Deborah Cook explains the rigors of costuming for miniatures in the stop-motion ‘Boxtrolls’

The fact is the work someone like costume designer Deborah Cook does on a film like “The Boxtrolls” should be afforded the same respect during the Oscar season as what, say, Colleen Atwood does on “Into the Woods.” Or what another legend like Milena Canonero conjures on “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” The disciplines are one and the same, to say nothing of the fact that the level of detail on Laika's latest is as eye-popping as ever. Yet the season often relegates everything done on a stop-motion film to the realm of “animation” and leaves it at that.

I had all of that on my mind when I recently talked to Cook about her most recent work. It really is part and parcel of the overall marvel of craftsmanship consistently on display from the Portland-based animation company. The handmade appeal of the work stretches into its most basic building blocks, but to date, only the optical effects wizardry of “Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas” has managed recognition from the Academy in the below-the-line categories.

It would be great if that trend could change course, no?

Anyway, read up on those concerns, the inspirations that went into the acutely detailed costumes on the new film and more in the back and forth below.

“The Boxtrolls” opens on Sept. 26.


HitFix: I'm curious, what sparked your transition from the models and puppetry side to fabricating costumes for stop motion?

Deborah Cook: That's a good question. A bit of a wiggly road, I think. I went to art school to study sculpture originally at Saint Martin's Art School in London. So I studied three dimensional forms. I did sort of abstract figurative work and I used a lot of fabric at that time, sort of upholstering my pieces. And I was also in the same college as the fashion students, so it was a bit of a medley of influences going on. And as I left college I had my own studio for a while. As all art students know, you kind of have to be able to pay your way in the world as well. So I started doing all kinds of work anyone asked me to do – lots of theater, film work, stage work, all to do with costume pieces in three dimensional work. And then around that time someone asked me to do some smaller work, like sculpt some puppet bodies and work with armatures and do the costuming. And that's kind of it. That's where the transition was made. I just really loved the work. I really enjoyed it and just found I had a real aptitude for that scale.

I think it's pretty clear that this discipline is just as demanding and in the same boat as typical costume design for live action filmmaking. I mean, you're physically making this stuff. And I think the craft in all of the Laika films, every time, is just splendid. And that goes right down to the costumes as well. But I'm curious if you get the sense that it's treated at all with the same respect within the costuming community.

I think there's beginning to be an understanding now. It has been considered like a, you know, a miniature world. But not only do I approach the costumes in the same way as live action but we have really, really complicated shapes to pattern cut for, because a lot of the bodies in our film work, they're not as you would expect them to be. So they've got different shaped bodies and arms and legs – you can't really use standard patterns. You have to be a really, really flexible and quite articulate pattern cutter to, you know, manipulate the fabrics and do all the pattern cutting for those kind of shapes. They're fairly unusual. Plus the engineering that goes on underneath them just furthers the complication. And I think you just have to have a passion and understanding of the engineering of fabrics and the properties they have, like how they can work for you, so that you're helped along a little bit, and then you give them a bit of encouragement underneath. And sometimes the costumes themselves are actually armatured alongside the puppets, and there are different gauge wires that we will weave together to give it certain kind of support or movement. So it's a good question. You probably have to ask them!

Yeah I guess so, right? I'm just always interested in how these kinds of acceptances are moving along and the breaking of rigid boundaries in this business. Whether it's something like this or something like performance capture with actors or digital production design with that department, things like that. Are you a member of the Costume Designers Guild?

I'm not, no. I applied. I did apply for that and I was accepted wholeheartedly with a personal phone call as soon as they got the application. They very much enjoyed my work, but I don't live in LA. I'm not an LA union person so – I live in Oregon so it was. I was very flattered to be accepted but I haven't taken up the place. It's very nice to be offered, though. And they were aware of me. They have been following my work, so that does answer your original question, actually, that they had been following it and they knew who I was and were kind of waiting for me to contact them, in fact.

