Saturday, April 13, 2019

Thesis_Part 6_Lyra's World

Designing and Redesigns 

The creative process can be frustratingly slow and most times it feels as if you’re sending futile prayers to your mental muse in hopes of a creative miracle.  I generally approach groups of characters starting with the most stereotypical or literal idea and expand from there.  Depending on the color story and the shape language pulled from research and inspiration, the design can convey and evoke many different aspects of the story.  This can be especially recognized through the characters I had the most trouble designing: The Consistorial Court of Discipline, witches, Gallivespians, and angels. In this particular case, with so many balls to juggle, I never felt that I had enough time to sit and process my research in a way where I could then filter into strong designs of my own.  The first few developments of these characters were therefore nothing special; they’ve all been seen and done in various other films and media.  After completing the design of my entire show, I took some additional time during the summer to further develop these characters and I’m glad I did.  I will discuss the visual perceptions in greater detail with my re-designs as I move through each group in the following posts. 

Lyra's World (Finally, some designs!)

Lyra’s world is set in an alternate universe similar the one we live in but with the essence of our historical past and the presence of some fantastical beings.  There is a practical Steampunk feel to Lyra’s London with the mention of zeppelins, gyroptors, and anbaric lights.  

While the exact time period is not mentioned, I based Lyra’s world in the early 1900s right before World War I. While people tried to hold onto life as it once was, everything was in flux. They were caught in the throes of a major lifestyle transition through the mass adoption of technology that began during the Industrial Revolution.  Geographical and scientific discoveries were still being made that would further revolutionize daily life.  Challenges to strict Victorian gender roles and the rise of the middle class changed much of daily life in Britain and the Western world. This push and pull of the past and future created a very precarious present where ideologies that were once a solid foundation for life no longer seemed relevant.  Our world was quickly getting smaller, and political alliances and tensions created the atmosphere that set up the cataclysm of the First World War, similar to the events set in motion by Lord Asriel that eventually leads to the Great War in HDM.  The Church was a major power in many aspects of society and the economic division of social classes can be seen through each class’ access to new technology.  With so much still unknown and new, there was still a wide sense of magic and wonder.

Lyra’s Jordan

Lyra’s story begins at Jordan College in Oxford surrounded by traditional academia and predominantly male scholars and professors.  Her time here represents education (in relation to the larger topic of knowledge vs. wisdom), structure, tradition, and theory.   As a child is wont to play, Lyra feels stifled by the continuous intellectual discourse of the scholars, she is an individual of action.  While Lyra’s formal costume is one of scholarly uniform, her base costume allows for freedom of movement and play.  In contrast to this, the scholars are in darker colors and heaver wool fabrication.  Range of movement is less important than academic tradition and formality, especially for those who spend much of their time studying indoors.  

Lyra’s Oxford

Contrary to Lyra’s Jordan and its urbane and monotonous silhouettes, Lyra’s Oxford provides a glimpse of the bustling everyday life in the streets of Oxford.  Lyra spends much of her time here in the chaos of children at play (remember my previous mention about the importance of play?), navigating relationships between her peers and adults, and really discovering who she is.  Patterns and color palette is expanded to represent more of the everyday wear of working class society.  The clothing is more practical and utilitarian.

Lord Asriel

Lyra’s intimidating father, Lord Asriel is a “tall man with powerful shoulders, a fierce dark face.” (TGC Ch. 1) Asriel’s name alludes to the angel Azrael, the angel of death.  According to Jewish and Islamic angelology, Azrael is the angel who separates the soul from the body at the moment of death which foreshadows Asriel’s actions at the end of The Golden Compass.  In some mythologies, Azrael is also seen as Satan, further developing Lord Asriel’s role as he builds his army in The Subtle Knife and leads the epic war against the Authority in the Amber Spyglass. An imposing figure, Asriel is a man of travel and action and his costume therefore reflects this while still giving off the air of a gentleman and lord. Research into Lord Asriel’s costume came from explorers in the era including John Hanning Speke, and Roald Amundsen.  

Mrs. [Marisa] Coulter


Lyra's mother and Lord Asriel's lover, Mrs. Coulter is head of the General Oblation Board, the branch of the Consistorial Court of Discipline that experiments on the connection between children and mons.  She is alluring and beautiful and uses these traits to her advantage.  Marisa has Latin and Hebrew origins meaning "Of the Sea" which alludes to the Goddess of Love and Sexuality; Aphrodite, whose lover is Ares, God of War (Lord Asriel).  It can be argued that the reason Mrs. Coulter and her mon’s name is kept so generic* is that without a set identity, they both represent the evil that is capable within humanity when given political and religious power.  To Lyra, Mrs. Coulter embodies femininity, sexuality, high society, and deception.  She is the first upper class woman of power Lyra ever meets and she becomes enchanted and fascinated by this woman.  Coulter first shows up wearing a fox fur coat, which not only represents her economic status but foreshadows and symbolizes her sly and underlying cruelty as mons take the form of animals.  When interpreted in this manner, Mrs. Coulter is essentially wearing the skin of a dead mon for the sake of flaunting her status and power.

