Interview With Dumbo Costume Designer (And Four-Time Oscar Winner) Colleen Atwood

DUMBO - (Pictured) Colleen Atwood

One of the most accomplished costume designers in the history of Hollywood, Colleen Atwood has put together a varied and impressive body of work over the last 35 years, earning 12 Oscar nominations and four wins in the process. Jumping back and forth between blockbusters and more modest productions, she has enjoyed repeat collaborations with Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), Michael Mann (Manhunter), Rob Marshall (Chicago), and Andrew Niccol (Gattaca), but her most fruitful and enduring collaboration has been with Tim Burton.

Spanning 12 films, this partnership goes all the way back to Edward Scissorhands. Over the last 29 years, nearly every costume in Burton’s live action films has sprung from Atwood’s vivid imagination, making her one of the director’s most valued collaborators. With their latest production—the inexplicably underrated Dumbo—now on home video, Atwood told us about this unique collaboration and the ways this duo breathed new life into a 78-year-old classic.

Space: How does your collaboration with Tim Burton on a film begin? Does he give you specific direction at the outset or do you develop ideas for the costumes first and take it from there?

Colleen Atwood: We talk about the movie and what matters to him and then I go off and pull images and photos and books and things and show him my concepts. He reacts to that and I usually move on to the next step, which is drawing, making, and sourcing fabrics and all those things that you do to get a costume up and running.

You’ve said that Burton saw the film through Dumbo’s eyes. How did that influence your approach?

When you realize what the camera angles are going to be and where the camera’s looking in the film, you have to sort of acknowledge that and realize different things might come into focus more than usual with Dumbo being small and looking up at people. What’s at the bottom of a skirt, what’s on shoes—those kinds of details matter more than on an average movie because the camera is usually set at a much higher level.

What role did the 1941 Dumbo play in your approach to the costumes? Were you actively referencing anything from the original?

The most obvious reference to that film is the clowns—the coats that the clowns wear—that was my homage to the original cartoon version. You play on big hat, little hat. All those kind of great animated things are in that scene, along with action. I did that for that scene, but I didn’t so much play off the original, although I’m sure I kind of subliminally did.

As a period film, Dumbo is steeped in design ideas from the past. What are some of the key historical references you drew upon?

The period of the film is a different from the cartoon obviously, but the world and what was happening in the world and in the circus world in the real time period is what my research was based on. There were a lot of small circuses that had come over from Europe. There were hard times and people weren’t going to live entertainment the way they used to. They began being absorbed by bigger and bigger shows that could survive. We were on the cusp of that. In the film, we start with a very humble circus that’s really struggling after the war. With the birth of Dumbo, it keeps evolving into a bigger show and then it gets absorbed by the Vandevere circus. In a sense, it’s very true to what was going on in the world. In the costumes, we went from rural people that were impoverished—kind of humble American farmers—to urban America. I sort of went from the really raw kind of European circus where the performers make their own costumes to this spectacular, sparkly, showtime Vandevere world.

Was there a character or a sequence that seemed especially fertile to you from a costume standpoint?

In a funny way, the children were important to me because they’re kind of the heart of the movie and I didn’t want to make them look too cute or too poor because they might have had two outfits, but those two outfits were well taken care of. People did that back then. They washed and ironed their clothes and traded off the bits and pieces over the weeks of their lives. Also, the exoticness of a character like Eva Green’s character. She comes in from this super glamorous world, but with this veneer of what lies under the surface with her character. It was fun to do the big show look on her and the kind of gritty, real artist look that every actor has and every performer has. When they’re all wig and makeup and in a big frock, it’s showtime, but the rest of the time they’re just hard working people like everybody else.

The characters in Dumbo all have very distinctive looks. How active were the actors in developing the visual aspects of their characters?

With actors, I show them the sketches, my concepts and come to a fitting for them to try them on and see how they feel, see how they’re reacting, what their take on it is. But generally speaking, especially in a movie like this that’s period and specifically set in a world, they aren’t giving me colour notes or anything like that. It’s pretty embraced in a way because they recognize there’s a whole world, not just their world.

With films of this scope, there’s a sense that much of what we’re seeing was added in post-production. Does your work ever get revised or expanded upon in post-production?

It’s always a collaboration. Like Colin [Farrell] doesn’t have an arm, right? So there’s a lot of discussion about how that’s going to be done with visual effects in the beginning and how we’re going to roll up his shirt, have a green arm, how he’s going to do it. The actor comes in and he goes, ‘How about if I put my arm behind my back?’ You sort of collaborate that way with visual effects.

What about the big crowd scenes? Were you creating costumes for all those people?

We had over 500 extras a day, so we dressed all those people. When you shoot a scene like that, the space holds maybe 3,000 people, so what they do is they shoot it like a piece of pie with those people getting replicated around the room. You move the people across the room if you’re shooting from another direction and then they fill in the sides digitally. In doing that, they scan each individual person. It’s something I work with them on, but they’re only digital people in the sense that they’re replicated. They’re not created from scratch.

You’ve now been working with Tim Burton for three decades. How has your collaboration changed over the years?

It’s grown in the sense that the shorthand is shorter. We talk, but I don’t need a lot of Tim’s time, in order to do my job, which I think he appreciates because he’s being tapped in so many ways. It makes for a gentler process in the costume area. I think now that he knows me better and knows how I work with actors, he’s very trusting of my process with the actors and really respectful of that and he actually likes to hear what I think about different things with the actors. I think we’ve gotten closer in some ways in the collaboration, but we both feel that I shouldn’t be there every five seconds asking if he likes something or not. If he doesn’t like something, he lets me know.

Dumbo is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Ultra HD. Check out the trailer below.