‘Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice’ costume designer – Michael Wilkinson – In Conversation

Film Folk!

Batman V Superman fever has spread the world and The Film Doctor team are delighted to bring you an In Conversation with the film’s amazing costume designer –  Michael Wilkinson!

Michael Wilkinson - photo by Steve Simko
Michael Wilkinson – photo by Steve Simko

Tell us a bit about your upbringing – when did you realise film and specifically costume was for you?

I worked out pretty early on that costume was going to be my world. I worked as a dresser at the Sydney Opera House to get me through high-school and University. It was great discovering the behind the scenes people – my ‘tribe’ – people responsible for creating these wonderful, theatrical and fantastical worlds. It was mostly opera and ballet and theatre that I worked in. As soon as I left high school I knew that I wanted to focus on costume.

I auditioned for the National Theatre school called NIDA. It’s notoriously hard to get into and the first time I auditioned they told me: ‘you’re too young, go away and get some more life experience so you have something to talk about with your design work’.

So I did a year of architecture at Sydney University which was a wonderful year and great basic design training – learning how to see the world and how to communicate through drawing.

Then I ended up doing the 3 year design degree at NIDA. After that, I got an agent and worked mostly in theatre while I was in Sydney.

Then in 2000 I moved to New York and lived there for 5 years where I did lots of indie movies and small scale projects. Then my husband Tim and I moved to LA in 2006 and I met the wonderful Zack Snyder. The first project we did together was “300”,  and since then I’ve done 5 films with him. It’s been a wonderful collaboration.


Tell us a bit about Romeo + Juliet and what you were doing around that time.

Romeo + Juliet was prepped in Sydney, Australia but shot in Mexico. When I left design school, I did some work with Baz Luhrmann and his filmmaking team. Mostly research work and design assistant work but pretty soon after I branched out on my own and did my own design work.

It took me a while to iris right down on films and on costumes. I did both scenery and costume when I came out of school but then it took about 8 or 9 years before I realized that my true passion was for the medium of film –  I love the detail that you can see in close-up, I love having the resources to explore new territories, I love the stories that you can tell and the audiences that you can reach with film. So I decided to concentrate on designing for films and designing costume.

What was your first film abroad and which film really hit it home for you that this was going to be a career?

I did a small independent film in New Zealand and then I worked on the closing ceremony costumes for the Olympic games in 2000 and that kind of launched me overseas and I found an agent in New York. I worked on some tiny independent movies that most people haven’t heard of [laughs] but then one of them did capture the imagination of people and that was Zach Braff‘s Garden State. Then I did a fun film called Party Monster which was about the club kids in New York in the late 1980s. That had very attention-grabbing costumes, outlandish, made out of tinsel, rubber bands and cardboard painted gold. It was lots of fun. It helped get things established for me.

My first studio film was a small film called Sky High which, ironically, had superheroes involved. It was about a high school for the children of superheroes. It was a fun kids film but it was my first studio movie and it was what brought me from New York to Los Angeles.


For those filmmakers who might have trepidations about moving from their hometown, how were you with moving away? Was travelling something you were always interested in from the start?

For me it’s always been about going wherever the great work is. My criteria for choosing work is: what’s super challenging? What haven’t I done before? What makes me a little afraid, but in a thrilling way? I like to get outside my comfort zone and work with inspiring people and interesting stories.

Fortunately, Tim and I are gypsies – we love travelling around the world and seeing the different ways that people live, the different ways people see the world.

What changed for you when you leapt up from smaller budgeted films like Party Monster, Garden State, Imaginary Heroes (all in the $2-5m bracket) to $30-60m bracketed films?

Of course the resources and the budgets change but it also a different way of working. You’re much more on the radar of the upper echelons. The big studios are very interested in how they’re spending their money. The approval process gets quite a lot more elaborate. The prep is often much more detailed because you have to show not only drawings but fitting photos of how the costume are coming along.

In New York, working on smaller budgets,  I went back to my theatre days – costumes were pretty much begged, borrowed and stolen because my budgets were tiny – I was creating the costumes for an entire film for $10, 000. When you have a little bit more money, you can build things from scratch and have a little more control over the look of the film. 


Same question but for $100m+ movies – what changes in your design process and on-set?

