Sunday, February 17, 2019

Thesis_Part 5_ Conceptual Research and Process

I’ll admit the visual research for this project was incredibly messy and hard to organize, mostly because my actions couldn’t keep up with my mind.  Now that I’m sitting down to organize my thoughts into blog posts, I realize that my original plans to write these while working on everything would have helped sort my research and made everything so much easier.  It would have saved me from the countless wasted afternoons I spent in panicked indecision.

I started my visual research collecting images referenced in Pullman’s interviews and ideas I’ve kept throughout my many years reading the series.  His Dark Materials is an inverted allegory of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and draws largely from the writings and illustrations by and William Blake.   Throughout Lyra’s journey, her experiences with people and the places she visits explore the topics of innocence and power, knowledge and wisdom, and society’s support and hindrance of human growth and actualization.  I split the research into four categories: conceptual, historical, setting, and character. This post will discuss general mood, inspirations, mood, and production research.

I drew a lot of inspiration from illustrator Keith Thompson, particularly his character designs and works in Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. There’s something in the quality of his dark and detailed steampunk designs that resonate with the essence of HDM.  Similarly, Tony DiTerlizzi’s older fantasy work and designs for The Spiderwick Chronicles add to the more child friendly fantastical elements in HDM.  

In addition to hoarding pictures, I looked into films with young female protagonists, particularly those that visually represented events through their point of view.  I paid particular attention to how costumes aided visual production, character development, world creation, and narrative.

Next, I began to think about how this production would realistically be produced. With so many fantastical elements and scene changes, I wanted to somehow utilize technology in a way that blended as seamlessly as possible with human driven devices.  Since the story is about the human experience, I did not want to conceal those aspects in the production. I wanted to showcase the fact that all this magic is accomplished by humans. 

The original production of HDM at the National Theatre took advantage of the Olivier Theatre’s drum revolve stage and projections to help with the storytelling.  The daemons were played by puppets designed by Michael Curry, who is best known for his work in The Lion King on Broadway.

Because this is a theoretical piece, a comprehensive production plan was not necessary but there were still questions that had to be considered. Since the original production in 2004, there have been major advances in technology. So what can be done today that couldn’t not have been achieved 15 years ago? What could be improved or re-worked to supplement my vision of this production?  I found that theoretical production plans were more challenging for me because I was unable to experiment with materials and technology that would aid in designing such a fantastical show.  Instead, I had to look into what was already being done and extrapolate upon what could potentially be developed for the play. I started with puppetry and then looked into other methods of storytelling that could be visually represented on stage including animatronics, holographic projections, and costume/stage manipulation.


The term “swatching a show” involves attaching fabric and trim samples to a design so people know the materials that will be used to make the costume.  

Swatching is probably one of the most time consuming, mentally and physically exhausting steps in the costume design process.  It involves visiting fabric stores and grabbing sample swatches of fabrics that would be used for the designs.  You never know what you’re going to find and you never know if your design will change so the smartest method of action would be to grab as many swatches as possible. This also has to be done within reason because store proprietors can and usually will give you the side eye if you swatch their entire store. Chances are their selection would be so large it wouldn’t be feasible to swatch their entire store anyway.  The best that can be done when preparing to swatch is to have an idea of what types of fabrics you want and in what color palette.  Had this been a realized production, extra care would be taken to catalog details on each and every swatch from fabric type, content, yardage, location, and cost. This information will then help the production houses in determining budgeting, quantity, care, and ease of purchase. 
A fraction of the swatch mountain

Once the initial hoarding is complete, it’s time to sort and make sense of the chaotic pile.  Swatches are sorted depending on what makes sense for the story and for the character(s). Certain colors or types of fabric can be grouped together that works well in a costume ensemble.  Sometimes, initial plans for costumes can change depending on the swatches gathered. Most times, additional trips to the fabric store are needed in order to fill the holes in swatching as the show slowly comes together in the microcosm of these small pieces of fabric.
There are times when you may not find exactly what you’re looking for at a fabric store, or you know that the fabric needs some treatment done to it in order to get the effect you need for the costume.  This is when you can dye or treat the swatch to exactly how you like in order to accurately convey your intent. 

Creating Multiple Worlds

At the very least, the costume designer creates one cohesive world within a production through garments and accessories.  This curated world conveys the time period, character, mood, and background to the audience. For example, Lyra’s Jordan takes place in an alternate Oxford University based on our own.  Characters in this setting would be dressed in academic garb or something more professional and professorial.  In contrast, outside of Jordan College, in the Oxford streets, you will see a greater number of people in work clothes and middle to lower class street garb.  The differences in these two groups allow the audience to recognize the change in setting and the shift between academic and utilitarian lifestyles.  Each ensemble or setting can then be broken down into individual characters.  How the individual wears their clothes denotes their status, personality, and lifestyle.  A meticulous student at Oxford will have their uniform buttoned up and pressed dress shirts whereas perhaps a less studious one would wear wrinkled dress shirts with their uniform only partially buttoned.  Creating worlds through costumes always has to be a balancing act.  

The biggest challenge I had throughout this thesis process was in HDM world creation. Not only are there multiple “worlds” within Lyra’s World by way of its diverse settings, there are literal alternate worlds that Lyra journeys to outside of her real.  The costumer has to find the balance between creating Lyra’s World by drawing from silhouettes and items that are recognizable to the audience but somehow different enough to show that it’s not a purely historical place in time within our own universe.  Additionally, the worlds outside of Lyra’s World have to utilize silhouettes and designs that are different enough to set them apart but also similar enough to fit into the story as a whole.  
  Hopefully, in the next few posts, my efforts to differentiate and unite these worlds through costume are successful to the audience.

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.

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