Five years after Tim Burton's curious and colorful "Alice in Wonderland" hit theaters and grossed over $1 billion in global ticket sales, Alice Kingsleigh and her Underland friends are back for a sequel, "Alice Through the Looking Glass," opening on Friday. The A-list cast is back, too: Johnny Depp as Hatter, Mia Wasikowska as Alice, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Anne Hathaway as the White Queen and many more. Also returning to the project? Longtime Burton collaborator and legendary costume designer Colleen Atwood, who made an appearance at New York Magazine's Vulture Festival last weekend after an advance screening of the film to discuss returning to the franchise, as well as her past and present projects. She has a whopping 66 credits on IMDB, and is already working on both "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" and "Mary Poppins."
Atwood actually worked on two sequels that debuted this year ("Alice" and "The Huntsman: Winter's War") and said she is usually apprehensive about returning to characters. "You go, can I do something? Is it the same thing again? Is it a mistake to do a sequel to your own work," she explained. "Once I started to get into it and get the connection, it melted away... I wanted to continue with the people, their story, what happened to them and who they could be again."
And with the first movie's more well-known story told, Atwood had more freedom to think outside the box this time around. (Meaning, no blue girlie dresses for Alice.) The sequel picks up when Alice has returned from a trip to Asia, and she wears a colorful look procured on her journey for most of the film. Atwood said it was "loosely based on the imperial costumes in China," and it features a decorative purple tunic embroidered with little hats and rabbits, surrounded by a flower border based on traditional embroidery. "I didn't want to do just a simple thing with the neck, so I sort of based it... I found a headdress made that way that was a costume piece, probably from the 1920s. And I wanted to do that shaped shoulder [as] evocative of the structure of the collars and stuff at the time in China."
Atwood made the neckpiece from leather and fabric, and accented it with gold pieces that she "stole off flea market Indonesian wedding crowns." Wasikowska was surprised by the costume, especially considering how practical it actually was. "It was pretty comfortable," said Atwood. "She's going to be upside down, she's going to be falling around, you have to anticipate all those things." Therefore, this first costume featured pants and the shoes were low-heeled for running. But the action scenes also purposefully take a toll on Alice's look. "After she crashes in the Cronosphere, she loses her collar," explained Atwood. (See the first image above versus the second one.)
Another standout costume from the movie belongs to a new character: Sacha Baron Cohen as Time. "The architecture in the shoulders is a little bit like a grandfather clock; it's kind of a wink to that, but it also had to be a costume that didn't weigh 300 pounds and that he could wear around," said Atwood. "And then we sort of amplified his leg length by giving him... tights, but he has little bloomers underneath which he was very fond of." It's a major costume that Atwood says could easily overwhelm another actor. "First of all, Sasha is like 6' 4", so that helps. And he's also a very physical actor, so he knows how to take a costume like that and bring it to life."
Even though Atwood doesn't design the many CGI characters in the film — that's done by Ken Ralston and his visual effects team — she still designs their costumes. "I design and I swatch just like it's for a real person, and then they scan it into the computers," she said. "They have to take some latitude with it, for texture and all that, because of the scale of it. But I try to give them as much as I can so it looks like it's part of the whole movie."
Making sure the costumes across the entire film feel unified is very important for Atwood, who always begins her fittings with actors by showing them everyone else's looks. "I think it's important for them to know that and it helps give them ideas about their characters, when they see what pure research can look like from different things," she said. The first fitting is also when she gets the most input from the actors because "they have to wear the costume for a long time and you want it to work for them."
Costume design has radically changed since Atwood first worked with Burton on "Edward Scissorhands," and she only had enough budget to create two looks (the "Alice" sequel has about a dozen) — one of the biggest evolutions being 3D film. And while Atwood says she doesn't necessarily design differently for 3D, she does design differently for high-definition film. "There are certain things that I find photograph better and work better with the technology that we have today, one of which is the surfaces having a reflective quality," she said. "Layering one color over another makes it a little bit richer — there are certain things that can flatten out really easily with HD and I try to play the game of giving dimension to things." Atwood also often paints into costumes to give them more than one tone.
As for 3D printing, Atwood is already using it on films, albeit on a small scale. "On 'Huntsman,' I had 3D printers that I used a lot more on jewelry pieces and accent pieces, because you can control it, it's right there, it's pretty fast." But she noted it's just the beginning. "There's also screening and applications on fabric that are driven by dimensional printing that are [going to be] a huge part of the future of costuming and the materials that we're all probably going to be wearing in the future," she said. Whatever the future of costume design holds, the in-demand Atwood is sure to be on the forefront of bringing unbelievable costumes to the screen.
"Alice Through the Looking Glass" hits theaters Friday.