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Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood works her magic for 'Fantastic Beasts,' the latest J.K. Rowling adventure

Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood works her magic for 'Fantastic Beasts,' the latest J.K. Rowling adventure
Katherine Waterston, Eddie Redmayne, Alison Sudol and Dan Folger in a scene from "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them." (Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

In the new movie, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” screenwriter J.K. Rowling has has wound back the clock on the Wizarding World she first conjured for her “Harry Potter” books to tell a Jazz Age adventure set in an enchanting 1920s America.

Aided by a cast and crew of thousands, Rowling and director David Yates refreshed the Potter franchise with a story that takes place about 70 years before the Boy Who Lived boy ever set foot in Hogwarts. Instead, ”Fantastic Beasts” follows Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, an author and “magizoologist" who protects magical creatures, and he loses his grip on a few when he lands in New York City.

Though the New York set for “Fantastic Beasts” was built at England’s Leavesden Studios, where Harry Potter films have shot for a decade, costume designer Colleen Atwood turned her gaze stateside for inspiration. The three-time Oscar winner (for “Chicago,” “Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Alice in Wonderland”) and 11-time nominee aimed for a heightened, American realism culled from newsreel footage of flamboyant New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker and the photo archives at the Museum of the City of New York. 

Her enhanced versions of period clothing amplify character traits — menace, flamboyance, innocence. That’s the costume designer’s kind of magic, a design sleight of hand that reveals secrets of personality lurking in the cloth.

To wit, when Scamander enters New York, he’s toting a leather suitcase and wearing a wool coat in an unusual shade of turquoise blue. His pants are hemmed a bit too short; his suit is slightly rumpled. He’s believable as the kind of person more comfortable with animals than people. Atwood took special care with Scamander’s look.

A sketch of Eddie Redmayne's character Newt Scamander designed by Colleen Atwood and drawn by Warren Holder.
A sketch of Eddie Redmayne's character Newt Scamander designed by Colleen Atwood and drawn by Warren Holder. (Warner Bros. Pictures )

“The idea is that the coat is his friend and went with him on all his explorations. It had secret pockets for the creatures built into it,” Atwood said. “He came from this lush world of all these beautiful creatures and I felt he was one of them in his own way.” Scamander’s blue coat is also a hue unlike that of any of the film’s New Yorkers.

Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, played by Katherine Waterston, is an ambitious, outcast worker at the Magical Congress of the United States of America. “She’s a fish out of water, sort of a tomboy. She’s a sister who is kind of geeky and awkward,” said Atwood, a point made clear by her mannish shoes and baggy clothes. Her ethereal, trusting sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol, floats through scenes in one of the movie’s few pastels — a pink in radiant satin and velvet.

“I liked the idea of her being a light-colored presence, because her character is very light,” Atwood said.

Stand-up comedian Dan Fogler plays the decidedly non-magical (“No-Maj” in wizard-speak) Jacob Kowalski, a struggling cannery worker who needs a loan to open his dream bakery and stumbles inadvertently into Scamander’s adventure.

“He wanted to look presentable at the bank,” Atwood explained. Through her period research, the designer learned that “when people didn’t have a lot of money, they would borrow or rent clothes from someone. His waistcoat is a different material than the suit, and it’s been mended a lot. It doesn’t quite fit him right. You feel his humility in his costume.”

A sketch of Colin Farrell's character Percival Graves designed by Colleen Atwood and drawn by Warren Holder.
A sketch of Colin Farrell's character Percival Graves designed by Colleen Atwood and drawn by Warren Holder. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Adding intimate doses of humanity to the clothes helped anchor the sprawling project, which required nearly 350 construction workers to build production designer Stuart Craig’s vision. With a plot that leaps from busy streets, to banks, newsrooms, gala gatherings and tiny apartments, Atwood said her team dressed “every demographic of the people in the city,” and swept the contents of nearly a dozen vintage rental houses.

In scenes where wizards from around the galaxy convene, Atwood let loose, layering on ethnic and folkloric looks, touched with a bit of mystery.

Though Atwood said she doesn’t really count how many costumes passed through her department of more than 60 people, she fit more than 3,500 extras. “That means you have up to 5,000 costumes, some of which are rental, some purchased and some created for the film,” she said.

All of that work was in service of building a world that looked both real and magical, all at once — much like New York actually is. “The streets are a cacophony of colors,” Atwood said. “People are streaming off boats from many other places.”

And she unified them into a harmonious whole without casting a single spell.

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