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The Importance of Backstory in Costuming a Character


My name is Elena Righi, I am an illustrator from Northern California with a focus on character and costume design. I grew up fully bilingual in English and Italian and as a result, I was encouraged to read many books in both languages. Having an early attraction to stories and reading, eventually, I developed a fascination with movies and the pre-production phases.

I have a strong fine arts background that for many years centered around portraiture, people, and still lives. In 2015 I was accepted into the Fine Arts major at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and in my second year decided to specialize in Costume Design and minor in Digital Arts. During my undergrad years, I worked in musical theater, costumed music videos, and short films, the most recent being “On The Clock” a short film that was accepted to the 2019 Creative Minds in Cannes Film Market.

At CalArts, I discovered that beyond costume design illustration, I was interested in screenwriting, storyboarding, and character design. When I saw that CGMA was offering courses on cinematic illustration, in particular “Costume Concept Design” taught by Phillip Boutte, it was clear this could be useful in strengthening my costume illustration and character design skills.

Finding a Character

Much of my fine art revolves around storytelling. I am an avid movie watcher and am frequently drawn to surreal, psychological, and fantasy-based narratives. My initial idea for this character originated in my sophomore year of college where I sculpted the personification of lunacy.

Arden, the character, is not real. He comes into existence when a young piano prodigy gets sick with mercury poisoning. The piano that the pianist plays is a restored antique from the early 1900s that has accumulated mercury vapors in the wood from poor factory protocols of the time. Arden is the result of the pianist’s sickness, a hallucination. Arden’s objective is to stay alive and he protects his existence by facilitating the pianist’s playing. In doing so, he accelerates the illness. The more the pianist plays the sicker he gets, and the stronger Arden becomes. The pianist needs Arden in order to succeed in the orchestral arena but is unaware that his passion is killing him.

I leaned heavily on haute couture fashion as inspiration for Arden’s silhouette. To give him an erratic and impulsive vibe, I focused on poisonous or vaguely threatening florals and insects as his wardrobe staple. I also aimed to emphasize his mesmerizing and mysterious quality through the prints he wears. That is why his costume is a sensory overload, like an overwhelming and hectic carpet of a casino.

By the end of my first design stage, I had thoroughly studied the effects of mercury poisoning on the human body. In addition, I had explored a variety of poisonous plants and the symbolic meaning of insects. My result was an extensive arsenal of research and reference images.

Narrowing Down a Selection

During week 2, I tested out many different silhouettes. Through my thumbnail explorations, I chose to push and pull which of Arden’s traits to represent. Some are more provocative and grunge, others are more sophisticated and some are eccentric and wacky. Eventually, I picked the ones that are highlighted in the box to develop further.

Look 1 focuses on the significance of blood in my narrative. The print that Arden wears is made up of twisted, spiny flowers which imitates his personality, something stunning and poisonous at the same time. The pairing of the red color and the floral print together signifies the pianist’s mercury contaminated blood. The asymmetrical element of the button placket is highly symbolic of Arden’s unbalanced personality. His hair, gloves, belts, boots, and coat collar are rugged and uninviting that, furthermore, echo the punk age. Finally, the steel-toed boots and chains connect to the silver of mercury.

Look 1

In look 2, I chose to develop it stranger and emphasizes Arden’s gaunt thinness. In this look, the red accents are still present in the necktie and socks. Initially, I explored butterflies as an image for Arden because they correspond to his persona; they are beautiful and erratic. The fur coat is an indication of his narcissism and, at the same time, shows off his physique. His wardrobe is a reflection of his selfishness and his inclination to take what he wants.

Look 2

Look 3 is the most straight forward. The grey color of the romper is indicative of the color of mercury, which is silver. Layered under it, is a wacky patterned and colored print button-up shirt. The designs are a parallel to Arden’s unstable personality and are physically under the surface of the romper signifying the hidden effects of the illness. This pattern is repeated on his steel-toed shoes that are also blood red and fashionable.