Mrs. Coulter’s silhouette starts off closer to the women of the era, with shaping in the torso that falls into soft and delicate fabrications.  With greater power and agency, Coulter’s costume shifts to one that is more freeing, modern, and masculine as she journeys through various worlds in pursuit of Lyra. 

*Coulter's mon is eventually named in a short story released by Pullman after the end of the trilogy.

Lyra Party


After meeting Mrs. Coulter, Lyra is whisked away from Jordan College into London society.  It is through her experiences and time with Coulter that she learns about the rules and refinement of the upper class.  While glamorous and beautiful, the expectation of children in society is to be seen, not heard.  Mrs. Coulter treats Lyra more as a doll, expected to behave at all times in order to be admired by her peers  rather than a child.  During one particular evening party, Lyra is dressed up in a light frilly dress, obviously unsuited to her needs or personality. 

London Society


As Lyra interacts with the people within Coulter’s circle, she quickly learns that the power and sophistication afforded to them only breeds deception and corruption.  The restraints and devious roundabout habits of society prevents the free growth of human expression and individuality.  Color Palette, fabrication, prints, practicality

This opulence and limitation can be seen in the structured forms of their costume. The jewel tones and fabrication in silk chiffons and taffetas convey the decadence and vanity of each costume. Delicate lace and jacquards contribute further to emphasizing their social class since their ability to afford and wear such textiles means they are likely not doing any physical labor. 


After escaping the deceptive confines of London society, Lyra is taken in by the water faring Gyprians.  The Gyptians are based on the Romani (Gypsies) and Irish Travellers from our world.  In Lyra’s world, Gyptians are freshwater nomads who congregate in the Dutch fens, a location which was drained in the 1500s for land reclamation in our world.   Their nomadic lifestyle and communal style of living serve as a contrast to the structured and stifled society of Mrs. Coulter.  

The Gyptians are the first major group in my design process where cultural appropriation can be an issue.  The Romani and Irish Travellers have had a long history of appropriation, prejudice, and oppression by Western Civilization.  While the primary responsibility of fair treatment and representation of the Gyptians lies with the author and the story, costumes serve as a key visual representation with the audience.  Since I have no primary experience with these groups, a lot of research into their lifestyle and history was tantamount in developing a consciousness of this visual representation.  Even equipped with all my research, I am still unsure as to whether I have a comprehensive understanding of these topics, so if I have misrepresented the Gyptians or any of the other following groups of people or, please inform and educate me on these issues and I apologize.  

In contrast to the blues and dark neutrals of Oxford and the pastel and jewel tones of London, the Gyptians’ costumes have a much warmer and natural palette.  Printed cottons and linens not only provide a lighter silhouette and freedom of movement, it also adds a greater sense of vitality.  Like the costumes of working class Oxford, the Gyptians costumes are more practical and reflect their nomadic lifestyle. 

Lee Scoresby 


A Texan aeronaut named after famous Italian Western gunslinger, Lee Van Cleef and Arctic explorer William Scoresby, Lee Scoresby provides Lyra and the Gyptians with adequate transportation in the North.  I kept fairly true to Van Cleef’s costumes as I felt that it reflected Lee Scoresby’s easy-going and sardonic character.  

The Consistorial Court of Discipline


The Consistorial Court of Discipline serves as the main political and religious power in Lyra’s World. Drawn from Christianity, the dominant religion of Western Civilization and its shaky history, the Consistorial Court serves as Pullman’s criticism of the corruption of power that occurs when religion is used as an excuse to commit atrocities against marginalized groups and those with less power.  

Personally, I struggled quite a bit in designing the Consistorial Court for various reasons.  The first is that as a non-Christian I am unfamiliar with the nuances of the rituals of Christianity and all its denominations.  My personal knowledge comes from a literary and academic background and from growing up and living in a society in which Christianity is so prevalent. Since the religion has such a long, large, and complex history, it was difficult for me to delve as deeply into my research as I would have liked given my limited time and remaining thesis work. While I am aware that religious garb and vestments hold strong symbolism and history, fully understanding each and every historical religious garment would have led me to the completion of a wholly different and separate thesis altogether.  My fears of misrepresentation led me toward a design that was much too literal.  

After completing the remainder of my thesis, I reevaluated the role of the Consistorial Court in the story.  While they are a religious group, they also hold political power and a blend of WWI military silhouettes with religious detailing brought greater significance to what they represented in the story.  It also allowed me to add an extra layer of important historical context that was missing in my initial designs. The addition of militaristic details not only adds to the power and influence of The Consistorial Court, it also alludes to the historical colonization by Western Civilization through the military and the forced assimilation of the oppressed through religion (ie. The Inquisitions) further emphasizing Pullman's theme about the abuse of power when religion is mixed with politics.

With the foundations of Lyra's Western World properly established, I was ready to move into designing the more fantastical and unknown world of The North.

In the mean time, how about some back reading?
[Part 1]
[Part 2]
[Part 3]

[Part 4]
[Part 5]
[Part 6]

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.

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