by guest blogger Michael Bruce Adams
Identify… Embellish… Transform… Transcend
Every decision we make, from the construct of the largest set piece to the addition of the tiniest of details, has a psychological impact on our audience. Every decision we make either brings our audience deeper into the story or pushes them away.
This means whether we are costumers, directors or writers… we are all storytellers. Storytellers connect human beings by creating universal experiences that we can all relate to… soul to soul.
Dawn Leigh Climie very graciously allowed me to be guest blogger this week, I suspect primarily because she is up to her armpits in mud and bug spray on her current show. But as a screenwriter, I hope to take up the challenge and do her proud.
We are talking about costumes and the power they hold.
In my language that means subtext; the ability of a technical decision… the addition or absence of detail or technique… to provide a deeper insight into character and story, and subtext to me is the most elegant storytelling power.
Costume, from the knickers out, is the most visible and intimate indicator of character within the filmmaker’s toolset. And as character is story, costume then is one of the most powerful storytelling tools.
Color, texture and cut can identify a character as part of a group or set them apart as a true individual. Embellishments and details on costumes give insight to a character’s individuality, expressions and passions. The transformation of a costume or series of costumes within a story provides deeper visual meaning to a character’s transformative journey.
In SCHINDLER’S LIST (costume design by Anna B. Sheppard), Steven Spielberg’s ‘little girl in the red coat’ indicates the death of innocence for the criminals, the victims and the observers who stood by.
In ELIZABETH (costume design by Alexandra Byrne), Shekhar Kapur’s telling of the virgin queen’s journey from child to monarch can be tracked through color, texture and cut from the soft white of innocence through the yellow of empathy, the reds of passion, the blue of knowledge, the black of death, then, ultimately back to white, now of enlightenment, with the addition of the impenetrable armor of silver and gold.
In the pilot episode of the television series BREAKING BAD, (costume design by Kathleen Detoro), Brian Cranston’s character is literally stripped down to his most vulnerable… in this case a K-Mart sport shirt and tighty-whities… before he can rebuild himself.
In DANCES WITH WOLVES (costume design by Elsa Zamparelli), Kevin Costner’s character gradually replaces his soldier’s uniform with that of an aboriginal as he discovers and eventually fully embraces the culture of the Plains Indians.
But even among these wonderful examples, we are still talking about costume identifying, embellishing and showing transformation in character… subtext.
So when does costume transcend subtext?
In writing terms, costume transcends subtext when costume becomes text. By this I mean when the symbolic meaning of a costume answers a question or forwards the story in the same way that action or dialog can.
I think the most eloquent and lovely example of this is in Ang Lee’s film BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (costume design by Marit Allen).
The nagging question that is never fully answered until the final scene sequence is this; are these two men just exploring confusing urges during a dangerous time, or are they connected by a deep love between two human beings? This question is answered without a doubt when Ennis finds his and Jack’s shirts, one fit inside the other, in Jack’s closet… it is love.
These two costume pieces symbolically connected have transcended the subtext of the story and fulfilled a key element in the completion of this tale… and much more elegantly and believably than hearing an eleventh hour declaration of love by Heath’s character. In writing terms, this is doubly great because the storytellers, by using the two shirts in this way, have eliminated the need for potentially clunky exposition.
If we think of a costume as a symbolic reflection of a character’s state of being at a given point in time, maybe how we view our jobs can take on a deeper meaning… that what we give of ourselves to that reflection has meaning too. Not every costume will transcend subtext, but every costume is in a large part absorbed by the actor who wears it in an effort to build a truthful character. How that costume is prepared and cared for impacts the actor’s ability to become the character… and transcend the page.
In my work, I lay down words on a page in hope that those words will inspire the storytellers who choose to move that story forward. As costumers, your work is all about inspiring as well.
I know it may be hard to see this when you are tasked with washing stinky cast underwear, or traipsing around after forgetful stars who leave costume pieces in their wakes like broken hearts… but believe it or not you are a communicator, an artist of the highest order… part of the most vital service we can labor over as human beings… you are a storyteller.
You are a connector of souls.
Michael Bruce Adams is a produced screenwriter living in Vancouver. He has written 27 feature length screenplays and is a sought after Script Consultant. Michael also has over 19 years of film and television production experience and has worked on over 120 film and television productions as an Assistant Cameraman. The short film BOMBSHELL written by Michael premieres at the Landmark Cinemas in Los Angeles on September 23rd of this year.
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