Digital character costume design in computer-animated feature films

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Doctoral thesis (monograph) | Defence date: 2021-12-10
Degree programme
Aalto University publication series DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS, 148/2021
In the production of Hollywood animation, costume designs are traditionally developed as part of character animation where decisions regarding costumes are folded into the phase of character development and as part of the animators’ work. For this reason, very rarely do computer-animated films engage a professional costume designer as part of the production process. This doctoral thesis explores how digitally animated costumes are designed and how costumes connect to characters’ personalities and narrative in six computer-animated films that have engaged a costume designer in their production. The designers and case study films are Isis Mussenden (Shrek, 2001; Shrek 2, 2004; and Puss in Boots, 2011); Israel Segal (Shrek the Third, 2007); Ruth Myers (Monster House, 2006); and Danny Flynn (Big Hero 6, 2014). The analysis of these examples uncovers the costume designer’s important role and contribution in computer-animated film productions on multiple levels. The analysis of oral records, visual references, costume drawings, key scenes, and characters from the case study films illuminates larger thematic areas relating to the costume designer’s role and contribution in computer-animated film production teams. It also shows the effect of animation software development on character costume design, in the creation of the final digitally animated costume, along with the significance of tangible material exploration for digital character costume design. This data-driven study reflects on the theory of somaesthetics and concepts of sensory and haptic perception (Shusterman 1999; Marks 2002), theories on embodiment (Monks 2010; Crafton 2013), as well as tangible and digital materiality (Ingold 2013; Harris 2013), which sharpen our understanding of costume designers’ creative processes and the multisensory experiences involved in costume design development and creation, as well as in the spectator’s perceptive understanding of the character. This thesis proposes that costume designers are valuable collaborators within the production of computer-animated films, where their expert knowledge contributes to a character’s tighter connection to the action via costume. The costumes in the case study films were created with certain animation software that has influenced the design process and outcome of the final costume design. Digital costumes form the character’s body and overall silhouette, which are essential for audience recognition of an animated character. The study demonstrates that tangible materials, such as garments and fabrics, are explored through both tactile and visual methods by costume designers as part of costume design development, and by animators when they create the costumes via software. Tangible material exploration relates to somaesthetic practice, which guides the designers and animators in their work processes. This research reveals how costume designers’ ideas enhance characters’ personal identity and lived life through specific design elements, colours, and materials. This makes the digital character costumes transfer multisensorial experiences to the spectators, facilitating their immersion in the world of the film. The costumes accurately replicate real-world materials and physical garment behaviour during character movement, which renders them digitally realistic. This thesis presents ideas and theories to bring awareness of costume design in animation, as costumes play a crucial role in visually representing characters’ identities and connection with computer-animated films’ narratives.
Supervising professor
Pantouvaki, Sofia, Dr., Aalto University, Department of Film, Television and Scenography, Finland
Thesis advisor
Pantouvaki, Sofia, Dr., Aalto University, Department of Film, Television and Scenography, Finland
Holliday, Christopher, Dr., Kings College London, England
character design, costume design, digital characters
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