The expectation and the pressure. On a big superhero film, where there’s an element of fantasy, you really want to create things that haven’t been seen before by audiences. New cinematic imagery. Fortunately, that sort of goes hand in hand with my love for new costume technology. I really enjoy putting costumes together in new ways and seeing what new digital technologies are available to us and can help us.

Whether it’s scanning actors or building costumes in 3D in the computer or using 3D printers or creating fabric files on the computer or doing different ways of screen printing and creating textures. There’s all sorts of interesting ways that you can use new techniques, plus you have more time and resources on these bigger films, so you can really flex those creative muscles.


EN AFFLECK as Batman and HENRY CAVILL as Superman in Warner Bros. Pictures' action adventure "BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE" - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics
Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in “BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” – Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics


For the aspirant costume designers – how often does one have to design (or re-design) and make on the day/day before?

I always try to stay very organic. In film nothing is set in stone. Even if a drawing was approved 3 months ago, you might come to set and things keep on developing and evolving. There are so many factors that come into play, whether it’s the director, the actor, the producer or the studio, the scene evolves and develops and there are new needs. Like a new stunt choreography which means the costume has to have different technical requirements.

Nothing is locked in stone and I actually really enjoy that. I think it keeps the blood pumping through the day and keeps you more engaged with the material.


You’ve worked with some amazing and very independent directors such as David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, Alejandro G. Inarritu – is there one trait that unifies them all at making them great at what they do?

I think a word I would use for all of them is fearless. They’re not people who hold back or are afraid of trying something new or going out on a limb. That’s why I love working with them because it brings out the same in me as a designer. If my director trust me and lets me try something new without judgement or a sense that I might really screw things up, it’s really liberating and it allows me to take your work to the next level.


How does one manage working with the different paces, processes or approaches of different Directors?

Not only do I love working with a diverse selection of directors, but also with diverse genres. I loved going from a big superhero film to a quirky period independent movie or a futuristic film. I love mixing it up so I never get bored but, even though the genres and directors are very different.

As a costume designer, the constant is that you are always helping to tell the story using the clothes. So, whether you’re designing a space suit or a period dress from the 18th century, you’re using colour, silhouettes, texture to give the audience messages about who this character is and how they think about the world they find themselves in.

That’s the thing that unifies everything and is the glue between all of the projects that I work on. I’m just reacting to different directors and different scripts and applying that technique to any situation I find myself in.

You’ve also worked with some great actors such as Christian Bale, Paul Giamatti, Scarlett Johansson – what is your process with actors? What challenges do you face in the design/fitting stage and what makes a great actor, from your experience?

Collaborating with the actor is definitely one of my favourite parts of the job. There is a true collaboration at the best of times. Again, no judgement in the room. When an actor walks in the room it’s not about the ego, it’s about investigating the script; what part in the script does the character play, what are the actor’s thoughts, what are the director’s thoughts, what are my thoughts.

It’s this wonderful mixing pot of ideas and that all gets ignited when the actor starts putting on clothes and start reacting to different fabrics or different silhouettes, whether something’s body hugging or voluminous, whether something’s bright or dull in colour, or the way it makes them walk around the fitting room. All of those things have a wonderful chemistry.


Do you sketch yourself?

I love sketching. It’s definitely part of my training when I did my degree. Expressing your ideas through sketching. The concept of sketching has exploded over the last 10 or so years, with the advent of digital technology.

I start with a pencil or markers or paint, expressing the germ of an idea,  then I develop the idea on the computer, using a tablet and stylus. I collage things, I change colours and silhouettes, I apply textures. I like to work pretty loose. It’s not about getting a photographic likeness of costume, it’s about exploring different choices.

Having said that, I do also get to work with some of the most insanely talented digital illustrators on the planet. They really help when it comes down to showing a studio executive what exactly the costume is going to look like on the actor, down to every last detail.


Henry Cavill as Superman in "BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE" - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics
Henry Cavill as Superman in “BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” – Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics



So Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of JusticeHow did you get your head around the two sides (Clark Kent/Bruce Wayne and Superman/Batman) of both characters? Must have been challenging. How do those aliases affect the design process?

It’s one of my favourite parts of superhero films: the double life these people lead and what might bleed over from one alias to another.

