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Interview: Deborah Cook on the Intricate Workings of Costume Design for Kubo and the Two Strings

When Deborah Cook received a nomination for Excellence in Fantasy Film for Kubo And The Two Strings earlier this month, it was the first time the Costume Designers Guild had recognized an animated film for its highest honor. In its 19-year history, the Guild had never before nominated an animated feature. Until now.

Deborah Cook is responsible for creating the costumes in LAIKA’s stop-motion film set in medieval Japan. We spoke together just after she had been nominated and discussed how she created the magical look of Kubo And The Two Strings.

Cook has been in animation for over twenty years, after attending London’s St. Martin’s College and pursuing its programme in Fine Arts Sculpture. She made several short films and also worked in theater designing and creating props. Her transition to animation became, “a happy accident.” Cook says.

Awards Daily: How did you go from animation to stop-motion animation?

Deborah Cook: People were approaching me to make puppet bodies, costumes and all aspects of the animation character making. I was interested in costume. Some of the installation work when I was back in college actually involved costume and installation work to do with costume. It was really a happy accident, and I became known in the industry. I worked on Corpse Bride, Coraline, and Fantastic Mr. Fox at LAIKA since then.

Awards Daily: How does costuming in stop motion differ?

DC: It’s different in scale. We use engineering under the costumes. For live action, you get the movement for free in that the costume moves with the body. With animation, we don’t get that, we have to engineer it. So, not only do we have to find material that will work in our scale, they have to look fabulous. It’s 72 pieces in total and we have to invest a lot of detail in them, but we also have to engineer that whole movement. We use wires, weighted linings, flexible fabrics with different properties that we merge together and mix where they have different properties where they’ll work together.

We anchor them invisibly within the actual puppet. We think of it in a holistic way, working between different departments to figure out how the costumes will flow and move. They have to stay still for one frame photograph, and then be moved into the next frame. There are 24 frames per second in animation. The movements are really fine and delicate and we do a lot of experimentation and testing to see how these things work. Actually, we’re building a library at LAIKA with our skill set and technique, we’re building on that with each film.

We’re hybrid-focused in our animation. When I’m researching, I’m looking for innovation and ingenuity with people who work with fibers and costume work and artwork that involves fabrics where they’re working in a new area and there’s something where we could adapt, almost like a transferable technique that we could use to our best advantage in working with our costume.

We do experimentation, and I’ll have a pile around my work space that I save and hope to use one day, but the technology might not be there.

AD: I saw some of the costumes at the board recently. The detail is so intricate. How many versions did you have of those?

DC: With the main characters we had between 25-30 duplicates of those costumes. Once we’ve done a prototype, we take it apart and work out how to make a process, so it’s not the same fabricator making the costume, and that it’s several people. All of the instructions need to be really tight so that they all look the same right down to the millimeter on each version of that costume.

Each Kubo looks the same so you actually believe it’s the same Kubo you’re watching throughout the film, but actually there are 25 versions of him.

AD: What about the research for the costumes? In this case, you’re not just researching all you’ve said above, but you’ve also got to look at ancient Japanese costume?

DC: Absolutely. I went right back to 300 BC for this one. I visited Japan to do research and the contemporary takeaway through the eyes of the people of Japan and what they adopt from their own history. I wanted the costumes to revere our love of Japanese culture and the film and to have some resonance. I collected vintage fabrics there too which was such a delight. The colors were so vibrant and it was a palette that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Those choices informed the colors of the costumes that we made as well.

I looked at fine artists, fashion photography and textile engineers, and found new techniques. The Japanese historical research was like jumping off a cliff in that I didn’t know where I would land. You think you have a certain knowledge of a cultural history of costume and clothing until you really get into the depth and the detail. Some of the emblems used in Japanese clothing historically such as the bird emblem was one we adapted and incorporated into the sister’s costume. We made the cape and the legwear look like bird talons.

AD: I was just going to ask you to talk about the sister’s costumes. What did you use and what can you tell us?

DC: Their pants are fostered from samurai warriors where they had a particular number of folds in their pants, and each one means something. It means to honor, and dignity, so we wanted to keep that there because that’s very traditional and really present today.

They wear a jingasa hat which has the family crest on it, and it’s also on her chest plate. They are wearing a knee pad that comes from samurai armor. They also have a Japanese theater mask that gives them an eerie quality, so it’s alarming when you see this still face with the voice coming out of it.

AD: How long did that one take?

DC: Right from the outset I’m working with the director, the project designer and the character designer and together we have different ideas and put them together to see what they might look like. I always try to worm in as much detail as I possibly can in these costumes. We do edit out some things. We do test work to see what it might look like on screen or it doesn’t feed the character or the story, so we’ll take it out. If it builds on them, it’ll stay in.

AD: Were any particularly challenging?

DC: I would say it’s the lead character. All the other characters resonate the language of Kubo’s costume. The engineering we created for his costume follows through the entire cast. Part of trying to define his costume involved us looking at origami. I also looked at Issey Miyake and the way his fabric folds in contours and reveals the body shape. It also has a movement of its own, that is angular and graphic. It really plays into the idea of the kimono and what a great silhouette they are. Also, in looking at the vintage kimono in Japan, they have these fold lines in them that come with age and it creates a natural wear, so we tried to engineer that into the costume to make the language of the folding resonate.

All that experimentation with the first costume is amazing and we go through so many iterations of how to work through this and get the movements correct so everything is holistically considered in the end.

AD: You can definitely see those influences of Miyake when you see the costumes up close.

DC: That’s great.

AD: Do you have a costume you particularly found special?

DC: I love how the sister’s cloak came to fruition. It was a real explorative phase and I enjoy jumping off in the dark creatively. What we can do as a team to make things achievable and I felt that with the sister’s cloak.

It’s Kubo’s costume and achieving that when we found his costume. That was satisfying.

AD: What about the Moon King, what can you tell us about his costume? That’s Ralph Fiennes playing a baddie.

DC: Yes, indeed. He’s an interesting character. The starting point was the end character as he ends up, as this giant fantasy beast, and working that into his costume. We looked at the prints and etchings of older Japanese artists that had created this body of images based on Japanese legends that were all ghostly and creepy spiritual characters. We looked at the lines and markings of those characters and whether we could incorporate that into his costume and character. It was a very different approach, it was fantastical and spiritual, and his Moon Beast character is present in his costume. Flavors of that needed to be in there, and your eye needed to be drawn to it to suggest that he’s going to a different place in the story.

The markings and colors in his costume all suggested his narrative arc. His collar came from The Day The Earth Stood still. It’s a little dash that fitted with his character, and it’s a nod to Klaatu. When you do eclectic research you come across aspects that work really well, and that did.