By Elliott Enriquez
Movie costumes are the most universally understood language of filmmaking because they do not require words to convey a message to any audience. We’ve all seen it before; red is devious, heroes wear blue, villains wear black. Wardrobe design is a language so well understood that the best costume design for film and television has the opportunity to transcend cinema and influence popular culture in iconic ways. Simply put, we can all see what a costume is and understand it, everything else might as well be noise.
A Brief History of Costume Design for Film and Television
Costume design has always had a symbiotic relationship with visual storytelling and all its many forms. Regardless of their technical differences in creation and presentation, a stage play, film, and photographs can all communicate the same exact message through wardrobe design.
While dialogue allows actors to tell their story audibly, costume designers make that story believable by disguising the actors as characters. Wardrobe design gives actors a visual advantage that helps to establish and support their performance. However, the best costume design is so more than a visual aid for audiences.
In fact, the first 40 years of cinematic history are marked by silent films that were void of any audible dialogue. This meant a character’s archetype had to be established without one of humanity’s most essential communication tools, speech. Without the sound, active visual departments were needed to help communicate a cohesive story, and the costume designer used fabric to describe characters. This era of silent cinema lead to some of the best costume design audiences have ever seen. The lack of vocal interactions in a film amplified the importance of what was on the screen, which solidified the influence of movie costumes and the film costume designer.
London After Midnight (1927) | Costume Designer: Lucia Coulter
Take the wardrobe design for Lon Chaney’s character in London After Midnight (1927), “with his pointed teeth, long hair, and top hat, Chaney was the embodiment of many a Halloween haunted house decoration” (Silent∙ology). All that remains of Tod Browning’s film London After Midnight (1927) are photographs and stills that feature the incredible movie costumes. The physical film itself was lost to history and it hasn’t been seen for over 90 years. With no video to watch, the work of costume designer Lucia Coulter is one of the most accurate representations of the film’s visual content. Despite never being seen by modern eyes, the film is recognized as a masterpiece and silent era cult-classic. Lon Chaney is a legend in his own right, but the sinister costume design his character displays definitely helps make this performance memorable, despite never having been seen.
The film costume designer has become so vital to the cinematic process, that audiences often don’t consider just how much they do, their role seamlessly integrates into the film. The best costume design never calls direct attention to its technique, as it is part of the story. Just as radio producers relied on audio engineers to enhance storytelling through sound effects, filmmakers rely on their costume designers to tell a story through fabrics.
Continuity in Film: Tracking Movie Costumes
If a costume design department does their job right, an audience should be so fully immersed in a film that they forget there is a costumes department altogether. However, many continuity errors in movies will reveal that there are indeed humans behind the fashion choices of each character on the screen. The most blatant example of these mistakes would be the shifting, removal, or appearance of costume items from scene to scene or cut to cut.
In films, characters can have a conversation as the camera cuts seamlessly between them, but in reality, a film crew sets and resets the camera for each angle. The limitations of cameras mean that it can take hours, even days, to shoot a 5-minute scene. With every reset and take, it is up to the Script Supervisor and Costume Design team to maintain continuity in film production.
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back | Costume Designer: John Mollo
For example, in a scene from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes (1980) Back Han Solo can be seen standing without a jacket in a wide-shot, but when the camera cuts to a close-up, his jacket is magically on. Unfortunately, no costume design software like SyncOnSet existed during the production of Star Wars to prevent continuity errors in movies.
Back then, a film costume designer and their team used photos, notes, and extensive manual documentation to track wardrobe design across an entire production. Unfortunately, as films have grown in scale and scope, costume designer resources have not modernized at the same rate as other departments. Costume Designers had no costume inventory software or way track film continuity in a costume designer app until the emergence of software like Prosanity’s CPlotPro, and then SyncOnSet.
Costume Design Software: Now and Then
Hollywood was one of the first creative industries to enthusiastically adopt innovative solutions brought on by the revolution of advanced computing technologies; and even more so after the introduction of the graphical user interface (GUI). GUI’s replaced command-line user interfaces, a code language that had dominated computer operating systems since their inception. For the first time, there were no technical prerequisites to using a computer, and tech companies quickly released software and services to supply the film industry.
In 1989, Avid Technology released Avid/1, an editing software that integrated traditional film cutting hardware with Apple’s Macintosh II. A year later, Final Draft digitally reimagined screenwriting for personal computers and went on to introduce optimized formatting options. However, while most aspects of production continued to evolve alongside tech-based consumer trends, the most nuanced details of filmmaking were left underdeveloped.
Of course, tech-savvy crew members learned to use a handful of software from Microsoft Office to create production documents, but eventually, applications like Movie Magic Budgeting and Scheduling offered software designed for filmmakers. In the late nineties, Prosanity’s CPlotPro pioneered a software solution specifically for costume designers. For the first time, there was a costume inventory software that broke down scripts and provided some automation to the documentation process.
However, many of these programs were released when a majority of the world still used dial-up internet (Plusnet) and they were never designed to integrate with the exponential advancements the world would see in technology. Movie Magic, C-Plot, even Final Draft, are technologically equivalent to that of Microsoft Office; they operate solely to create documents that are either printed or converted to PDFs. In a post streaming and social media world, consumers expect their data to integrate across all their devices instantly. The entire globe shares in the convenience of the World Wide Web, but film crews still rely on software that is fundamentally stuck in the era of dial-up. The innovation of WiFi, cellular data, and mobile smart devices, provides Hollywood the opportunity to seamlessly connect each department of production to a virtual production office.
Cloud-based web-apps, like SyncOnSet, and their offline predecessors have a lot in common when digitizing production data. SyncOnSet is not the first script breakdown software, nor is it the first developed to improve the documentation of costume design for film and television. However, it is one of the first software that seeks to digitally unify the procedures of the costume design team, eliminate repetitive work, and save trees.
After a screenplay is uploaded into SyncOnSet, it is automatically converted into a standard industry document that reduces the script into a list of its scene elements. A breakdown includes all the necessary data a crew needs to stay organized: scene numbers, script days, locations, descriptions, characters, and shoot date. Costume designers and their supervisor save hours when they break down scripts with SyncOnSet, which lets them get straight to creating Changes and Items! Check out the video below for a full tutorial.
SyncOnSet’s Virtual Closet allows costume designers to view their entire inventory from their devices, all while sharing and receiving updates from their team. As set costumers upload continuity images and notes from scene to scene, supervisors can track Items and Changes to ensure they are maintaining the vision of the film.
The scale and scope of cinematic production are vastly different than it was when Lucia Coulter’s costume design in London After Midnight (1927) scared audiences. Furthermore, the introduction of sound meant costumes could be less obtuse and attempt to communicate the subtleties of their characters realistically. The role of a costume designer has only become more complex, and their team has grown to include numerous specialized positions; each functioning in cohesion to maintain thousands of costume items. Despite the importance of costumes, the department did not see useful software tools until well after computers became standard in the film industry. Even after solutions became available, they just as quickly became obsolete as the tech industry grew exponentially. All that being said, there are innovations taking place at companies, like SyncOnSet, that are revolutionizing how productions track items, continuity, and assets. It just goes to show, as the world grows more connected and efficient, so to will the everlasting industries of entertainment that fulfill our wildest imaginations.