Costume Design: Gods of Egypt
By Liz Keogh Palmer APDG – Costume Designer
Gods of Egypt is a 2016 fantasy action film directed by Alex Proyas based on a fantastical version of ancient Egyptian deities. It stars Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites, Chadwick Boseman, Élodie Yung, Courtney Eaton, Rufus Sewell, Gerard Butler, and Geoffrey Rush. The film follows the Egyptian god Horus, who partners with a mortal Egyptian thief, on a quest to rescue his love and to save the world from Set.
LIZ KEOGH PALMER APDG
GODS OF EGYPT
DESIGNING GODS OF EGYPT
It’s not every day you get to design a costume feature film like GODS OF EGYPT, and when I first came on as costume designer, Director Alex Proyas told me not to look in the history books for inspiration, as this is not your average sword-and-sandal Egyptian flick. After meeting with the incredibly talented Production Designer, Owen Paterson and seeing the extraordinary concept art created for this film, I understood Alex’s direction. “Planet Egypt” became the show’s theme, and I pushed the fantasy element to the max.
Embracing a flamboyant non-traditional approach for the designs started with the crowns. Even though the film was set in some far-off fantasy world, I still wanted to weave the ancient Egyptian mythology elements into the designs and include them in the headdresses.
I was avoiding the stereotypical large and cumbersome headpieces that would distract and be awkward for actors to wear. I wanted to achieve a silhouette that would resemble an Egyptian crown in volume and height without the awkwardness and weight of a large solid crown.
Milliner and Wigmaker sat side by side to create and cover distorted, elongated millinery shapes with reams of synthetic hair. I was delighted when the crowns started to come together; stylised metal components were crafted and mounted onto the hair-covered base. Jewellers worked their magic, putting the finishing touches onto the crowns. The final effect worked brilliantly and saved hours in the chair for the makeup and hair department.
Other designs for crowns were 3D printed. This technology was in its infancy when we made GOE, and I was curious about what 3D printers could produce. We successfully printed four crowns: Hathor, Osiris, Astarte and Set’s battle helmet.
Hathor’s crown was very detailed, which would have been difficult to reproduce for stunt and double requirements using traditional moulding techniques. The printing company used different materials to produce a rigid base with flexible tips during the printing process. 3D printing proved the right choice to fabricate this crown, and we printed many other key pieces, including the Falcon beads used in Horus’s chest plate for his coronation scene.
We had so many costumes to produce; everything had to be fabricated, including shoes, jewellery, headwear etc. The costume workroom for Gods of Egypt looked more like a prop-making or construction shop; than a typical costume workroom. Sheets of metal, hides of leather and blocks of clay replaced the traditional bolts of fabric, pattern paper and trims across the many tables of this costume department. The costume fabricating crew included 3D illustrators, buyers, cutters, sewers, jewellers, metal smiths, sculptors, leather craft persons, cobblers, mould makers, milliners and wigmakers.
It took a crew of 70 to bring these costumes to life. Cutters and sewers working alongside the metal and leather workers was a unique experience for me. It was exciting to see the many prop makers working for the first time in the costume department and interacting with the cutters and vice versa. Working side by side in the same workroom was such an advantage. Each costume would run down an assembly line, whilst each added their component before handing it on for the next stage.
Some costumes involved many different components, and to complete the finished look would cross the tables of nearly every skill set in the department. The costumes for the Huntress Goddess’s, ANAT and ASTARTE would involve eleven different makers, each adding their talents to create their costumes.
The mould-making department led by a truly gifted man, Gordon Hobkirk, was a gift to this costume department. Gordon and his team would reproduce everything from metal breastplates to the finest beaded skirt for the numerous stunt and multiple requirements. Set’s Red Army alone required over 3000 separate mouldings to complete the costumes for the soldiers.
Gordon’s talents saved the costume department on more than one occasion. A scene in Thoth’s library required all of Thoth’s clones to be in the background. Thoth’s green leather costume had a heavily beaded bodice and front skirt section. The scene required fourteen of the same costume for the multiple clones. Alex wanted to shoot extras in this costume and only use CGI to duplicate the actor’s head. Time and budget only allowed Aamir to complete two sets of Thoth’s beaded bodices and skirt fronts. In collaboration with the cutters, Gordon reproduced all the beading in sections. He embedded a strong mesh material into the mould, which made it possible for the pieces to be sewn together and attached to the leather skirts – genius.
The pace in the workroom was frantic, with less than 11 weeks of build time before principal photography; one could say we were all mad, and it couldn’t be done. So many costumes to build with no lead cast in the country until two weeks before filming would typically be a recipe for disaster. Situations like this make you think outside the box.
We spent the money and obtained 3D scans of all our lead actors. Wysiwyg produced life-size mannequins for all our leads from the emailed scanned files of our lead cast; from a cumbersome block of foam, a replica of our actors was dremeled into existence. They sealed the forms with a hard blue coating and delivered them as body parts to our department.
