Movie Fanatic was honored to be shown a number of Colleen Atwood’s costumes from the upcoming blockbuster Snow White and the Huntsman. The Oscar-winning costume designer (Alice in Wonderland, Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago) shared secrets into getting beyond the madness that is creating thousands of Snow White costumes to actually producing magnificence. She even lets our aspiring designers out there in on how she got the opportunity to do what she was clearly born to do.
Atwood met us at a studio space on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles and began by informing Movie Fanatic how one goes from idea from a script to the marvels we are witnessing today that were worn by stars Kristen Stewart’s Snow White, Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman and Charlize Theron’s Evil Queen.
“The first thing I get is a phone call and the script. To have a conversation (with the director) about the people without knowing the story doesn’t matter. So far I’ve been lucky enough to work on movies where there are scripts,” Atwood admitted and smiled.
“I usually work with directors that have a screenplay almost in place by the time they call me in. Then you have your ideas and talk to them. You get the director’s vision of what the film is, then take that idea and go and start a research and development process. You often don’t have a month to research and a month to do sketches. You are doing all of it at once: A budget, design work and your concept work all at the same time. The costume supervisor works with you and you sort of do the budget together. They can tell you when you are over budget and pull back.”
Then, Atwood and her team put pen to paper creating sketches as the ideas flow. She also employs a research person that ensures historical, sociological and geographical accuracy. “We do that for two or three weeks together and we get a presentation together for the director. Then we have a second meeting with concept and costume ideas and fabric swatches that I’ve gone out and gathered -- those are all part of my inspiration,” Atwood said. “For Snow White we had public library research from art books, and museum collections and online research. That’s the initial two to three weeks. This movie exploded to different things.”
Her biggest challenge tackling Snow White and the Huntsman wasn’t the battle armor for 500 extras, the intricacies of the Evil Queen’s wardrobe (as seen in the photo directly above) or putting Snow White in something that she could be both elegant and fierce in. It was crafting for the iconic Seven Dwarfs. “We started by having tests: Take a drawing and blow it up to life-sized with the shape of an average human body. Then, we take a little person and blow their drawing up to life-sized to give it all the proportions,” Atwood recalled. “We did use little people with make-up that matched the actors for a lot of middle ground stuff to cheat for the visual effects. So, that’s a side thing going on, meanwhile, there was so much more.”
As she points to the exquisite armor-plated suit on a mannequin next to me (far left in photo above), she explains how she managed to craft something we’ve never seen in a period piece battle scene. “The silver army from the Snow White trailer, we manufactured those. That process is a six-month process from start to finish when you are assembling five or six hundred costumes that are armor. You not only have to figure out the armor but what is under the armor!”
Atwood is an extremely hands-on designer -- from first sketches to the crafting and even selection of the fabric. “I’m very involved in the draping and cutting of the costumes. With armor then you go to a full life-sized sculpt of the armor. We came up with scales for Ravenna’s army (photo below). Each palette is clamped on with a jewelry ring and one skirt probably took one person three days,” she said.
She also said she works closely with the stunt team to ensure that not only do the costumes look great and are historically accurate, but also functional. “I need to know how well it functions. I know they can squat in it. They can lift it over their heads,” Atwood said. “As we go into the movie with the expectations the director has for the action, I can design a costume that works for action but still looks like a period piece. It’s very technical.”
So many have been inspired by the artistry Atwood has crafted since she first started working in Hollywood in the early 1980s. How does one get from point A: Desire to get into the business, to point B: Working on films fulfilling a dream of costume design.
“I think there is all kinds of ways to define talent and there are certain personality types that suit costume design more than others and there is all kinds of costume design and ways of approaching it,” Atwood said.
She reported the key is being a well-rounded student of many disciplines, not simply fashion and costume. “Having an overall background in all kinds of studies helps rather than just studying about clothes. Basically, you are designing characters: People on the street, fantasy people... but if you can connect it with experiences that you’ve had, people you’ve known in your life or places you’ve seen, I think it makes you a better designer. It’s not just going to the right school and having all the right credits.”
Atwood’s beginnings are quite humble, compared to where she is now as the go-to designer for filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton (whom she most recently worked with on Dark Shadows). “I always wanted to be an artist. I had a very artistic bent -- studied painting and art -- then went into fashion and came into costume design that way,” she said. “Everything I did when I was younger tied into my life later which is typical with any career. They end up connecting in some way later in your life. I think it’s made my life and work more interesting.”