A Stitch in Time

Learn how no sewing or fabric detail is too small for ParaNorman's costume designer Deborah Cook.

Mr. Prenderghast’s coat has hand-stitching on top. All images courtesy of LAIKA, Inc.

Norman, the star of LAIKA’s animated feature ParaNorman, appears on screen wearing clothes typical for a kid his age: jeans, t-shirt, hoodie, and running shoes. And that’s the point.

“People have to believe what a character says,” says Deborah Cook, LAIKA’s award-winning costume designer. “The costumes make the characters believable, yet extraordinary. Norman is meant to be an iconic boy. He wears things kids his age might wear.”

Norman’s tiny clothes look believable even when the foot-tall puppet appears on a 10-foot tall movie screen. No small feat: His shoes are not quite an inch long. His T-shirt measures two and a half inches from top to bottom. His waist is only about three inches around. His jeans are roughly three and a half inches from waist to toe. Like most kids, Norman has a backpack that he decorates with pins and badges. But Norman’s badges have little zombie faces. Believable, yet extraordinary. 

And he’s not the only one. Each of the approximately 180 tiny characters wears a unique costume, cut, sewn and reinforced specifically to make it easy for animators to achieve exact silhouettes, and then stitched by hand onto the puppet. In addition some, like Norman, have costume changes.

“We dress them to enhance their personalities,” Cook says. She led a team of six to eight people in the costume department that sourced fabric, cut, and stitched for more than two years to make ParaNorman’s costumes. Cook started the design process by reading the script and talking with directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler. “We discuss what the kids might be like in school,” she says. “The jobs their parents might have.”

Norman, for example, a hero that everyone can warm to, wears an iconic hoodie, and the hoodie becomes a symbol of Norman’s character arc in the film. “In the beginning he’s insecure and shy,” Cook says. “The hoodie is slightly big on him so he can huddle down in it. But as he gets braver in his role, he discards the hoodie and wears only his T-shirt and jeans.”

To create his jeans, Cook used chambray shirt fabric, a cloth that looks similar to denim, but is lighter in density and weight. “Norman is so tiny, the cloth looks like heavyweight denim,” Cook says. “We dyed the front and back in two different shades of blue, so they reflect the light in different ways, which helps keep him from looking flat.” The tailors also aged the jeans. “We wrapped tiny bits of sandpaper on toothpicks and sanded the creases and the knees,” Cook says. “We sand in wear on all the costumes to make them look authentic.”

Norman’s 28 duplicate costumes match exactly, down to the stitches.

The costumes’ fabric is always new, fresh off the bolt. “We need to know we can re-order,” Cook says. “Although we use tiny amounts of fabric for each costume, we make lots of duplicates. We have roughly around 40 sets going at the same time during the peak of filming.”  

Norman, for example, is actually 28 puppets, and each wears a costume with pieces of clothing that are identical from one to the next, down to individual stitches. “Norman’s T-shirt has hand stitching around the neck and hem,” Cook says. “And hand stitching, like hand writing can vary.” To assure that each T-shirt exactly matches the next in shot after shot, even when those shots might be 10-foot wide close-ups, the tailors use a map.

“We take high res photos of the first hand stitching,” Cook says. “Then we count how many stitches lie between the seams. We measure the size of each stitch and the distance between stitches. That makes it simple and easy for the next person.”

So that animators can position the clothing, the tailors engineer each piece of clothing to move and hold a position. “We want the costume to follow the action of the puppet,” Cook says. “So they have a lot of engineering beneath. We need to know the properties of the fabric and what we can add to make it animatable. We use copper mesh, foil, wires to make creases, and foam latex sheeting that we bake to the thickness we want.”

