One Snow White fairy tale, two films, two master costume designers and a pair of Oscar nominations showcase just how elemental to moviemaking a costume designer truly is.
If you've seen both films — "Mirror Mirror," starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins, and "Snow White and the Huntsman," starring Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart — you know the plots are essentially the same: Each is true to the Brothers Grimm tale of beautiful damsel versus evil, vain witch, and each features a modernized, feminized Snow White. Yet these two productions are on opposite ends of light and dark, fantasy and fear, and much of that has to do with the astounding imaginations — and beautiful costuming work — of two previous Oscar winners, the late Eiko Ishioka ("Mirror Mirror") and Colleen Atwood ("Snow White and the Huntsman").
Take the use of color. Where Ishioka, who died of pancreatic cancer last January, uses bright, almost Technicolor saturated hues — vibrant reds, blues, yellows, pinks, oranges and whites — Atwood works more subtly in the luscious dark and muted earth tones of navy, teal, taupe, gold and ivory. These core palettes invoke the magic or mystery and light or dark emotion of each film.
And while Ishioka's materials are all shiny taffetas and silks with a plethora of sumptuous white and cream laces and ruffles along with Swarovski crystals, Atwood utilizes dark Gothic-toned leathers, suede, heavy embroidery and some unusual details to denote ties to the underworld — stag beetle horns, a costume made almost entirely of beetle wings and hundreds of dark coq feathers shaped into a spectacular cape. Theron's evil queen character, Ravenna, wears a heavy, metal Romanesque crown and dagger-like finger jewelry to set off her dark underpinnings, while Roberts wears Princess Diana-type diamond tiaras.
As well, each queen and Snow White have opposing yet equally enticing silhouettes: Ishioka used a round, circular, almost plump silhouette for her ladies, and Atwood has a leaner, angular and more pointed curve.
Both serve their films well, adding to the tone and spectacle.
For Atwood, the appeal came down to the sheer fun of being able to go so over the top. "Snow White and the Huntsman," she says, "was a feast of creativity to me. Amazing characters, extraordinary Queen, Snow White, the evil brother, two armies, three courts — I built more costumes for this movie than I ever have." But the designs had to do so much more than look startlingly dramatic, they had to hold up as well. "Hand-embroidered gold dresses that did action as well as being drug through an oil slick!" Atwood says. There were 30 to 40 costume duplicates for both Stewart's Snow White and for Chris Hemsworth's Hunstman, she adds, since the costumes "went through all the elements."
Director Tarsem Singh, who worked with Ishioka on "Mirror Mirror" and other films, says the difference between a good costume designer and a great one so often comes down to out-of-the-box thinking. "And with Eiko, honestly, it was like she was from different planet," he says. "She was a person when you said to think out of the box, she never even knew what a box was."