A Stitch in Time
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
--Barbara Robertson is an award-winning writer based in Mill Valley, California.