Stop-motion animation is a revered art in itself. Technology and advanced rigging systems have drastically cut down production time, but there’s still an enormous amount of detail that goes into creating entire worlds and the characters that inhabit them—particularly, what those characters are wearing.
Deborah Cook has become one of the foremost costume designers in stop-motion animation, lending her craft to Oscar-nominated films including Coraline, The Corpse Bride, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. In addition to conducting extensive research to support her designs, Cook and her team are constantly adding to their "conceptual library" of innovative techniques that makes working on films like Kubo and the Two Strings more efficient, and now, history-making.
The Costume Designers Guild recently nominated Kubo and the Two Strings for a Costume Designers Guild Award, making it the first stop-motion film to receive such an honor in the awards' 19-year history.
"I've been working as a designer and maker most of my life so this really is a validation," Cook says. "It really is a huge door opening—it's amazing."
Cook’s nomination represents a shifting perspective on the work she does, not from the CDG’s point of view, necessarily, but from production companies.
Salvador Pérez, president of the CDG, says he and the guild have been aware of Cook’s work and the work of other costume designers for CGI and stop-motion films for years. The problem has always been what their job titles have been.
"[Production companies] would submit their film [for a CDGA] and we're like, ‘great, who's your costume designer?’ And they're like 'oh, we don't have a costume designer.’ Well, then you can't get a costume design nomination," Pérez says. "So we were aware of the films and aware of the process but they called them lead costume design fabricator or puppet modeler. They never called the people designing the clothes a costume designer."
Puppet modelers and costume designers do indeed work in tandem, but their respective crafts are discrete in many aspects. Part of Cook’s aforementioned conceptual library includes how to create new fabrics that won’t catch fire when laser printed and/or are detailed enough to look realistic when projected on the big screen from puppet scale. In the case of Kubo and the Two Strings, Cook faced those challenges on top of mimicking the flow and weight of characters’ kimonos—a feat that was actually more difficult in the films quieter moments than the intricate fight scenes.
"The bigger movements and the action scenes, the rigging department helped us out massively," Cook says. "The harder things for the costumes are scenes like Mother and Kubo in the cave at the beginning of the film where there's very subtle acting and subtle movement and not huge gestures. That kind of pendulous move of Mother's sleeve is hugely difficult to achieve. To get that weight and gravity right, there's a lot of engineering inside that sleeve to make that happen."
The beauty of Cook’s work is matched only by the latex foam, wires, and weighted lining that goes into it to make it as true to live action as possible. It’s those skilled and elaborate designs, as well as having the correct title, that has given Cook her proper due with her CDGA nomination.
"It’s the attention to detail because that's what costume design is," Pérez says. "A costume can be a T-shirt and jeans or it can be a Marie Antoinette gown but they're both costumes. [Cook is] putting the details in the characters so you understand who they are the moment you see them. I always say that you have to know who a character is the first time you see them. So whether it be an actor in a costume or a stop-animation character, you have to know who that character is."