Costuming: From Script to Screen

CostImageMark Twain is credited with saying, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Well, for us folk who have chosen the profession of costuming for the mediums including film and video truer words were never spoken!

James Bond in a three-piece suit really does cut a striking image. So does Johnny Depp as swashbuckling Capt. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean. I suppose the same could be said of Dustin Hoffman in a dress as Tootsie or Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire. As a costumer we feel that the costume is an extremely important part of any story telling.

Of course, there are always two sides to every argument and in the case of costuming that also holds true. Our goal is to appropriately dress a film in accordance to its needs.

Our aim is to provide what is needed to complement any project. In a contemporary piece that may be to make the costumes blend in to the storyline -- to be almost invisible – and make no statement what so ever. Whereas in a “costume film” or “period piece” such as Elizabeth,Gladiator or even a futuristic film like Star Wars the clothes can perform a great service in putting it’s audience in a certain time and place After all, it is every costumer’s goal to have the clothes be referred to as stunning or real as opposed to hearing someone utter, “Who would put her in those clothes?” It is a conscious effort to have the clothes either be a part of the storyline or blend invisibly into the story telling.

There are several aspects of costuming that I’d like to discuss in this article to further your understanding of what it is that we do. There are several key CostumingIntrocomponents that we must perform in order to make the successful transition from the script to the screen.

Important Aspects of Costuming

Where do we start?

Obviously you must start with a script. Many writers will put descriptive passages into their scripts to help set the tone for their story. The job of the Costume Designer is to collaborate with the director and agree on what it is they want the film or video to look like. The costume team will break down the script into several categories to form an outline that will become the continuity of the film from a wardrobe standpoint. We build a book, which we call a “bible”, and in this book we will have all the pertinent information that we need on a day-to-day basis to perform our duties as costumers. It will consist of all the characters in the story, which scenes they are in and how many costume changes (outfits) they will have over the course of the story. Continuity is the running order from start to finish of the story. It covers all aspects from the first time we see a character on screen to the last.

In order to do that first we must figure out how many story days, or script days, there are in the script. Script days are days and nights that occur within the film. We need to know over how many days the story is being told in order to determine costumes and period of time. A script will basically have four times of day. Dawn, Day, Evening and Night. It will tell us whether it is present day, in the past or futuristic. A story about Christopher Columbus and his travels to the new world will have the year 1492 clearly noted. The common understanding is that the passage of night to day will signify a new script day. And for us to record that in our breakdown is as simple as 1. 2. 3. We literally keep track of the days using D for Day and N for Night as in D1, D2, D3, and N3… until the end. As stated, know that N2 will become D3 and it could be the next day. Or, it could be “two weeks later”.

Some stories are told in a single day, while others are told over time. Several might combine the two with most of the story occurring during one day. In a film like Speed there are maybe three or four days during the course of the movie, but most of the action takes place on that one fateful day. From the time Sandra Bullock catches the bus until the time it explodes at LAX about ten hours pass. In other films, like The Good Shepherd, which I had the pleasure of working on, the story took place over the course of many years which in turn translates into many script days for us to keep track of. There were over forty story days in that script as the story wove its way forward and back through the process of flashback storytelling. The movie starts in 1961 and flashbacks took us to the 1940s and 1950s before finishing back in 1961.

Once we determine how many script days there are in the script we must then match up the characters in the story with the scenes that they appear in the script. We then create a costume plot for each character in the script. The Costume Designer will create a look and provide a costume for each member of the cast. Our book will show each character and how many costume changes they will have. Even bit players who may only appear in one scene are broken down into our plot.

Our next step along the way is to add notes that we feel are pertinent to each character and change. A character may be messy (think Oscar Madison), or impeccably neat (think Felix Unger). He or she may fall in the water (think wet and then be prepared to have several multiples of the outfit). Everything we can garner from the script related to the character – and the relationship to their costumes -- we note in our book. And trust me, if a character is falling into the water you darn well better have more than one of the outfits. Remember, time is money and no one wants to wait while you try to dry off a suit for take 2.

