‘The Jungle Book’ costume designer – Laura Jean Shannon – In Conversation

Hi Film Folk!

The Film Doctor team are delighted to bring you another In Conversation today.

This time with the amazing costume designer of Disney hit The Jungle Book – Laura Jean Shannon!

 

Laura Jean Shannon costume designer

 

Tell us a bit about your upbringing – How did you end up wanting to do films and how did you set about doing that?

I was raised by two amazing parents who taught me that I could do anything.

My dad raised me as a business person, tagging along on work trips and in meetings with him. My mom had wanderlust and an ability to be a gypsy, never shying away from allowing me to go on a daily adventure with her to learn about life in lieu of school for that day.

My big brother, Doug Shannon, my best friend in life paved the way for me into the film industry. I would visit him in NYC during my college days on film sets he was working on as a director of photography, gaffer or electrician and I immediately was inspired that in our industry you could be an artist in a collaborative field while also making a living.

I knew I was destined to follow in his footsteps which I did post college by becoming his roommate in NYC and beginning my career as an intern on Scent of a Woman which lead me to moving into the role of costume production assistant on that same job then staying with the designer, Aude Bronson-Howard on several subsequent jobs as I trained to design my own projects.

 

How would you describe your job to someone just starting out and maybe considering taking up production work?
A never ending creative journey of discovery.

An amazing opportunity to delve deep into the psyche of human beings and work creatively with directors to realize their vision, actors to discover their character and producers to stay within their budgets with the support of wonderful team members who help elevate those goals and aspirations.

A minimum 12 hour work day so- be passionate and committed and choose partners in your life who support that!  
 








 
What do you think are essential qualities for the job?
A highly functioning brain and ability to recognize that and utilize that in your self and others. A love of constant challenges. A very deeply rooted work ethic. A positive attitude. A love for creativity and team work. Diplomacy.

An artists eye and a business person’s acumen for running crews and crunching numbers for budgets.
 
 
You’ve worked with some amazing directors – Jon Favreau, Edgar Wright, Ivan Reitman, Woody Allen, Darren Aronofsky – is there a quality they all share that you feel makes them so good at what they do?
Passion. Commitment. Vision. Tapping into what makes human beings tick. A collaborative and supportive working environment.

As you can tell from my body of work, I have worked with jon most often and we have a shorthand that I so appreciate. We are similar ages and come from similar backgrounds in terms of our personal interests and body of knowledge and how we see things which makes collaborating with him such a joy.

He is also an actor so he understands and respects the process that I help support as a costume designer. He knows that I am most often the first step in the process for the actors to help find their characters in my fitting room and it sets the tone for their entire experience on the project.

I love that he trusts me to be that conduit. It is always a magical moment that strikes in the fitting room where everyone knows we have hit hit the right balance for the character ….
 




 
Tell us a bit about Requiem for a Dream because that’s a cult classic right there. How did you wind up on it, how long did you shoot for and how was it from your perspective, working on the costumes?
Requiem was an amazing project that was for sure a turning point in my career.

Darren and I immediately hit it off upon meeting but were rushed through the interview and did not get to dig deep enough into the creative visuals together. The job initially went to another designer who ultimately did not work out so I got an SOS call, having been remembered by Darren and also having worked previously with the producer.

I had under a week to shift the design gears and get all the actors closets built. This is a fine example of why you always need to have a cracker jack team!
I loved working with Darren and his very focused vision and the environment on the set was very warm. His mom and dad often visited and brought home baked goods for the crew which was so lovely. I remember thinking that in a way he and I were two peas in a pod since he obviously also had the good fortune of loving and supportive parents who raised him knowing he could do anything.

It is always a great thing to work with self confident people who hire folks in whom they trust. I felt vert fortunate to be a part of an innovative project like requiem.
 
