difficult.  9 and 10 especially, as mentioned in my previous post.  My favorite steps are  2, 3, 6, and 10.  I LOVE literary analysis and conceptual research where everything is possible and ideas both genius and absolutely terrible are considered.  It's a time to really let your imagination play with this story and see where it can go.

The process after this, if looking at the entire costume production timeline is deciding what pieces to purchase, rent, or produce. 

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