Interview Costume Designer Deborah Cook opens up about Kubo and the Two Strings

Costume Designer Deborah Cook opens up about Kubo and the Two Strings

Deborah has also worked on all LAIKA’s other films as well as Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride.

From animation studio LAIKA, creators of the Academy Award®-nominated movies Coraline, ParaNorman and The Box Trolls, comes an all-new epic quest adventure: Kubo and the Two Strings.

From acclaimed animation studio LAIKA comes an all-new epic adventure starring the voice talents of Academy Award® winners Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar). Young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson of “Game of Thrones”) mesmerises the people in his village with his magical gift for spinning fantastical tales. When he accidentally summons an evil spirit seeking vengeance, Kubo journeys on an action-packed quest to solve the mystery of his fallen samurai father, discover his own magical powers, and reunite his family.

The fabulous costumes are key to the spell that Kubo casts and DIY recently spoke to Deborah Cook: the costume designer on Kubo and the Two Strings. Deborah has also worked on all LAIKA’s other films as well as Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride, and tells us all about her research, some of the secrets held within the characters outfits, and the efforts that go into their creation to celebrate the film’s release on DVD and Blu-Ray.

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First off, how early in the process do you get involved with a project like Kubo as a Costume Designer?
Right at the outset. So, for us, we work across maybe two to three films at the same time and I work with the project designer, the director and the character designer right at the outset of the film – so we work six months, maybe a year, ahead of shooting starting. We plan out the characters and what they’re going to be wearing, how that supports the story, how certain props may determine certain actions in the story, and help form their personality as their character arc is read to their costume – it also adds a bit of history to the costumes as well. So we work way ahead.

And how much freedom do you get with your designs? Do you get a very specific brief from the director?
It’s pretty collaborative, so the director has ideas for some of the characters – especially how they see a lot of the main characters – but there’s definitely certain liberties with certain characters and what sort of fabrics we want them to be wearing, techniques we want to use, the art of the costumes. We go into quite a lot of research at the beginning on techniques, contemporary wearable technologies, colour references from particular eras and regions, we even reference modern Japanese artists, painters and basket makers who are using more traditional techniques to get that in too. So Kubo’s sandals and the old lady in the village’s clothes are made from very traditional fabrics. It’s fairly eclectic, but I get the opportunity to do a broad amount of research to bring everything together. We go really wide and wild at the start and then do a lot of editing down.

The costumes that the two “bad” sisters wear are fantastic, can you tell us about where in your research the inspirations for them came from?
The sisters are modelled on ninja and samurai warriors. A lot of the ninja from 1185 to 1794 in Japan were women. They would go out in disguise and that’s where the stereotypical “ninja” template came from. They also have old theatre masks from the 14th century which is why their faces don’t move, so it’s quite an eclectic combination. They’re also wearing a quite funereal, mourning knot between their chest plate and their pants. Their pants are very traditional, they have a certain number of pleats on them. They’re mainly masculine wear - women wore them in a bigger baggier variety – but the sisters are wearing them in a more masculine way, and each of the pleats means something historically. We didn’t want to change the number of pleats, they mean: courage, valour, humanity, justice, courtesy, honesty. So in the research I did I found out all these historical values in what they wore, a lot of that is now invested in the costumes and has resonance. Also the sisters have a family crest, like two comma shapes interlocking?

Yes! Almost like a yin and yang.
Right. So they just have two, whereas Kubo’s mother – who has one on her costume too – has three. That’s because she still sees them all as a family, whereas the sisters are well ensconced in the family vendetta. Just little nods within the costume structure – there’s lots of little details that you may not even notice at first.

How cool! I never noticed that, but it’s there if you know what you’re looking for.
Absolutely. And we didn’t want to gloss over that. There’s a lot in there that’s apparent on different levels for different people really. They’ve also got armoured feet, that are modelled on birds feet. There’s a lot of bird imagery in things like the feathers on their cloaks – they probably have around four hundred individually attached feathers armatured into the puppet body. They’re also wearing samurai hats – like a warrior’s hat – and they have the family crest on them as well.