Look 3

In retrospect, I believe Arden’s final costume design was always between Look 1 and 2. At the end of week 3, I became hesitant about which look to pursue. It was Phil who pushed me to follow my instinct and create a new design based on the look I was more attached to. I chose to start from look 1 and incorporate elements from look 2 to make it the most comprehensive design. The base for Arden’s costume is an edgy suit silhouette from look 1, but with a sheer button-up shirt inspired by his bare torso in look 2. Additionally, to break the suiting fabric uniformity, I introduced another texture to add a whimsical quality to his outfit. In this way, I was able to find a balance between the seriousness of look 1 and the wildness of look 2.

Something that was helpful for me when trying to finalize Arden’s pose, is thinking about what elements in the costume I wanted to emphasize; in this case, it was the silk lining of Arden’s coat. However, I had to get creative with how to showcase it since it’s on the inside. I realized that by having him wear the coat through just one of the sleeves, I could drape the coat over the other arm, exposing the coat lining. Furthermore, exposing the lining with the dragonfly print is a metaphor for Arden’s true nature being visible.

I also wanted to display his elegance and flamboyance particularly through his general stance and hand pose. Overall, his well-grounded stance shows absolute confidence and powerful dominance. Arden holds a conductor baton in his right hand to signify music as his origin and the source of his influence over the pianist.  In conclusion, this character has to fool you with his angelic features and sophisticated demeanor, but, in reality, he is alluring, manipulative, and borderline dangerous.

Final Design

An important aspect of the story is the pianist’s dual musical identity, so I decided to give Arden an androgynous look. His overall sophistication is just a facade to disguise his true nature and goal. Arden is the physical embodiment of mercury poisoning: he is pale, very thin, with eye bags and wild white hair.

The initial butterfly motif for Arden eventually evolved into a dragonfly, for it is less childish and more mysterious. In traditional Swedish folklore when a dragonfly flies around your head, it means that the Devil was weighing your soul. There are German and Norwegian beliefs that a dragonfly could sew together your eyelids and poke holes inside your eardrums. Dragonflies were a good choice to represent Arden’s continuous assault on the pianist’s senses.

From the beginning, I had a really clear understanding of my character but during week 4, when my creative process had slowed down. Phil recommended that I look at fashion designer Walter van Beirenndonck. Beirenndonck designs bizarre collections of men’s fashion wear consisting of hyper colors and geometric shapes, which inspired a new level of design for me.

Introducing Texture and Color Swatches – Identify the Texture/Materials

In order to imitate Arden’s spectacular and outlandish vibe, I wanted the textures he wears to be a compilation of many extravagant fabrics that clash and complement each other simultaneously. Arden wears several notably precious fabrics including cashmere and silk. Among the silver accent pieces he wears, one of them is a silver dragonfly pin on his jacket lapel.

For week’s 5 explorations, I continued using runway fashion for texture and color inspiration. I tried to maintain haste when exploring color concepts for my character to avoid getting too attached to any single view. The color schemes I generated were mostly unplanned and mood oriented.

The exercise was extremely helpful in narrowing down a color scheme because I had many secondary ideas and references that I could explore. Through this week’s assignment, I discovered Arden’s accent colors, violet and taupe, and the best place to put them.

Final Thoughts

This course was immensely valuable for me and I feel very happy to have taken this course. Phil Boutte is an excellent instructor. He is extremely encouraging and demonstrated many of his favorite drawing techniques and programs to the class. Many of my ideas for my character and screenplay have been reinforced and supported because of feedback from Phil Boutte. It is very easy to feel overwhelmed, as I did when starting a project, but the course format made it highly manageable and enjoyable. It is important to have a good mentor and an organized course outline like CGMA offers. I learned many tips about the costume illustration process and professional field from the teacher as well as from watching the other students’ works.
Having spent much time over the eight weeks working hard and learning new aspects of character and costume design, it is extremely exciting to have an outcome that embodies my ideas and expectations. I am very proud of the final product. I have continued to develop my project and in the future, I hope to have the opportunity to turn it into a film or play.

Like many artists, I grew up working with traditional mediums and this course helped me to become more confident with the digital software and tablet I was using, which before that point was very daunting to me. Most importantly, this course gave me the opportunity to bring to life one of my original characters.



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