 
You’ve worked with Jon on many of his movies since made – what led to you working together and what’s kept you working together on so many projects?
My good friend John Dunn was the co-designer on Casino. They reached out to him about designing Made and he referred them to me.
When I got the call I was in miami with my best childhood friend. I had to cobble together a very odd assortment of clothing for an interview outfit between what she and I had packed for vacation.
Luckily I had left my portfolio at my brothers in manhattan incase of last minute interviews as my apartment in the city was sub-leased at the time.
I showed up, sand falling out of my beach bag that held the book and managed to use a few funny words during the interview that stuck with the guys….. The rest is history.
 

 
Elf – another classic – must have been a blast to film. Can you tell us a bit about working on that movie and also designing for comedy?
Comedy, drama, period, fantasy…. I approach all with the same strategy of finding the back story behind each character. For instance with the north pole elves, I wanted them to be a people of the world with multi ethnic and multi time period diverse influences.

I researched a lot of folklore and folk art and developed the designs that were used in their embellishments from that research.
The hand embroidered designs on Buddy the elf and the other elves costumes for instance we based off of hand drawings that I did myself that incorporated the various multicultural elements.
Really there were two worlds; the real NYC and the fantastical north pole. It was fun to play with bright candy colors in the north pole juxtaposed to the more subdued classic tones of NYC.
Buddy had a fun perspective we played with so that when he began wearing non elf costumes he either emulated his dad almost exactly or went out and had a green zoot suit complete with Elmer Fudd hat built for his date.
When in the North Pole we shot everything in forced perspective so we could use adult actors as the elves and still have buddy and santa tower over them.
In so doing we built each elf as both an adult and an identical to scale replica on a child to do back shots etc. That was a mathematical design challenge and a fun one to boot!
 
 
And Iron Man, launching a franchise that just keeps on giving, how was that? What challenges faced that one?
Much like the challenges on Elf or Chef or any other film and even to a degree, period or fantasy, I always aim to create timeless classic looks that will withstand the test of time.
I like being able to watch one of my films years down the road and feel like my work still resonates as relevant. When I can do that I feel like I have succeeded in helping give that film a long shelf life.
With that said, on Iron Man I needed to make Tony Stark have a very imposing presence as the richest and smartest man alive. It helps having a talented actor like RDJ who sells the role.

 

The Jungle Book Laura Jean Shannon costume sketch Mowgli
Laura Jean Shannon’s costume design for Mowgli in The Jungle Book – realised by Christian Cordella

The Jungle Book – tell us a bit about your process on this one.

Jon and I began the process by talking about what we loved about the 1968 animated version of the source material which we both loved as kids and how we wanted our Mowgli to be evocative of the feeling and energy of that Mowgli.

I began by researching southern India in that time period including not only local customs and garments but also foliage, knowing that Mowgli as a man cub would be working with the tools he had at hand in the jungle to use his opposable thumbs for some elements….
The loin cloth was the first piece of the puzzle. I took swatches of many fabrics and even had the initial loin cloths built out of several of them to try on Neel to see what felt right.
I worked with Carelli costumes in NYC, the same costume shop that built my buddy the elf costume for elf. We made about 12 prototypes of shapes of loin cloths that would fit Neel in various different drapes and patterns.
We narrowed it down to two that we ultimately camera tested to select the winner. At that point I had many multiples made and hand painted them in various stages of distress and age to speak to wear and tear as the story progressed.

I keep using the word I – as opposed to we – because the start of the job was just me. I am way more used to saying us a lot as I always say I am only as good as the company I keep. I did have amazing craftspeople building these loin cloths which at a glance seem so simple but actually required some serious engineering!
It was fun getting to do the painting and stuff myself and then I had a great team in la helping dress Neel and his body doubles and keeping up with three growing kids in loin cloths!
I brought bushels of long meadow grass that was a great match to the grass in southern India’s jungle from my farm in upstate New York with me to LA which I spent many plane trips braiding into Mowgli’s bracelet he wears for the second half of the film (you always need many many multiples especially if built out of grass 😉

I also worked out a method with the help of some of my model maker/craftspeople friends to cover actual plants in rubberized spray paint that made them hearty enough to build Mowgli’s protective leaf armor out of for the second honey-collecting scene to protect him from the giant bees!
We then made sure that baby Mowgli had a brighter newer version of the loin cloth fabric that he wore as a dhoti (traditional Indian wrapped fabric pant) that would tell the origin story of the eventual classic red Mowgli loin cloth.