Well that's great to hear. And now with “The Boxtrolls,” how did the characters guide your decisions here? I mean we've talked about the kind of extreme nature of the bodies but was it something about practicality or was there an element of expressionism at play and what you wanted to do with how these characters were represented by their clothes?

It's definitely about enabling the characters and making them more believable, building their personalities. It's just another aspect along with their, you know, their animating language, their faces, the sculpts, everything. The texture and the fabrics and how they're dressed helps formulate their personalities and makes them believable to the audience. So that's quite a big question. I could go on forever!

I imagine so. Well is there anything specific that does pop out to you, maybe like – obviously there's a lot of play with specific elements of costumes in just the text of the movie, like with the Red Hats and whatnot.

There is.

But was there any specific character that you recall where the personality really sparked for you in designing the outer look?

I think, you know, the duality of Snatcher and his counterpart – that was a very good kind of field for mixing mediums and being quite eclectic in the research. And it very much, I mean the film itself, it plays very much into the English, sort of Edwardian and Victorian traditions of vaudeville and pantomime and tableau vivant, which is like a parlor game at the time where people would dress up and be dramatic. But they were also almost over-dramatic, and a little petulant. Like they were very much playing to an audience and sort of parodying things of the time. Though it's like a created illusion; we definitely took license on where we went with some of the influences. That time in England was off around the Industrial Revolution, so there was a real kind of exploration of how fabrics are made, how machinery was made. And very much an exciting time for people to let their own imagination run wild with their clothing and how they made things, and all of that influence comes into it. And also for how we kind of formulated the kind of look at the movie.

We had original illustrators who would do artwork and some of their line work comes into play in the costumes as well. We didn't do sort of straightforward tailoring, even though around that time in England it's very, very much tailored clothes. We took the lines a little bit further. We made them kind of more wobbly or gave them an edge and used color in a different way that would take on the life of the film as such, so that not only was it in the backgrounds and the concept artwork, it traveled into the costumes as well. So the whole film image looks very painterly. I mean for the colors of the costumes we definitely look at art, or I do, personally, the beginning stages of my research, I looked at fine art, because it tells you so much about an era and how colors go together. And we looked at Delacroix's “Liberty Leading the People,” which was a jumping off point that initially inspired the costume color script. And it's relevant and it dictates a scene that encompasses all classes, which so does “Boxtrolls.” It shows the kind of conflict between classes, which is unusual for its time. The painting itself was banned for 15 years for that very reason.  But the colors in it are very much – you can look at all of those colors and look at a scene with some of the characters in “Boxtrolls,” especially the Red Hats and maybe Winnie and Lord Portley-Rind. Those colors are all there together.

That's fascinating, how art continues to feed art like that. Now what kind of direction did you get from Tony and Graham? I mean were they super involved here or did they kind of leave you to your devices? I'm sure it's a very collaborative environment anyway but just curious specifically to costumes.

Yeah, we talk a lot about things and, you know, everyone has their kind of creative thing that they want to bring to the movie. So it's very, very collaborative amongst all of us. I mean they have their things to start with and they were very much interested in the Ballet Russe costumes, because they're very theatrical and they use color theatrically. They're a very easy read and they're from a similar kind of era, the costumes that we're referring to. And they very much wanted that kind of mark-making within the costume structure.

And that kind of answered this question, but I was going to ask what the environment up there is like, particularly as it pertains to your trade. I mean with Travis Knight and everything. The medium there is stop motion, so there's already such a handcraft appeal that marries well with what you're doing, but just what kind of environment does it feel like for an artisan such as yourself?

I feel like I've got the ideal situation, actually. They're very supportive and, well, you know, I'm kind of given license to research all fields and present my work and talk about it with people and see what they like about it, what steps we take next. I feel like I've got a very ideal environment for where I want to be with the costumes.

Well like I said, it's beautiful work across the board and I look forward to what you guys do next.

Thanks so much. It's lovely to talk to you.

For an even deeper dive into the making of the “Boxtrolls” costumes, click through the gallery below.