The Envelope: Costume designer Janty Yates knew ‘Exodus’ posed ‘enormous’ challenge
Oscar-winning designer Janty Yates knew what she was getting into creating the nearly 7,000 costumes needed for Ridley Scott’s latest epic historical action drama, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” She knew the stakes, since she’d won the costume design Academy Award for Scott’s 2000 film “Gladiator,” which also required a biblically proportioned number of stellar costumes.
“It was utterly terrifying on ‘Gladiator,’” Yates says. “That script started with 5,000 Phoenicians coming over the mountains battling who knows how many thousands of others. I thought, ‘Well, I can do that.’ And it was the same with ‘Exodus.’ You just do it. But, I mean, on these things, the words ‘The war began’ is true. What this kind of thing entails is enormous.”
Did signing up for something on this scale again give you pause?
No, no. My reaction was, I can do this. I don’t have that fear. The fear I had is a fear of not having enough time to do it justice. There was very minimal prep time. I think I probably woke every night at 3:15 a.m. and I didn’t go back to sleep because I was concerned about it all getting done because it was huge. On “Gladiator” I had seven months and on “Exodus” I had four. To do Ridley’s vision, I desperately wanted to give it my best shot.
In terms of numbers of costumes, how many were there? Do you even have an accurate count?
Probably close to 7,000. For the Hebrews it was marvelous, lots of T-shaped garments in rustic linens from the Italian costume houses. But the Egyptians, we wanted a custom look, even for the slaves, the courtiers. We basically had to start from scratch. We had to build everything, from the palace guards all the way through the principles.
We had to invent the Hittites, really, because in our research we found that both the Hittites and Egyptian armies wore this armor called lamellar. What Ridley quite rightly said is you can’t have both sides wearing that lamellar armor; you’ve got to decide. So one side got to wear it, and obviously it’s the Egyptians. He said, “So you’ve got to invent what the Hittites are wearing.” I thought, “Oh, all right, that’s all. Invent a whole army.” [Laughs.]
What is that lamellar made of? It looks like metal?
All the lamellar, or scale mail, we made was by FBFX.They’ve made all my armor since “Gladiator.” It’s made out of urethane, like car bumper rubber. It’s very light, and all the stunt boys love it because it’s so light, it’s very hardy. And if you have a beautiful finish on it like they did, it looks exactly like metal. I can’t tell you how exquisite their work is. They made something like 800,000 of those petals!
It’s such a physical film. Moving in those costumes had to be a major concern?
Exactly. As I say, they had to be light. When things are transformed into a human piece of armor, you’ve got to have your actor lift his arms. So the lines of non-extension are the things that are most important, so you can bend that knee, that elbow. It’s very, very important, and we’re kept in line by the stunt people because they tell us what’s what.
I understand one of your favorite costumes was Ramses’ gold armor. How did you design it?
That was taken from research. It was drawn in hieroglyphs. There were two or three Ramses’ helmets, one of them looked something like a bees’ nest in blue, and you’d have to have a specific face to pull it off, so we went with the gilded helmet because it just looked terrific.
I did absolutely go over the top with the gold because Ramses was appallingly over the top. He must have built something like 80 to 100 statues of himself. He was exceptionally vain but rather wonderful. To exacerbate his gold self was rather joyous.
Moses’ ink blue linen toga costume was also wonderful, I thought.
That wonderful color. Ridley didn’t want [Moses] to be anywhere near Ramses [in color tones]; he wanted him to be completely opposite, i.e. military and impeccable but, of course, he had to be wearing a dress. So we had to butch it up a bit. The jewelry, belts, everything was made by hand. And everything Christian [Bale] put on he looked wonderful in, which is always elevating for a costume designer.
I suppose it’s not every day a designer gets the opportunity to dress God as an 11-year-old boy, is it?
Ridley had a specific vision of this boy as God. We tried him in a lot of T-shaped garments, and in the end he said he wanted him “very simple,” disappearing into the earth, very earth tones and colors. It was a bit of a trial and error, really; though, ultimately you can’t mess much with God.
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