Norman’s hoodie, for example, has texture appropriate for his scale, so the fabric is very thin. ‘To make it look thicker, we lined it with panels of latex rubber,” Cook says. “And, we embedded wiring. If an animator pushes the cuffs into one position, they’ll stay until they are moved again.” The tailors cut Norman’s little two-and-a-half inch long T-shirt from fine cotton Lycra, very thin, very sheer. A small amount of foil inside shirt and a proper cut helped animators make it look like it was flying out from the boy’s body in the wind. “It was a great achievement to get that to work,” Cook says. “Mainly it was the cut of the fabric, the fabric we chose, and how we tailored it to his body.”

Cook and her team source fabric in San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, and Portland, examining the cloth front and back in their search for fine textures that, when enlarged, will mimic coarser weaves. “People think we’re strange,” she says. “But, each fabric is so individual. I look at it with magnifiers. I try to disguise them as glasses, but they’re magnifiers.”

Costumers reinforced the thin material with fine textures with various elements to make the clothes easy to animate.

Stretch silk is a particular favorite, the reverse side, which has a matte surface, not the shiny surface of the front, which would bounce light unattractively.  “Silk has the quality we want,” she says. “It’s thin, easy to dye, and it stretches. The costumes need to return to shape. We don’t want to get bags on the knees on a puppet in one shot, and not when the puppet is in another position. And the elbows need to shrink back to shape.” Even so, if the fabric doesn’t bounce back, the costumers use miniature travel steamers on set to help it straighten out.

For shoes, the costume department uses worn glove leather. “It’s durable, it’s been around a long time, it’s smooth, thin, flexible, and it works in our scale,” Cook says. “The soles are rubber latex that we pour ourselves. Because there is a hole in the bottom of the shoes to tie the characters to the set, we have replacements that an animator can put on in mid-shot if the character is running. We have whole drawers of shoe soles. All labeled.”

LAIKA’s costume department created clothing for 180 characters.

Cook says the most difficult character to costume was Alvin, the brother of Norman’s friend Neil. “The simpler the costume and the more close fitting, the trickier,” Cook says. “Getting them to look right is very hard.”

Her favorite is Norman, of course. But she had as much fun costuming Norman’s uncle Mr. Prenderghast, his sister Courtney, and especially, the Zombies. Mr. Prenderghast wears an old tweed coat created from a stretch tweed that the tailors hand-stitched on top to give it a defined look.

The team made Courtney’s track suit from material dyed with subtle color changes, like Norman’s jeans, to work best with the lighting. “Her top is a peachy pink which enriches the color of her lips and eyes,” Cook says. “The bottom is more of a general pink. It reflects into the top so you don’t see much difference.”

Deborah Cook, LAIKA Costume Designer

For the Zombies, Cook visited libraries and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s reading room in London to learn what the Pilgrims might have worn. “I wanted to look at their lives in England before they would have left,” she says. “You can get lists that tell what each person was wearing, so I had a good grasp of the materials and colors and how that dictated who they were in social standing. I saw hand-done illustrations of people, so I could see their clothing. The Zombie puppets’ costumes are very textural. Each item is silk or wool, with colors carefully chosen for the theme of the film and for historical accuracy.”

Prior to ParaNorman, Cook was a lead costume design fabricator on Coraline, for which she received a VES nomination, and she was a puppet modeler for Fantastic Mr. Fox and Corpse Bride. Before that, before becoming a costume designer for stop-motion films, Cook was a sculptor, and has a fine arts degree from Saint Martins in London.

“I sculpted fabric and costume pieces,” she says. “I didn’t follow a traditional sculpture path. So I rolled easily into stop frame animation.” Given her fine arts background and career choice, it makes sense that she has a picture of Umberto Boccioni’s sculpture “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space” hanging above her desk.

For Cook, the ideal costume is the one in which she can invest the most time. “I love detail,” she says. “If someone asked me to do as much detail as possible, as much research, and invest as much as I wanted, that would be ideal.”

Much of stop-motion animation’s charm is in the hand-crafted look. With designers like Cook, the saying that “clothes make the man” becomes as true in the miniature world in the real world, where the clothes land on men, women, boys, girls, and even Zombies.

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Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer based in Mill Valley, California.

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