With Wonder Woman’s costume, I really enjoyed her day-to-day gear, when she’s dressing for work, as an antiquities expert at the Louvre. Some of her lines and accessories are inspired by ancient Greece. I designed a one-shouldered evening gown for her, and a lot of accessories that hint at the ancient world. Big metal cuffs and jewellery pieces and earrings that are a modern take on an ancient primitive aesthetic.

Things like that that make the job fun for me but also hopefully give the audience a little subliminal link between the aliases of these characters.


Gal Gadot as Diana Prince in "BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE" - Clay Enos/ TM & © DC Comics
Gal Gadot as Diana Prince in “BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” – Clay Enos/ TM & © DC Comics


With films like this there’s obviously a lot of destruction going on (building damage, dust, flooding) – what practical aspects need to be factored in for the actors and what do you have to do to the garments?

When you’re working on one of these big films, there are intense stunt sequences and all sorts of technical requirements for the costumes. You put a lot of effort into making them comfortable for the various people who are going to have to wear them and you have to fulfil all their practical requirements; wearing harnesses underneath, cooling suits, heating suits, cutting holes in them for wire work, different materials for capes for different situations, different weights of suits for different situations.

There’s a whole lot of logistical stuff that you have to consider that’s just beyond mere aesthetics.


Ben Affleck as Batman in "BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE" - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & (c) DC Comics
Ben Affleck as Batman in “BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” – Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & (c) DC Comics


Do you talk to SFX or Production Design about how a specific moisture or solid may change the fabric when it hits it?

We do extensive camera testing in pre-production and we try to anticipate all the different environments they’ll find themselves in and whether they’ll get dirty or damaged by all the concrete dust or rain or snow or underwater. We try to test them with all the environments that they might encounter, because it really affects the way the light hits them and the colours they change to. You don’t want to be surprised about it on the day.


Were there any VFX add ons to the costumes and if so do you have a relationship with the VFX dept – as well as PD, director and cinematographer – to keep it to your design?

I always make sure to make good friends with the VFX department because they’re the people who can really make your work shine [laughs]. In this case they really outdid themselves. A lot of the time their capes were digital and they just flow in such an impossibly beautiful way.

The lighting in the eyes of the bat mech suit is a good example of collaboration between our departments. The costume department supplied a small light source in the eye of the helmet – something that was bearable for Ben to have close to his own eyes – that helps start off the idea of light coming out of the eyes. The VFX folk then enhanced that in post-production.


Gal Gadot in "BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE" - Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics
Gal Gadot in “BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” – Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics


What advice can you give to an aspiring costume designer hoping to get to where you are today?

I always think it’s really important to be yourself as a costume designer. There are so many different types of costume designers in the world for so many different types of jobs. I feel aspiring costume designers should look deeply into what their own vision is, what they feel passionately about, what they can bring onto the screen or stage, what is unique to them.

I remember coming out of theatre design school and feeling that I had to be a certain type of person and tried to imagine what the perfect costume designer was but I realised that if you really are yourself and express that in the world, then you find likeminded people and they become your creative partners through your career and that’s when the real magic starts flying, when you’re surrounded by like-minded people who inspire you and bring out the best in you.


Can you name some costume designers that filmmakers and costume designers should look at?

Everything changed for me the minute I discovered the work of Piero Tosi who was an incredible Italian costume designer who worked with all the great directors in the golden age of Italian filmmaking (Visconti, Fellini, Zeffirelli). When I discovered his work, I realised that costume design is actually a form of self expression and an art form all in itself.

His career covered films that dealt with the most destitute of people through to the most opulent courts of Europe in the most extravagant periods. In every film he brought so much pathos and humanity and incredible imagination.

I also am a big fan of Janet Patterson, Colleen Atwood and Sandy Powell. That’s a pretty good starting point for every aspiring costume designer.


And finally, as well as all this, you’ve set up design firm WilkinsonMartin with your partner Tim Martin. Tell us a bit about it!

My partner Tim Martin and I have always been fascinated by the space where film and fashion intersect – film influencing fashion, fashion influencing film.  We set up Wilkinson Martin to explore this space – Tim has an architectural/spatial design background, and we’d been looking for a way to work together for 20 years!

We’ve have had some wonderful collaborations – for Prada, we designed installations in New York and Beijing, creating environments and clothes as an interpretation of the themes of their Spring/Summer collection.

We’ve also done photo shoots and been brand ambassadors. It’s an exciting way to extend our scope and branch out into new creative territories.

Thank you, Michael!


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