Tech Support Interview: 'The Artist' costume designer Mark Bridges on building character in black and white

Posted by · 2:51 pm · January 14th, 2012

For those of us who closely monitor the caliber of film costumes, Mark Bridges”s talent has been apparent for well over a decade, going back to at least Paul Thomas Anderson”s “Boogie Nights.”  Efforts such as “Magnolia,” “Punch-Drunk Love,” “Blast from the Past,” “There Will Be Blood” and “The Fighter” have shown Bridges”s ability to design threads for numerous periods and in a vast array of genres. His collaboration with Michel Hazanavicus on “The Artist,” however, has probably presented him with his best chance to date to finally find a place in Oscar”s final quintet.

The costumer came aboard this year’s Best Picture frontrunner about 18 months ago, he says. “I went to meet Michel on the July fourth weekend in LA and as we discussed the project, we ended up referencing the same silent films,” he says, noting that it was clear the two of them clicked and he was formally offered the job shortly thereafter.

Bridges describes his relationship with Hazanavicius as extremely supportive, as he was given clear direction but a lot of free reign. “He had drawn his own storyboard for the film and he let me go and interpret that,” he says.

As for where his interpretation took him, he admits he was excited by the notion of paying homage to silent films. “I was a huge fan of silent films since I was a kid,” he says. “My first reaction was to go back to basics in an era of computer generation and 3D.”

This required collaboration with his colleagues below the line, naturally, working hand-in-hand with hair and makeup artists Cydney Cornell and Joe Hay to create the looks of the characters. Working with production designer Laurence Bennett was particularly important, however, as he needed to ensure that the clothes could complement the background.

“I couldn”t have a dark sweater on an actor if there was going to be a black wall behind him,” he says. “The colors wouldn”t make a difference in a black-and-white film. We did some camera tests to figure out what a color looked like in black and white. And seeing as he couldn’t utilize color as a motif for characters, he and his team instead used different textures to tell the story. “Flatness corresponded to an atmosphere of ‘real life” or being down on your luck,” he notes for example.

Even so, black-and-white, in addition to many shades of gray, does provide the ability to contrast. “In the scene when Jean [Dujardin] is going down the stairs and [Bérénice Bejo]”s going up, she”s a beacon of white while his clothes appear the same as everyone else”s.” When Hazanavicius proposed the idea, Bridges was eager to use it, as it perfectly fit into the story thematically.

Recreating the clothes of the 1920s and 1930s was a passion for Bridges, but also a challenge. He had always been interested in looking at what makes this or that specifically, say, 1927 or 1932, he says, but he was ultimately limited to the finite number of period-appropriate clothes available at houses in Los Angeles (where the film was shot). “Finding enough clothes for everyone, working on a rather tight budget, was the biggest challenge,” he says. “Out of necessity, for principals especially, we had to design and make a lot of stuff.”

Despite the challenges in creating a period picture, and the fact that the costumers are almost never rewarded by the Academy for contemporary efforts, Bridges actually thinks it”s easier to do a period film. “Everyone relates differently to contemporary stuff,” he says. “They rely on you to do the research for a period film. Sandy Powell mentioned contemporary work in an acceptance speech one year.” Indeed, she did. While accepting the Oscar for designing the threads of “The Young Victoria” two years ago, Powell noted that even though she excelled at dressing dead royals, many designers do outstanding work by capturing the personalities and characters of the sorts of people we see on a daily basis.

The short shoot and limited prep time on Hazanavicius’s film also added to the challenge. But he of course cherishes the project and the opportunity to contribute to it. “I have such fond memories on the film,” he says. “I was allowed to contribute and my ideas were welcomed. You don”t always work with actresses or directors who were as comfortable as they were.”

The fact that there were so many doubts during the making of the film makes the success all the sweeter, though. “I remember a lot of crew people were wondering if it would ever see the light of day,” he says.

Combining period and black-and-white, while also doing service to the apparent Best Picture frontrunner, adds up to this film likely being Bridges”s long overdue first trip to the Kodak. As fantastic as many of his past efforts have been, given his love of silent films and Old Hollywood, it would seem an appropriate time for his number to be called.

“The Artist” is currently playing in limited release and adding new theaters every week.

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