Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Discusses 'Snow White and the Huntsman'

Tuesday, 15 May 2012 10:30 Written by  Dana Feldman
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Costume Designer Colleen Atwood Discusses 'Snow White and the Huntsman'

If you’re a Hollywood A-Lister, than you have most likely worked with, and have definitely heard of, visionary Costume Designer Colleen Atwood. She’s worked with the best of the best and when you see the upcoming film Snow White and the Huntsman, you’ll know why that is.

Excited to work with Rupert Sanders on his feature-film debut, Atwood was sure that she could honor the audience’s shared memories of the lead character. Recalling that Snow White was of the first movies that she saw as a child, she explains, “There were certain things that were magical about the Disney character, and I loved the way she was dressed, but our character could hardly be dressed in red, blue and yellow.” This Snow White, played by Kristen Stewart, is a very physically active character so she designed a modern-looking costume that she customized at various stages of the story.

“This film was an amazing treat for me to design.” Quite a statement when you take a moment to consider all that she’s accomplished over the span of her career which began on Michael Apted’s Firstborn starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert Downey Jr. She then went on to work as a costume designer on Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, and Beloved.

It was in the late eighties that she moved from the east coast to the west to work in Hollywood and it was here that she began her first of several collaborations with the legendary Tim Burton on Edward Scissorhands. This led to her furthering her collaborations with Burton on several more films including Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, Big Fish, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice in Wonderland, and the most recent of their work together, the new film Dark Shadows. She has also worked with Rob Marshall on Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Nine.

So, it’s not surprising at all when you hear that Atwood has been nominated for nine Academy Awards with three wins for Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Alice in Wonderland. These accolades do not include the fifty nominations for various awards in costume design that she has also received.

For Snow White and the Huntsman, Atwood had to come up with concepts that were both fantastical as well as realistic. She used many elements in the textures and explains the careful stitching involved. “I used flexible stitching so that the actors would be able to move easily in the costumes. This is very important.” She explains how many of the costumes are in pieces so that the various parts are easily removable between scenes. “I have to make these costumes fast to get in and out of and there are many removable layers for comfort between takes.”

Her commitment to detail is extraordinary and when you look up close at her astonishingly intricate work it’s astounding. On one particular dress she and her team used actual beetle shells. “These were tricky because they’re extremely fragile and so we had to figure out how to drill through them without breaking them so that we could sew them onto the dress.” Looking at the piece, it’s a wonder how this was accomplished. “They’re also very sharp and so we had to make sure that they weren’t placed in any way that they would touch the actors skin.” The goal with her work, she says, is to make costumes that look amazing, but that an actor can also move and work in. “I take the concept and I do not compromise the design to make it work physically.”

How was she able to make this work with Snow White’s costumes? “In this case, I had to create a feminine costume that would work with a lot of action. So, I came up with a modern-looking costume that’s customized at various stages of the story.” She used green suede that she chose because it perfectly

complemented Stewart’s eye color. “The dress had several layers including legging pants underneath to allow her to be active and not have us worry about constantly readjusting costumes and stapling skirts to boots.” The dress started out long, but was shortened in the film. “She eventually gets a makeover from the Huntsman during their travels.”

This was also along the lines of the look of the servants in the castle, but for hers she added a little royal touch of gold stitching. She made twenty or so of this particular costume for Stewart. There were multiples made of several of the costumes with only a few being one-offs. Eventually, as Snow White goes to battle to fight for her people, her costume changes. Atwood created a suit of armor suitable for Stewart to wear on horseback as well as in battle. “When she goes into battle, she doesn’t have time to assemble proper armor so we took different elements of armor to compile an outfit made to look like she was armored.” This outfit was not supposed to look like a slick, pulled-together suit. She can ride and fight in it. “There are very subtle clues that tell the audience that it has been thrown together in haste. There are leg pieces missing and the whole costume is not symmetrical.”

The Huntsman, Chris Hemsworth, basically stays in one outfit for the duration of the story, all of which are made of rough organic materials that a hunter would require. Atwood drew her inspiration for this character from what would be his natural habitat, the great outdoors. Her crew referenced the shapes and fabrics from medieval times and ended up sewing together smaller pieces of animal skins. “He has a lot of layers to his clothing. Everything had to be useful to him. For example, his big, heavy coat could also be used as a blanket to sleep on.”

Charlize Theron’s character, Ravenna, had the most ornate wardrobe with her cruelty represented in her heraldry. “Designing for a character like Ravenna is the film equivalent of couture costume.” Adding that making costumes for someone who is six feet tall is awesome. “You can’t have a character like Ravenna without having an actress like Charlize to work the costume. There’s a lot of costume and it could be overwhelming to some actresses.” Through this character Atwood personified evil in a different way, one that also showed a bit of vulnerability. Theron wore a dozen costumes throughout the film and each was handmade requiring hundreds of hours of labor. “Charlize was a model, but she is also a great character actress and her priorities were more in the realm of character than beauty.” In preparation, Atwood and Theron discussed the character in great detail. “She wanted to have a bit of fun with the role and not be too strapped into the cliché of what the evil Queen was.” They both wanted her to be a person, too. As her world crumbles, so does her madness. “As her madness inhabits her, I started to change the materials and the feeling of her clothes. In the beginning, her costumes have a real shape to them, but as we go on, they get more spectral and bug-like. It’s my metamorphosis for her.”

To create costumes that are true works of art, the first step for Atwood is to read the script. She then meets with the director to get a feel as to what the exact vision for the film is. “This movie has more symbolic elements on a journey that goes from lightness to darkness as far as mood.” Part of her job is to help the characters get into their world and her costumes must blend seamlessly. With symbolism a crucial element, she needs to translate the vision of the director.

When designing the multitude of costumes that she has over the span of her career thus far, Atwood always considers what the actors want to do with their characters. “I pick the things that would personally suit them. I also look at hair, skin and eye color, for instance.”

When asked if there’s a particular era that she has yet to do, she is quick to reply. “I’ve never done anything Tudor. I also want to do fifteenth century, the Spanish style with the heavy embroidery.”

Asked her advice for new costume designers it’s to be very good with regard to budgets. Laughing, “They keep getting smaller!” Adding on a more serious note, “Take any job that gives you experience on a film. You can learn from many areas on set.”

Inspiration, something every artist seeks out and needs, she explains comes to her from anywhere and everywhere. “There’s no specific place. I find it in museums, libraries, fabric stores. Everywhere, really.” The Wallace Collection, based in London, was a huge source of inspiration as it’s home to one of Europe’s finest collections of arms and armor. She also went to Istanbul where she bought many fabrics. “It’s a great marketplace for handmade materials such as beautiful woven wool dyed with natural fibers.”

For Snow White and the Huntsman, Atwood and her design team made over two thousand costumes procured from materials from all over the globe. Such materials included the previously mentioned beetle shells from Thailand, an array of fabrics from Turkey, sequins from China, and select jewels from renowned designer Cathy Waterman. The heaviest workload came on one particular day where she and her team had to dress more than four hundred extras in medieval clothing.

Up for the challenge, Atwood describes herself as a worker. “I always have a moment when I’m designing the last costume for a film and that’s a hard one for me.” What’s fun for her about working on fairytales, she says, is seeing how everyone interprets them.

Snow White and the Huntsman will open in theaters on June 1st. 

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