What should an animated elephant, anthropomorphized as a shy teenage girl with a crush on an ice-cream vendor, wear onstage while she performs Aretha Franklins I Say a Little Prayer in front of said vendor?
This was the kind of question facing Laura and Kate Mulleavy, better known for designing the fashion brand Rodarte, three years ago, when the sisters were brought on as costume designers for the animated movie Sing 2 by the company Illumination, best known for bringing Minions into the world.
It wasnt the sisters first time designing costumes for a feature film about performers working thorough their issues onstage. In 2010, they cocreated costumes for Darren Aronofskys ballet gothic Black Swan. But it was their first time designing for an animated cast of zoo animals, which included a pig (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), porcupine (Scarlett Johansson) and lion (Bono) putting on a space opera in a Las Vegas-type town.
There were more questions, of course questions that came up for the entirety of production, Kate Mulleavy said: How do we get the movement right? How do we get the texture right? How do we get this as detailed as possible?
Here, in an interview condensed and edited for clarity, the sisters discuss the complexities of fashion animation, including their inspiration for the films standout costume (worn by Meena, that lovestruck teenage elephant): a crystal-encrusted hooded cape in several shades of blue that cloaks a long white gown with a giant train all ruffles and chiffon and unabashed innocence.
How do you even start designing something like that gown for animation?
Kate Mulleavy: Theres so much heart and soul in her character, and we wanted to reveal that in her costume change. When she takes off the cape and reveals this beautiful dress, the train kind of floats, and its actually so spectacular to watch. Trying to get that thing that chiffon does when you have a magic gust of wind animating that was just a very long process.
Laura Mulleavy: Her cape, if Im correct, took a year. There were things on it that we really wanted to achieve, like hand-smocking detail. Its so easy in animation to make something perfect. And what we wanted to bring is the fact that what we do is either handmade or a hand-done technique something that makes it look special and interesting, not like a cookie-cutter item.
Even down to the shape of this smocking and the crystal application and then the dgrad within the cape. It took such a long time because it wasnt just like, Oh, lets make dark blue and teal come together. We had to recreate an effect that you would get from hand-dyeing.
Those details, going back and forth and making sure that the blue was swishing across her in the right part that took a lot of work.
You released a few Rodarte collections in this time period, between 2018 and 2021. Did any aspects of your work on Sing 2 seep into those collections, or vice versa?
Kate: Sometimes this question comes up when you costume-design if youre coming, in our case, from your own fashion company. How much should Rodarte show up in the costumes? We definitely have a viewpoint, creatively, and those things can become intertwined in a sense.
Rather than having the movie influence what we were doing, it made us rethink things that weve done. Sometimes you compartmentalize. You do something and you never think about it again. With fashion, youre always trying to move forward or take new steps in a different direction, even if its within your language; the handwork that weve done over the years aging, beading, hand-dyeing and a lot of techniques that we said at the time were never going to do that again.
This was, in a sense, a pretty straightforward costume design project. But in fashion there has been a lot of attention lately on the metaverse, and brands translating their looks for avatars in video games or animated characters. For you, did working on Sing 2 feel connected to that phenomenon at all?
Laura: I dont connect them. Its definitely in the zeitgeist, but this is a feature film that took three years to do. It doesnt seem like a gimmick, and thats not what it is. Fashion going into those spaces is a way to make money, and I dont think thats bad. I think thats great, its what we do. Its exciting, and its a way to create brand awareness.
Kate: But our main idea was to take some of the handmade things weve done and see them in a new space. So in a sense, there is something meta about it because there is a reference to things that weve done. I feel like if you loved Rodarte, you could watch the stage show at the end of the movie and see that.
Laura: I think it all goes back to virtual reality. Sing, yes, puts me in a space closer to understanding, like, what is the virtual reality version of what we do? That is definitely the future.
Kate: I walked away and I thought, All this time Ive made all these clothes that exist as objects. We have a whole archive of what weve done. And heres something Ive made where there isnt any physical object, and I feel like its as real as anything Ive ever made and could be something that someone looks at 100 years from now. Its creatively exciting to know that you can go beyond what is material.
Sing 2 will be released Dec. 22.
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