Tech Support: Costume designer Colleen Atwood on the painstaking ensembles of 'Snow White'

Posted by · 11:14 am · May 14th, 2012

Three-time Oscar winner Colleen Atwood has been designing costumes for some of the most elaborate Hollywood productions for the better part of three decades. Perhaps best known for her singular collaborations with director Tim Burton (another of which, “Dark Shadows,” is currently in theaters), she has made her career working with seasoned directors like Jonathan Demme, Michael Mann, Andrew Niccol and Rob Marshall.

But for “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Atwood found herself working with debut feature director Rupert Sanders on a large-scale endeavor bursting at the seams with design elements. And she came away impressed with the the first-timer’s ability to channel the stress and be all the stronger for it.

“I knew him from commercials and I always thought he had kind of a good quality to him,” Atwood says, surrounded by a gallery of costume elements from the film. “This is a lot of movie for a first-time director. He did all the right things. He kept enough strength up to make the film, where sometimes on a movie like this even a seasoned director by the end is just baked. I thought he really managed his energy and his focus in a great way and he just got stronger and stronger as the movie went on, and he got more confidence.”

The ability to defer to a veteran like Atwood certainly plays a hand in instilling that confidence. She’s taken stabs at the future (“Gattaca”), schlock (“Mars Attacks!”), 19th Century horror (“Sleepy Hollow”), razzle dazzle (“Chicago,” “Nine”) and fairytale fantasy (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”). It’s the latter arena in which “Snow White” resides, a murky, twisted spin on the classic yarn.

“He wanted a little bit of a dark edge to it,” Atwood says of Sanders’s direction. “We weren’t locked into one particular four-year era. We could kind of re-imagine the feeling of a Medieval kind of time.”

There were some references of note, though. Neo-Romanticism and the work of British artist and designer Edward Burne-Jones was one. But mostly it was about broad ideas, elemental, even, and moving organically from there.

“Even though I have that leeway, I always start with the base and the architecture and design of the period,” Atwood says. “It was very basic. It was kind of modern in the sense that it didn’t have a lot of bells and whistles. They moved fabric around but they kept the lines pretty straight-forward. In a way it’s taking that and figuring out how to make it architectural and interesting and to change it up a bit from an empire-waisted dress to what it can become.”

And it can become any number of striking ensembles. From the leather and chain mail-clad stylings of the titular heroine (played by Kristen Stewart) and her pursuer/eventual protector (Chris Hemsworth), to the lavish, eerie elements of the diabolical Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), Atwood covers a wide spectrum with her work on the production.

“In Ravenna’s clothes,” she notes specifically, “what we wanted was a sense of death and decay. So we utilize things that telegraph that in a way, the intimation of bones on the wedding thing, the feathers, the beetle wings from Thailand. There were some things reptilian in quality in chain mail that we came up with when we were making her army and then I used it on her at the end to kind of tie them together.”

Yes, you read that correctly: beetle wings. As you’ll see in the accompanying gallery, one of Theron’s ornate dresses was outfitted with rows of beetle wings.

“That was not easy,”¬†Atwood says, “let me tell you. Drilling them — and the fabric was hard to handle. There were mechanical things with that one that were difficult. The feather cape was not particularly difficult but very time-consuming. One poor soul spent two weeks of his life trimming the feathers and attaching them to the cape.”

Atwood concedes that, even for a veteran like her, you’re always learning new things from project to project in the film business. Here, she says, she was able to work with a number of materials for the first time that made the crew experience all the more intense and, as a result, rewarding.

“I had an amazing craft element to this film that I hadn’t been able to use before,” she says, “because I had all this Medieval leather and all these leather craft people that did amazing stuff. So it was really fun to try to get into that a little bit…There was a lot of very painstaking hand work in everything and a lot of love went into it with the team I had.”

Check out a gallery of Atwood’s work below (as well as a video featurette on the costumes of the film in our related videos section above). “Snow White and the Huntsman” opens nationwide on Friday, June 1.

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