Plus we had Indian villagers so – yes – our critters were works of animated art but we did have a fair amount of live action innovating fun and excitement too!
 
 
What parts of the process were particularly challenging – particularly in relation to operating within a totally cg world?
My biggest challenge may possibly have been an ever growing group of children – all of whom were growing in different proportions from one another but had to look identical – and having to make that happen proportionally with only a loin cloth to play with.

You develop tricks along the way with clothing where you get a size range at the start of a production of a child’s costume and you can hem a shirt or lengthen a pant on a growing child to make them look the same size as when you began even if they have grown several sizes.

With just a small swath of fabric the options are limited to use the costume as an optical illusion to serve this purpose.
 
 
How many variations of Mowgli’s costumes do we go through or are there things that happen there that the eye might not see through the course of the story?
We had upwards of a dozen various loin cloths that spoke to various stages of distress and wear done mostly with paint
 
 
Any things CG’ed over or off that we wouldn’t know?
Every part of the costumes were shot practically and was designed so nothing had to be painted out in post.

Baby Mowgli in The Jungle Book - costume design by Laura Jean Shannon realised by Christian Cordella
Baby Mowgli in The Jungle Book – costume design by Laura Jean Shannon realised by Christian Cordella

What’s your process from contract to finish? Do you sketch?
I begin by reading script then speaking with the director. Then begins the fabric swatching and image gathering as research.

I have a wonderful sketch artist with whom I have been collaborating on many projects for many years. His name is Christian Cordella. We work very well together and sometimes even remotely as he lives in la and I live in NYC. This was no exception as Neel and his family too are New Yorkers.

We had many generations of sketches but the ones shown above are representative of the final renderings.
We worked together in person here in la for the leaf armor which started as an exploration woth various plants on a body double then moved into working on a mannequin then into the sketching mode.
On any film I begin by breaking down a script to figure out all the characters and what they will be doing and therefore what needs the costumes have to speak to.

Then the research, the shopping, sketching, building , fitting…Finally on game day we camera test the first choices and make any adjustments….

Then we shoot! Concept to reality…..
 
 
You’ve worked with some top level actors. What, to you, makes a good actor? Both professionally and craft
New souls who see the world with fresh perspective. Old souls who have been here before and just get it. They both tap into a depth of character that makes for magical moments.
I love actors who really are here because of a passion for their craft, who are game to explore and be bold. Sometimes that means committing to something super simple that allows for the performance to shine- other times it requires highly conceptual innovative choices that are outside of the everyday comfort zone.

My favorite part of my job is figuring out what an actor needs from me so I can help support the journey of discovery as we find their character together while staying true to the vision of my director and me.
 
 
What advice could you give to an aspiring costume designer who wants to work within the studio system one day?
Work your butt off. Be willing to wash mugs and empty trash cans in the costume dept just to gain access to those whom you would like to work with.

When I began my career I literally drove my own wardrobe truck as well as designed the clothes within it!
That was after being a PA and always being at the ready to complete any task my designer, assistant designer or supervisor gave with a great attitude.
 
 
Any films that you could recommend? – either as personal favourites or as a suggested viewing for aspiring filmmakers
I devour as many films as I can but I certainly have my stash of favorites. Most of which are Sci-Fi!

I think it is important to keep your knowledge base relevant by watching every genre and size of film you can get your eyeballs on. Then you have a broader base to pull from when you are noodling on concepts for projects.
I also have enjoyed in my career not allowing myself to become pigeon-holed into any one specific genre or even budget range. I love the ability to stay in a constant state of learning in this wild and wonderful career I am so blessed to have!
 
 
Thank you, Laura Jean!
 
 
RELATED ARTICLE: Read our interview with Cinderella and Carol costume designer Sandy Powell.

RELATED ARTICLE: Read our interview with Boyhood and Mud costume designer Kari Perkins.

RELATED ARTICLE: Read our interview with Gravity and Spectre costume designer Jany Temime.

 

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Have a great week!
 
 
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