And how about Grandfather? He has a very different look.
Grandfather’s like a little bit futuristic. He’s meant to be from a more fantastical, legendary, spiritual world, so there was a little liberty with him to go off the beaten track, more than just representing historically. It’s not a period drama – it’s supposed to be a bit fantastic. So Grandfather’s got a futuristic collar on his costume which was an influence from an American film from the 1950s, more of a space age character. He also has a traditional train – like a courtier – and his colour representation and the pattern on his costume leads into his transformation later on when he becomes the Moon Beast character. We used scales and the same colour language and the same markings to pave the way to that transition.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to designing costumes for models as opposed to human actors?
It’s just a different level of detail. The characters in Kubo are probably about eleven inches high, the sisters. Mother and Grandfather are a little taller – maybe twelve to fifteen inches high – so the level of detail that you have to put in is actually really, really small when you think that they are going to be projected maybe seventy-two feet high. All that stuff is going to be magnified massively, so we’ve developed our own processes and our own way of making textiles here. I mentioned earlier the research I do, but I also look at contemporary artists and fibre artists and textile artists to see what techniques and new technology they’re using that we can use or adapt.

There also has to be a lot of engineering under the fabrics as well – which is really different from doing full-scale costumes. You have a human body in there that’s going to move and the costume is going to follow it, but we don’t have that so we have to engineer it from within. So there’s some armature underneath the costume, there’s also some different wires: different gauge wires, different weighted wires, linings that give some weight to the costumes, because when the puppet’s arm is moved by an animator it doesn’t naturally follow. So we have to engineer all of these movements that you just naturally get for free when you’re working with an actual person.

Did you have any particular favourite or troublesome characters and costumes on Kubo?
I guess there’s two answers to that. The first character is always tricky because you’re creating the language for the costumes of the entire film, so we usually start with the lead character first and work out all our artistry, mechanisms, and the graphic language for that main character and that develops the language for how we address the rest of the characters in the film – that means they all have a sort of unison to them, and the same flavour.

Previously, the costumes would be very closely tailored to the body of the puppet. They’re pretty still – so you don’t get that weird “boiling” effect that you see sometimes in more old fashioned animation. So we had to develop our own way of leading that fabric around and have a lot more integration between the armature and the costumes to get that flow. For instance, there’s a scene at the beginning with Kubo and his mother, and her sleeves are moving as she waves her arms around in the air, and there had to be a lot of engineering done to create that management of large swathes of fabric, and to make the folds look elegant.

Oh, goodness, that never even occurred to us!
That means we’ve done our job well if it’s invisible to the eye!

I really like ParaNorman as well. Can you talk about your work on that one?
Yeah. That was a very different approach because it’s more contemporary clothing, and they were more tailored to the body. A lot of the costumes on ParaNorman were asymmetric and they moved in a different way. Our puppets are all hand sculpted, so everything is built from scratch and there’s nothing symmetrical about them anyway, but it just pushed that a little further. With the style of the costumes we also used a lot of the art from the beginning of the film when theres a lot of sketching and drawing.

We invested the costumes with that, so there’s a lot of hand stitching on Norman’s clothing where all the stitches are counted out, and his clothing is more naturalistic as opposed to all the rigging underneath the costume that Kubo is wearing. ParaNorman was more about keeping the fabrics still and creating a calmness, and not the big swaying moving sleeves and trains – it was almost the opposite approach. Norman’s t-shirt, when it’s fluttering in the wind as he climbs the tower, was probably the most difficult shot in that film! To make it look realistic there were all kinds of things under there to help that work. But I’m glad you liked it!

We also really liked Coraline, and you had a slightly different role on that one didn’t you?
I was head of the costume team and I was still doing design work but we hadn’t finished evolving as a company and we were all sort of multitasking. There was only about six people in the costume team then, and now there’s about seventy! So my role has grown with the company to incorporate all the design and overseeing the costume team and the builds of the costumes. It was a much smaller operation then!

And before that you were a puppet modeller weren’t you?
I did! I did do puppet modelling. I worked on Corpse Bride and Fantastic Mr. Fox in England – before I came out here. I had also already done fifteen years in stop frame animation and worked on TV series’ and kids shows. I originally trained as a sculptor, I did sculpture at St. Martin’s College.

Like the Pulp song.
Just like! Just like the song. That’s funny! So that’s where I learned about fabrics and film and installation and did more abstract, figurative work with fabrics. That was when fine art, fashion and sculpture was all in the same building so we got to interact and work a little differently than you would in a traditional art school. It was pretty fun times and that rolled into stop frame and it seemed like a natural progression.

What are you doing now and next?
Ooh, that’s Top Secret. I’m not allowed to tell you that. [laughs] We’re shooting our next film at the moment, and I’m also working on the one after that. But they’re all very different from each other and I’ll be interested to see what you think of it.

Kubo and the Two Strings is out on DVD, Blu-Ray and available to download now.