The movie ‘Kubo And The Two Strings’ from the acclaimed feature animation studio LAIKA is a smash hit, garnering accolade after accolade. The magic-infused stop-motion epic is set in ancient Japan, and has also been nominated for the animated feature Golden Globe and BAFTA, and is one of 27 films vying for Oscar gold.
But a pleasant surprise to many was when the film’s costume designer, Deborah Cook, was nominated for the Excellence in Fantasy Film award by the Costume Designers Guild, marking the first time the organisation has included an animated feature in its nominations.
Cook, who studied Fine Art Sculpture at St Martin’s College in London, spoke to ComicBook101, and the following are excerpts:
By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu
How did it feel to get such a historic nomination from the Costume Designers Guild?
Deborah Cook: It’s absolutely thrilling! And very hard to find words to do that feeling justice. To be nominated for ‘Kubo And The Two Strings’ among such an eminent, distinguished group is truly a very proud moment indeed.
This is a first for animation and I couldn’t be happier or more pleased and thank the CDG profusely for this honor and our illustrious director Travis Knight and LAIKA for the opportunity to work on such an epic adventure.
Which movies in the current awards season did you think would get nominated?
Fantasic Beasts And Where To Find Them, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, Doctor Strange, and Florence Foster Jenkins.
What was your approach to designing the costumes in Kubo And The Two Strings?
The costume designs emerged from reading the story and an in-depth study of the culture and costume of ancient feudal Japan from the Jomon era – 300BC through Heian, Edo and Meiji eras. I visited Japan to research and to observe what essence of historic costume had made its way into contemporary clothing and how clothes are worn there today.
I wanted the costumes to revere our love of Japanese culture and its films and have resonance in contemporary times and also to exercise some creative license that reflected that. Fabric samples I collected there from vintage clothing informed the color palette for our costumes.
I also looked at historic Japanese artists such as Kiyoshi Saito, Yoshitoshi and the designs of Issey Miyake, as well as how Kimonos were made, historically, and the social significance of the surface illustrations.
Researching the emblems of Japan played a part too, such as family crests and the significance of the image of waves, grasses, certain flowers, mountains, fish and birds and how kimonos were worn by different age groups, social ranking and gender.
Tomoe Gozen, a female samurai warrior influenced how I approached the designs for the sisters and Onryo from the Japanese spirit world, who are spirits that have returned to the physical world to seek vengeance plus a smattering of predatory bird talons and feather configurations.
I was influenced by the appearance of the graphic fold lines that can be seen in a heavily aged ancient imperial garments and brought those ideas together in a map over the costumes, and also invest an origami folding appearance and language to follow through all of the costumes and form a consistency in costume movement throughout the entire cast.
I also look at contemporary fine artists, high fashion and fashion photography; vintage clothing, textile engineers, basketry and any new fabricating techniques that have a note of ingenuity and innovation that I could work to our best advantage both from historical methods and contemporary.
How much time did it take you to finish work on the designs?
Cook: From the beginnings of research to the finished work could be 3-4 years. I work across many costumes, and now more than one film at a time.
What was your biggest challenge on ‘Kubo’?
Cook: It’s always our hero who proves most challenging. Once he was designed, all the other characters resonate the language of his costume. He’s the main adventure, where the style of the costumes are found through many iterations and experiments.
Which costume would you say is your favorite?
Cook: Kubo’s costume, as well as The Sisters’. They are one step further into the story’s magical kingdom and inhabit a more mystical realm and so more unusual textiles and techniques could be employed. They were driven by looking at the legacy of historical Japan, laced with legends and ghost stories.
What genre or setting for a film would you love to design for?
Cook: Something futuristic, perhaps.
How would you describe the experience of designing costumes for an animated movie, in comparison with working on a live-action one?
Cook: I often design over images of our actual puppet body shapes, much like a live-action costume is designed over a real body shape. One additional consideration is that live-action costumes move with the body. That motion is inherent and comes free with the movement of the human body, but in animation we need to engineer this movement and make it an integral part of the costume build.
Our characters stand between 11-15 inches at their tallest. This is another huge consideration. This scale costume design is a challenge particular to stop frame animation costumes and beyond the realm of costume design for live-action.
I design textiles with this level of complexity and our technical proficiencies in mind with an eye on future possibilities and evolving technologies. I create pretty much all of the textiles from scratch to retain authenticity and detail that would be lost using readily available fabrics.
Which costume designer’s work would you say influenced you the most in your formative years?
Cook: That’s a hard one to answer. In my formative years, I set out to be a sculptor and artist and sought out artists who worked in unusual textiles and materials. Ray Harryhausen’s Jason And The Argonauts stop frame animation and the Quay Brothers films have a lasting resonance as does say the work of the artists Grayson Perry, Louise Bourgeois and Annette Messager, for example.
Looking back, which movie’s costume design would you say is your absolute favorite?
Cook: That’s really hard to answer, too. I don’t have an absolute favorite, but I do love period costumes with twists of all kinds. And I reference Barbarella quite often!
What’s next on your plate?
Cook: I’m currently working on our next two movies. We’re very excited about them and look forward to making an announcement of LAIKA’s most ambitious film yet! Look out for an announcement very soon.