One of the many saving graces of our “bible” is that rarely, if ever, do you shoot a film or video in sequence. Often times you are shooting out of continuity. A classic example of this is that you may shoot a scene, an exterior of a house, in March where the main character walks up to and in the front door, but then shoot the interior of him coming through that door in May. You must note, in March, what he was wearing and how he was wearing it so he looks the same way coming inside in May. Does he have a hat on? Was his coat worn opened or did he have it buttoned closed? Did he have gloves on? Only once in my thirty years have I met some one with a photographic memory who could tell you those answers off the top of his head. For the rest of us it’s not that simple. Therefore, we use photographs and hand written notes to remind us of each and every detail! Everything we note goes into that book. If anyone ever asks: Are they in continuity? What they really are saying is: Are they in the right costume!

Once you figure out your “bible” and get all the characters and changes sorted you then must go over it with a fine toothcomb. You need to plot where you may need multiple outfits for a change and be able to chart the progression of a single change that a character may be in for a substantial time during the story. In Speed, while Keanu Reeves had about four changes early on in the story, the majority of that film took place over that long single day. For that change he was wearing civilian clothes. Knowing it was a long change the costumers probably had ten full sets of that outfit for him. Ten plaid tops, ten tee shirts and ten pair of pants all because a lot happened to him during that sequence. Among other things he was dragged under a bus and while being dragged he punctured the gas tank and had gasoline spilled all over him. You must, by using your breakdown “bible”, keep track of all the stages a costume goes through. He also added and removed his flack vest several times. Note it down.

Depending on the story and the action involved it is more than likely you will need multiples of several of the costume changes. Besides an outfit going through stages of wear, there are times when the costume needs to be dirtied, ripped or burned. Another reason for needing more than one costume for a change could include having to dress a stunt performer as well as the actor. Bruce Willis was never Mr. Clean as he chased the bad guys through the stories of the Die Hard franchise and his costumes always showed the wear and tear that his character went through! While he does a lot of his own stunts, I’m sure there was a stunt double standing by.

Another thing to remember is that you may need to shoot a sequence of scenes that play toward the end of the film long before you ever shoot scenes that come before. Dirty and torn may shoot way before clean and new. It’s the same outfit just in earlier stages. You’ll need multiples standing by and you’ll need a good “bible” to keep track of it all.

I’ve saved the dreaded for last! Another reason for having multiple outfits is for squibbing. Squibbing is a special effect process where a gun shot wound is planted inside a costume and can be triggered at a precise time to simulate someone getting shot. It is literally a plastic bag of fake movie blood set with a small gunpowder charge that explodes out away from the actor through the clothes during a scene. Very rarely will you get a “shoot out” scene in one take and you’ll need several multiples that allow for several takes. We won’t even talk about war films! But, briefly I will say you can run through a lot of costumes when making a war picture, as was the case when we made We Were Soldiers. We squibbed over one hundred uniforms on that picture.

Hopefully this has given you a glimpse into what it is we do. As you can see it’s not as easy as tying on a pair of shoes and getting in front of a camera, although the finished product always seems that way. I’ve touched on a few aspects of what a wardrobe department does to prepare to shoot a project, though there are many more that I could go on and on about. As a footnote, I would like to add that if any of you ever consider a career involving costuming please know two standards by which I live by: First, always have a safety pin with you at all times as you’ll never know when it’ll come in handy; (And it always does!) And second, from this seasoned professional, as you go along learn the term “one is none”. It will come to be your best friend. It’s in regard to having multiple outfits for a change. If you have one of anything, especially white dress shirts -- and that garment gets dirty, spilled on or torn – what are you going to do? You never want to jinx yourself, but accidents happen! Always ask your designer for a double so you never have to answer that question. And if you want to design, be a costumer’s friend and give them multiples. They’ll be glad you did!

I’ll see you in the movies!

Barnaby Smith has been a working costumer for 30 years in the entertainment business. He has over 25 feature film credits including The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Departed and Seabiscuit. Having spent the 1980's working as a dresser on Broadway among his many credits are the musicals Barnum, Dreamgirls and Les Miserables. He currently works with Matt Damon as his personal costumer for feature films.

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