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Colleen Atwood Talks the Costumes of Alice in Wonderland

By Brian Gallagher — May 29th, 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland will be released on DVD, Blu-ray and three-disc Blu-ray June 1st and we recently had the chance to participate in a virtual junket with costume designer Colleen Atwood about her experiences on working on the film. Here's what she had to say.

How do you prepare for a transition from a production like Nine to Alice in Wonderland, with their wildly unique styles?

Colleen Atwood: The transition is fast, you exit one world and enter another, examining new worlds, you quickly move on.

You have worked on a variety of Tim Burton films. What is so attractive about them?

Colleen Atwood: The collaborative process with Tim is a rare gift in the world of film.

For these Tim Burton films, but also for movies like Public Enemies, you designed a lot of costumes for Johnny Depp. Does the process get easier if you know an actor?

Colleen Atwood: The level of trust is an important part of collaboration, so I would say that makes it more relaxed, but it also makes it more of a challenge since you always want change it up and come up with new ideas.

You've worked with Tim Burton multiple times. What has it been like to work with him, and how are his films different to work for than say your next film, The Rum Diary?

Colleen Atwood: Tim is one of a kind, he is really an artist and visually gifted. The choice of material really determines a lot of design, so in that way, his sensibility would be quite different from that of Bruce Robinson who did The Rum Diary which is a very gritty journalistic story.

Where did you find the inspiration for the red and white world of Alice in Wonderland?

Colleen Atwood: The Red Queen and White Queen were named in the script, so for the Red Kingdom it was the playing card motif and for the White Kingdom the inspiration was more Nordic meets Louis 14

How close did you make the costume designs to Tim Burton's original sketches?

Colleen Atwood: Usually I see the sketches later, as Tim does not just stick a drawing in front of me.

Why are (the right) costumes important for a movie?

Colleen Atwood: The right costume determines the character, helps the actor feel who he is, and serves the story.

How do you prepare to find the clothes for a movie? Where do you get the inspiration?

Colleen Atwood: Inspiration comes from everywhere: books, art, people on the street. It is an interior process for me.

When do you know, when a character is finished?

Colleen Atwood: Never.

How much power does the clothing have over the character?

Colleen Atwood: Clothing serves to help create character, along with the writing and acting.

Which character's costumes did you find the most challenging to design, and which came most easily?

Colleen Atwood: In Alice, the technical side of Alice's shrinking and growing were very challenging. Stayne was originally not a real costume, but we couldn't quite get it right, so we ended up actually making it in order for it to work.

With working with Tim Burton as many times as you have, are there any sort of things that you automatically know to do or to come up with style wise? Or is each film sort of a different beast?

Colleen Atwood: Every film Tim makes is a new experience, there are no givens. I'd say a graphic sense would be the strongest continuum.

When you took on the "Alice" project, did you aim to separate the costumes from the Disney animated classic, or did you try to play off the animated movie? Was there a balance that you felt had to be met?

Colleen Atwood: I really didn't look to the animated version as much as I did to the Tenniel and Carroll illustrations-then I moved on.

When it came to costuming, how much inspiration did you draw from the original book?

Colleen Atwood: I gave a sort of nod to the young Alice, then departure...oh and the hat...

I read somewhere that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp both do sketches of Depp's characters before filming. I was wondering how their creative process plays into yours?

Colleen Atwood: So far it has been great. With the Hatter, we pretty much all came up with the same vibe.

For the look of Alice herself, did you have any desire to deviate from the iconic blue dress look?

Colleen Atwood: As you see in the movie, yes.

I´d like to know how challenging it was to reinvent such a classic character like Alice?

Colleen Atwood: It was a challenge but really exciting to take Alice into a new Wonderland.

How many dresses did you make for Alice and what have inspired you to create them?

Colleen Atwood: Alice had around 8 looks, and multiples of most of them, so there were around 20 hand-made costumes. The script and idea of Alice as an exploring spirit really inspired me.

How would you describe your own style?

Colleen Atwood: My own style is pretty classic, I much prefer to design for others.

What were the challenges of making costumes for such oddly-shaped characters and CGI?

Colleen Atwood: I love an odd shape, so all the bodies in Alice were wonderful fun for me. The CGI element was interesting because so much of my process is in the actual draping on a body. I swatched all the virtual fabrics, trims and buttons to help in the visual process and give continuity to the world.

What stories would you like to tell with the clothes?

Colleen Atwood: So many. I love the story "Daughter of Fortune", spanning the 1800s in North and South America. I love anything that is a great tale.

How close do you work with the director?

Colleen Atwood: The director is my first collaborator, even before the actor. For me it is a very close working relationship.

Is there a specific genre or period of costume that you most enjoy designing?

Colleen Atwood: I love designing costumes that I can actually construct, working to create an environment that people want to be in.

If you weren't a costume designer, what would you be?

Colleen Atwood: I am not sure, I originally wanted to be a painter.

What movie are you most proud of?

Colleen Atwood: I really don't have that emotion with my work on a one by one basis. I think that I am very lucky to be able to do the work I have done, and am happy to be creating what I create.

What has been your hardest movie to design the costumes for?

Colleen Atwood:Planet of the Apes was physically the most difficult movie of my career. The challenges were vast, and the day to day running of that sort of film is daunting

Can you tell us anything about your upcoming projects?

Colleen Atwood: I am really looking forward to Dark Shadows.

Designers are often dressed minimalistic and in black, because they're 'full' of clothing. How are you dressing yourself?

Colleen Atwood: I am fond of black, but try to add a little white around my face. I wear jeans a lot for work because they are good for a 14 hour day, which is my norm.

You have also done films like Public Enemies. How is the experience of working on a film with historical references different than that of something that allows more creativity, like Alice?

Colleen Atwood: I love the experience of examining history that my work gives me. The gritty reality of John Dillinger's world is as fascinating to me as the fantastical world of Alice. The human factor of the story is what attracts me.

I'm a big Hunter S. Thompson fan, so The Rum Diary is a film that I'm really looking forward to. What is the look that you are going for with that film? What was the inspiration?

Colleen Atwood: The look for The Rum Diary is based on journalistic photos of the time, the budding sixties, contrasting the oil and sugar rich, with the abject poverty of the island.

Apart from the use of color, is there anything different about making costumes for greenscreen scenes?

Colleen Atwood: The greenscreen doesn't really dictate the costume.

Colleen, as we close out this virtual roundtable, do you have any final thoughts on Alice in Wonderland ?

Colleen Atwood:Alice in Wonderland was a dream project. The collaboration between Tim and Johnny, along with the amazing cast, made bringing such a historic piece to the world of 3D animation, one of my favorite projects for life.

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland will be released on DVD, Blu-ray and three-disc Blu-ray June 1st.

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