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‘Costume designers can add significant value to animated films’

Throughout its 20-year history, digital animated films have become increasingly accurate in portraying the character. At the same time, viewers have become increasingly critical. Hence, filmmakers need to consider more aspects in character development. In this, costume designer can play a key role, says Maarit Kalmakurki.
Pukusuunnittelija, taiteen tohtori Maarit Kalmakurki
Photo: Mia Surakka

What is your research about?

‘In my doctoral thesis, I explore the importance of costume design in animated character design. The key designer of the characters in the animated films has traditionally been an animator who has also been responsible for costume design. Costume designers have had little involvement in the production. For my research, I have selected six digital animated films, in which costume designers have been used in the production and also credited for their work. I also present the costume design process and its different stages through which the importance of a costume designer can be better understood.

I wanted to focus on animated films because it’s striking that costume designers haven’t been used in the productions, even as consultants. The productions of animated films differ from other films in that the productions take longer and different departments work simultaneously, hence it is possible to develop the character along the way. A costume designer could bring up ideas on how a costume affects performance in specific scenes and thus support story development and the scriptwriting.

The reason for the absence of costume designers from productions may be that the value of collaboration is not yet understood, or economic factors may also weigh. However, I argue that investing in a costume designer in production saves both money and time and results in more diverse characters.’

Costume designers are vital experts in the production of digital animation films, but they are underused."

Costume designer Maarit Kalmakurki

What's important in it?

‘My key research finding is that costume designers are vital experts in the production of digital animation films, but they are underused. It would be important to involve the costume designer in the process to support the creation of the character’s identity and the storytelling throughout the film. They can bring meaningful ideas to, among other things, how the character moves and manifests itself. After all, clothes are the most visible part of a character and it’s important to think about what and how the character is communicating through them.

As a costume designer myself, I also find it important to give voice to the costume designers, as their role has been hidden until recently. I have had the opportunity to highlight the importance of costume designers when lecturing in the top animation schools around the world. I have been able to give tips on what to consider in education as the students will work in animation productions in the future. Even just talking about the topic helps in raising the importance of it. The subject has begun to be better featured in education as well as in journals in the field.

The films have also been marketed via costume design, like the movie Frozen 2 showed. In addition, Disney released a book about the costume design of their films a couple of years ago, in which they relied on the perspectives I have presented earlier.’

What can it lead to?

‘My doctoral research and the case examples show the value of costume designers in animation production, as they can improve the visual quality and storytelling of the film. The results of my research can be utilized in national and international digital animation film productions as well as in education in the field.

Costume design should also be part of the education of animators. Cal ARTS, the top school in California founded by Walt Disney, is the only school where you can study costume design in animation, yet even there only as a course. Getting the subject into compulsory education is my next mission.

The master's program in animation launched at Aalto University two years ago is an important opening. I am ideating ​​how to bring digital costume design to be part of the education. One good topic for further research would also be the collaboration between an animator and a costume designer, since it is hardly visible.’

Kalmakurki will defend her doctoral dissertation 'Digital character costume design in computer-animated feature films' at Aalto University 10 December, 2021.

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