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Costume designers on ‘Mad Max,’ ‘Mockingjay’ and ‘Star Wars’ dive into the fantasy

Jenny Beavan needed to design a visually striking yet practical mechanical arm for Charlize Theron's Furiosa (here with Tom Hardy's Max and others) in "Mad Max: Fury Road."
(Jasin Boland / Warner Bros.)

Even for the costume designers who get to delve into a fantasy world and let their creativity run wild, where one outrageous costume is outdone only by the very next one, there can be a favorite. We talk to four such designers about the thrill of boldly going where no costume has gone before.

Jenny Beavan

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

“The Mad Max: Fury Road” project was already a dozen-some years in development before Beavan arrived to its post-apocalyptic world. But instead of having a traditional script to work with, there was a graphic novel (by Brendan McCarthy) and amazing storyboards.

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Using a similar board-type technique for her costume task, Beavan worked “by doing mood boards, something I’ve developed over the years,” she says, noting how her design team of Namibians, South Africans, Australians and a few Brits would sweep out the sand every morning in their converted garage in the Namibian desert and get down to the task of making hundreds of costumes with everything done in multiples for the stunts. “I don’t draw, I use the collages as a starting point to explore possible looks,” Beavan says.

For Charlize Theron’s doomsday Imperator Furiosa, Beavan says the most obvious part of her iconic character look is the false arm, which needed a harness that was both visual and practical. “So [my assistant] and I spent a happy time draping and cutting out leather shapes and getting far too complicated before we came around to the simple shape for a body suit that Charlize ended up wearing.

“The final costume was all fitted in Namibia with [director George Miller] at the fitting and with Charlize’s hair, or lack of, and the harness and arm were there and there was a wonderful moment when George saw his Furiosa for the first time! Sometimes fittings can get quite emotional when an actor ‘finds’ the character through trying on the clothes.

“I know Charlize was very comfortable in the costume, she told me, and when I did a sort of English modest flanneling answer she told me to, ‘Take the compliment!’ She is very direct. And very wonderful. I am very proud she complimented me.”

Costume designers Kurt Swanson and Bart Muellen wanted the clothes to show how much Effie (Elizabeth Banks, left, with Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss) had changed over the "Hunger Games" saga.
(Murray Close / Lionsgate)

Kurt and Bart

“The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay — Part 2"

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Designing the costumes for the last two installments of “The Hunger Games” franchise was somewhat intimidating for designers Kurt Swanson and Bart Muellen, known professionally as simply Kurt and Bart. Consider: The pair had never designed for such an over-the-top film with such over-the-top costumes, and since they were doing both “Mockingjay” features together, they had to dress more than 10,000 cast members and extras.

This “epic ending to a big story,” as Swanson says, gave rise to the stunning look Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) sports once she’s back at the Capitol. “It was a chance to show how much Effie has changed over the course of the story,” says Muellen. “The end of the story is a new beginning, so her look is New Age Capitol Glamour. For us that meant a new silhouette in Scottish wool, minty long yak fur shoulder pads and a spiny acetate spectator.” Japanese designer Maiko Takeda collaborated with the duo to create the hand-painted, spined hat.

“We were excited to have a couple of big Effie looks, and we wanted a big structured silhouette,” says Swanson. “It was a bit of exploration with our team to get that shape and keep her in her heels. The gray wool was a Kim Novak nod, but the hand-dyed yak hair shoulders were pure Effie.”

Adds Muellen: “Banks is amazing, and when she stepped into this dress she immediately took on a kind of regal air. There is a little sovereignty to this number. This was one of the last days of shooting and it’s such a moment between Katniss [Jennifer Lawrence] and Effie, even on that day it already felt sentimental.”

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Michael Kaplan's challenge in redesigning the Stormtroopers' uniforms for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" was to retain an iconic look while showing that decades have passed since the original trilogy.
(Disney / Lucasfilm)

Michael Kaplan

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

When costume designer Michael Kaplan started work on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” he knew the most daunting challenge would be updating the iconic Imperial Stormtrooper suit (with its 138 parts). Its look is one of the most identifiable in the “Star Wars” universe and was something that needed to be kept at all costs. “It was important to [director J.J. Abrams] and myself to show in the redesign that over 30 years had passed since their last outing in ‘Return of the Jedi’ but to hold on to that iconic look. Immediate recognition was a mandate,” he notes.

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Kaplan says he played with simplifying elements, since he believes technological advances usually appear more streamlined. So he created, among other things, a central form on the helmet’s face that appears to be floating. He says this “magical element” is also added to the Troopers knees as well. “To ‘Star Wars’ outsiders, they might not notice the changes; to the followers and fans, a big change.”

The original white suits were vacuum-formed plastic, which were brittle and thin, so Kaplan “beefed them up” using a soft polyurethane for comfort, which, he acknowledges, were “unfortunately not air-conditioned for the Troopers working in the 120-degree Abu Dhabi desert.” They were developed Computer Aided Design by Pierre Bohanna at his in-studio shop in Britain.

“A few years ago, when J.J. asked me to come work with him on ‘Star Trek,’ I initially refused, believing that since I wasn’t a Trekkie, I wasn’t the right designer for the task,” says Kaplan, who enjoys the conceiving and building required in such futuristic projects as opposed to the shopping and pulling of clothes for more contemporary or period films. “J.J. was relentless and very persuasive, and in the end, I did design both ‘Trek’ movies with him. So when he asked me to do ‘Star Wars,’ terrifying as it was, I didn’t argue.”

calendar@latimes.com

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