Sunday, May 27, 2012

Using Costume to Tell the Story

In continuing the theme of how visuals can be used to tell a story better, I wanted to talk a bit about the use of costume. 

Costume and wardrobe can be a really effective way of adding layers and meaning to the telling of a story, whether it's one image or a whole movie. And yet I feel like many times costume is underutilized as a tool for telling a story.

Costume is such a big part of what helps give personality to a character. What a person wears and how they wear it gives us an instant feeling about who they are and what they're like. It's especially powerful because we aren't always aware that we're even making those kind of judgements.

Great artists will use the clothes as an extension of the character's personality. Always avoid giving your characters bland and nondescript wardrobes. Be specific!

Adversaries that represent different ideals should have costumes that represent who they are and contrast with what their nemesis wears.

In the second "Pirates" movie, one of these characters represents pomp and class, the other law and order. They both are obviously wealthy and members of the upper class.

They are both at odds with this character, who represents disorder, chaos and lawlessness. He doesn't belong to the same social class either.

I like when two characters that are companions have contrasting costumes. When you see two characters together, the contrasts between their costumes (as well as their physical type, posture, and everything else) tells you a lot about each of them and how they're different. It's like painting two contrasting colors side by side to emphasize the differences between them.

In the past, clothes really defined you and told the world who you were. Long ago, there were actually "sumptuary laws" that were meant to prevent poorer people from dressing like wealthier people. You weren't allowed to wear nice clothes unless you were a certain social class, and you could face stiff penalties for doing so.

For example, French peasants...

and French aristocracy.

Obviously, if you're telling a story about a particular time period, clothes are a big help in defining the characters (or at least their social standing). Coming up with the correct costume can mean doing a lot of research.

It seems like the lines between the wealthy and the poor get more and more erased as time goes by. Wealthy people and poor people dress a lot alike these days, for the most part. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are two contemporary people who have a lot of wealth, but you wouldn't know it from their clothes.

I think the advent of blue jeans has done a lot to erase the lines between social classes.

Today, there are still clothes that are so expensive that only the wealthy can afford them...but other than movie premieres and fancy parties, nobody walks around wearing this stuff.

Anyway, costumes can be use to say a lot more about a character than just how much money he or she has. Clothes can tell an audience a lot about a character's personality and affect how the viewer perceives them.

The type of clothes a person wears and the way they wear them can tell you how vain they are or how little they care about their appearance. It can tell you they feel good about themselves or how little they think of themselves. Clothes can make someone look tough, or vulnerable, or uptight, or cold and unfeeling, or warm and inviting....

Anyway, the point is: don't overlook costume when you're conceiving characters and thinking about their design.

There's another way costume can help tell your story and reveal information about your characters. In many films, the way a character dresses will change over the course of a story to reflect changes in their situations and emotions. Costume can be a great way to show visually what's happening on the inside of a character.

One of the most famous examples of evolving costume comes from the first three "Star Wars" movies. In the first movie, Luke wears all white. This seems to fit him well, because he's an idealistic guy who sees everything in simple terms. He's pure, naive, and innocent.

In the second movie, Luke begins to question everything he thought he knew. He realizes there are deeper meanings to a lot of what he's learned and that things are messy, not simple. Good and bad are less well defined than he thought before. He wears a grey outfit through much of "Empire" that seems to reflect his new thinking: muddy and uncertain.

In the third film, Luke appears in a black outfit. The major dramatic question of the movie is: will Luke give in to his father's wishes and become evil? Since black is the color most associated with his father,it makes sense to put him in black throughout the movie. It's a visual way to raise the question in the audience's mind: is he becoming his father? Is he going to give in and become evil?

Going from white to black is a great idea for showing how the character has altered and changed along the way since he first began his journey. If Luke wore white in "Jedi", I don't think there would be a lot of dramatic tension in the audience's mind. Subconsciously, the audience would know that Luke is nothing like his Father because they look like opposites. But when they both wear black, there's a lot of tension created around the question of whether Luke has turned into his Father or not.

Another one of my favorite examples of how to use costume in film is "The Graduate". In the film, the main character, Benjamin, feels disconnected from the world. He feels adrift and isolated from the people around him, particularly his mother and father.

The film does a great job of showing this idea in visual ways. For example, in one scene he sits in front of an aquarium. You can't see the edges of the fish tank and it makes it look like Ben is floating underwater and it makes him seem adrift and unconnected (this isn't a costume example, but I like it nevertheless).

Another one of the ways the film makes this statement is with costume. In the film, Ben's parents give him a scuba suit as a gift. He puts on the suit and tries it out in the family pool.

The scene begins with him wearing his scuba suit in their kitchen. That's such a great way to reinforce what the whole film is about: that Ben's out of place and feels like he doesn't fit into his environment...obviously, a scuba suit looks ridiculous and out of place in a kitchen.

As he awkwardly plods towards the camera in his flippers, the point of view shifts to what Ben is seeing from inside his scuba mask. The view out of his mask is, again, a great way to both "get inside his head" and show his isolation. As his parents gesture and talk to him, the viewer feels very separated from them...not only by the "window" of the scuba mask, but also by sound. They're talking and trying to communicate with Ben, but he can't hear them. All he can hear is the sound of his own breathing (and there's no other way to do this than to cut to his point of view, it's worth pointing out).

Ben eventually jumps into the pool and then tries to climb out. But his parents push down on his mask, forcing him underwater, where he is (again) separated from them by the water between them. This is such a great metaphor for feeling separated from them and isolated.

He sinks to the bottom of the pool and the camera pulls out to see him alone and adrift, surrounded by water, alone and apart from everyone else.

I love how this sequence uses visuals (and the unique costume of the scuba outfit) to describe the way the character feels. Costume is one part of it, but obviously all the visuals are working together to tell the same story.

So always think about ways to tell your story as effectively as possible, and how to use the visuals to communicate what the story is trying to say. And don't forget that costume can play an important part!