After attending art college, a 19-year-old Sammy Sheldon Differ found herself unable to enroll in a degree program. So she joined the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, UK, in the costuming department, starting what amounted to a four-year hands-on apprenticeship before returning for her degree. Sheldon Differ entered the film world in the late ’90s on music videos, and was an assistant costumer on Gladiator before taking the lead designer position on Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down in 2001.    

Successive projects brought experience in period work (including The Merchant of Venice for director Michael Radford and a TV adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, both of which earned BAFTA nominations) as well as films with a fantasy bent, including Hellboy 2, Stardust, X-Men: First Class and V for Vendetta. After securing another BAFTA nod for last year’s The Imitation Game, 2015 finds Sheldon Differ busied with a pair of high-profile ventures: the sci-fi sleeper hit Ex Machina and Marvel’s Ant-Man.Both projects, as ICG freelancer Kevin Martin found out, required extensive preplanning and collaboration with other departments – aspects Sheldon Differ relishes as much as letting her imagination fly on her sketchpad.

 

ICG: When starting a new project, do you follow the same development steps? Sheldon Differ: I first scrutinize the script for hints about character traits, quirks and any other revelation that might guide me toward seeing how they might be dressed. If I can fathom why they choose what they wear, then [the costume design] becomes more than just a fashion style from the period. Then, during my research phase, I apply the period aspect, and further hone the direction. Expressing the emotional state of characters through their dress isn’t something you can achieve without seeing the whole of these people in their situation. Treating it otherwise doesn’t do the story justice and means you’re going to miss the point of the thing, because then you’re just making clothing.

You’ve worked with directors like Ridley Scott who have reputations for Kubrick-like attention to detail. When making a presentation, will you usually include fabric samples along with sketches? If we’re manufacturing a costume rather than going off-the-shelf, I always bring in a sample. It’s essential to make sure the textures and colors do more than just fit the character, and that they meet with directorial approval. I really enjoy that collaborative aspect anyway, as it lets me know I’m not off doing my own thing and, perhaps, straying from the director’s intentions.

How key is the actor in this process? [He or she] is the third part of the triangle, along with the director. For The Imitation Game’s Alan Turing character [played by Benedict Cumberbatch], we all had frequent conversations about how he would go about putting his clothes on! Obviously this level of exploration meant going well beyond just scrutinizing a few well-known period photographs. And then there’s the impact of how environment impacts the look of the character and how all of this is captured on camera, so there’s another triangle formed with the art department and the cinematographer.

What compromises must sometimes be made in a period film? For example, reproducing a design that used natural fibers, which aren’t readily available? On The Imitation Game I tried to use as many original items as possible, just by altering them to fit. We did resort to making some costumes copying the style and relying on modern fabrics, but that is definitely not the preferred approach. To be truly representative of, say, the 1940s, you want to employ period fabrics, the cottons and linens. Those materials can be made to drape in a particular way, and the way they sit on the body resists duplication. The textures and natural fibers cling to the body and sculpt it over some degree over time, whereas today if you keep wearing the same piece of clothing, it doesn’t really mold to you.

So to facilitate a closer match in look and feel, breaking the costume down is the next step? To age it properly so it doesn’t sit on top of the actor like some painted thing requires some doing. There are chemicals, washing powders and even soaps that work right through the cloth. But at the end of the day, giving the clothes a good bashing sometimes works as well as anything else. [Laughs.] Through the time I’ve been designing, things have developed to the degree that our old techniques have been banned as unsafe. I used to do a lot of it myself years back, but now I prefer to have experts handle that, along with the dying of fabrics. They know the proper chemical equations, whereas for me it was always more alchemy than science.

On V For Vendetta, you had a wide variety – conservative business clothing to V’s stylish costume. Is there a trick to integrating disparate looks in the same film? First off with that, I didn’t read the comic it was based on, because that might have presented things that were at cross purposes to what I needed to achieve in the film. There may be specific moments in a script designed to put an aspect across in a way that would be hindered if you just copied the design off a graphic novel page. But it’s treading a very fine line not to offend the readers, who may think you’ve done something truly awful and apart from the original inspiration. But so far, I’d say each superhero project has had its own unique issues.

Does Marvel Studios have clear preferences with materials and color treatments? Marvel had its own concepts to keep in mind with the suits on Ant-Man. I had actually worked on the trailer when the project first started up a few years back, so I had a head start in getting their input. It’s really just another tightrope walk, retaining some of the comic book look but injecting the reality needed for film – and honestly, that’s a huge part of the fun for me. I had a situation on another film where I was asked to design something very close to the look of a comic book character, with material draping in a way it never could in reality. Well, it was absolutely impossible to do this without involving CG, as the material was supposed to be both soft and hard, shiny yet matte (laughs.) It taught me a lot about practical limitations, which helps in a situation like dealing with Marvel, where that kind of situation is even more common.

So at that point you look to involve VFX to realize the aspects of design that can’t be made to work in the real world? I always make sure we go to the edge of what’s possible. Each film has its own rules for colors, such as when dealing with blue screen and green screen. But even there, it is possible to tread very lightly on those colors, bending the rules. But I’ve found that shooting digital can result in some strange color results with certain fabrics, issues that did not arise when shooting film. You just have to make sure and test everything beforehand, even if you remember something didn’t work the last time out, because the technology for shooting digital changes, and it could be that some of the old color problems will resolve the next time out.

And the issues of “seeing too much” that arise from digital capture? That’s another concern with digital regarding how the camera might see everything, any speck of dust. The cinematographers know to pull back on that, so I’ve not had a significant issue, owing to the caliber of my collaborators, who now extend to visual effects. If I were to go back ten years, the CG thing wasn’t the deal it is now. Honestly, I love that new collaboration, interacting with that department, because the possibilities are so exciting. In the Marvel world, there is so much of that onboard for nearly every scene.

You don’t find it impinges on the costume designer’s traditional role? Taking on that department’s experience and knowledge helps me do my job better, since I might design an aspect knowing that I can only get 80 percent of the way there with my fabrics, but that the “impossible” parts are actually achievable.

Which brings us to Ex Machina! Every person who has asked about the robot costume assumed it was a blue screen suit, but we actually made that. It was incredibly intricate, going far beyond what you’d expect to have to deal with on, say, a Lycra bodysuit. I used a stretchy polyurethane with metal powder poured onto it to create the mesh, which covered her entire body. The pattern to make it took forever! Working with [director] Alex Garland and DNeg [VFX vendor Double Negative], we determined how to place lines on the body for the portions where the suit would be removed digitally, then replaced with CG mechanics with the look of the suit applied back over that. The look was fully integrated through interdepartmental collaboration, led by Alex, who wanted to be able to shoot the close shots featuring head and shoulders in-camera, so you could see the undulations of the mesh.

And I imagine he made the usual “hide the zipper” request? He wanted absolutely no seams; so we had to put in this stretchy material in such a way as to weave it back together under her arms. It really looked like it was her skin, very tight to her. Originally they’d been thinking of handling all this as a prosthetic, but that would be a huge amount of labor to apply, plus enormous amounts of time in post to fix the surface for those moments when the prosthetic adhesive comes away from the body.

Was Ant-Man another suit that required special attention, and were multiple versions of the suit required for separate functions? We probably made thirteen variations of the Ant-Man suit, customized for different stunt performers as well as for wirework and to show damage from events in the story. Since we are always looking for new ways to create these visions, that sometimes involves bringing in people from outside the industry with specialized skills, though I have a group of people myself, each of whom stays up to date on research in his or her area of expertise, which includes aspects like 3D printing. So we’re all looking to develop our knowledge base in support of the next challenging show to come along.