The blue mannequins proved to be the most successful investment in the department, the forms enabled the design to be fine-tuned and the costume fitted and tailored to perfection without the actor being present; these blue bodies also had other advantages.
When you receive an actor’s measurements, they are just numbers on a size chart. When the blue forms arrived, you could see the actor’s actual proportions, i.e., barrel-chested or short-waisted, which was critical to the detailed breastplates and bodices I had designed. An interesting thing happened when I was designing for Horus; I bypassed drawing a flat sketch and drew directly onto the mannequin; the design became very organic and sculptural. I enjoyed this direct designing method so much that I went on to design the Set’s battle costume and the Bull Gods Coronation armour. This process eliminated misinterpretation between the designer and sculptor and minimised the technical drawings required to build these specialty costumes.
FABRIC AND TEXTILES
Fabric choice has always played an essential part in my design process, and throughout my design career, I have struggled with sourcing quality fabric in this country. I knew the textiles for this film would be vital in bringing the fantasy aspect to the costume, and I had to source many fabrics from overseas. Weaving, digital printing, pleating and beading were other methods used to create the required textiles.
Some costumes were handwoven to achieve the desired texture. RA, played by Geoffrey Rush, required an ascetic, monk-like appearance for his character. I wanted RA’s age and weariness to reflect in his costume. His wrap was handwoven using both wool and linen yarn. The wool allowed organic sculptural shapes to be formed using a felting method into the stole. This design helped RA achieve a more primordial timeless look before transitioning into Super Ra.
For Ra’s more regal costume, I chose again to weave his outer robe; the weaver was able to create a subtle jacquard pattern on the lapels and hem, incorporating Egyptian-inspired designs giving the VFX team a reference to lay over their glow effects.
Hathor’s cape needed to be light enough to be lifted with fans for an ethereal floating effect. After sourcing fabric that weighed less than 5 grams per square meter, the most lightweight material in the world. We had the fabric digitally printed on the face with an Egyptian tattoo-themed design, and a film of Copper laminated to the underside gave the material the colour and metal-like appearance.
After printing, this fabric was antique sunburst pleated by a pleating master in NY. This fabric weighed next to nothing and was incredibly difficult to handle, let alone pleat. To touch the material, you had to wear cotton gloves as the copper reacted to the oils in your skin and would turn the material green. The final result looked like molten metal until you unwrapped and loosened the folds to reveal the tattoo print.
BEADS, BEADS AND MORE BEADS
Beading was used extensively throughout most costumes on GOE, mainly Hathor’s, played by the lovely Elodie Yung. Goddess of Passion and the love interest of Horus, the direction was easy – less was best. Starting with a nude base and strategically placing the beads transformed Elodie into the sultry seductress of the goddess Hathor. Cutters drafted the patterns for each costume that required beading. A textile artist prepared the beading artwork and then sent it with the base fabric to Aamir Beading in Mumbai, India. The quality of their artistry and quick turnaround time was astonishing.
VFX AND COSTUME
Sometimes a lot of thought and clever creativity goes into a costume, not so much for the visual appearance but how VFX can alter the appearance of a costume. In early discussions with the VFX team, the scaling up of the gods to nine feet tall, a third larger than the humans at six feet in height, affected many elements of costume that needed to be considered.
The scaling affected both fabric and embellishments used; for instance, the first choice for Ra’s under tunic was deemed too coarse after a camera test revealed from a human’s POV looking up at a scaled-up version of Ra the yarn thickness in the cloth weave looked like rope and was unappealing. The scaling only affected the design of a costume when a God character interacts physically with a human, i.e., Horus had to pick up Bek and run with him under his arm. A small child replaced the adult actor to keep the scale in proportion.
Each element’s length, width, and thickness had to be reducible to achieve the correct result. I redesigned Bek’s leather collar to ensure all the components could be fully replicated on a smaller scale. Finding beads with the proper scale difference was hard, so we made our own out of square brass tubes and antiqued them with a tortoiseshell technique. Bek also wears a scarf that had to be hand-woven at full scale and a third smaller in scale. The weaver used a finer thread to reduce the scale of the smaller scarf.
Every film has its challenges, and this was no walk in the park; it was a HUGE production and a long, complicated shoot with curb balls thrown at us every step of the way. A designer can only produce many detailed, intricate and labour intense costumes with the help of a great crew. Many talented craftsmen and women worked on the costumes. These costumes were built rather than sewn, and I acknowledge every crew member who worked their magic to cut, weld, mould, stitch, and bejewel the costumes to life. The Standby crew were exceptional; under the very experienced eye of Fiona Nicolls, the standby team kept these complicated costumes looking their best and the actors as comfortable as possible; I do know how difficult this was for them, and I appreciate the lengths they went to get through every day.
It was an honour to have been nominated for an APDG and AACTA award for my work on GOE. Still, the real reward was the experience of working with such an amazingly gifted crew and seeing the finished article on the big screen in NYC. Is it worth all those ridiculous long hours, the stress and tears, giving up nearly a year of my life, sacrificing family time and the annual picnic at Uncle Joe’s?
The answer is YES!