The Orange County Screenwriters Association
    Be Inspired, Do Good Work

    Deborah Cook, Premiere Stop-Motion Costume Designer, Shares Her Story with OC Screenwriters

    kubo and the two strings costume art 2 600x400

    In a historic first, the Costume Designers Guild recognized stop-motion costume designer, Deborah Cook, this past week with a nomination for Excellence in a Fantasy Film for her work on Laika Film's stop-motion animated Kubo and the Two Strings. It is the first time in the guild’s 19 year history of the awards that an animated film has been nominated by the CDG. No small feat for this enormous talent.  

    OC Screenwriters was graciously afforded the opportunity from Emily Lu Aldrich and Kevin McAlpine of Focus Features to speak with Deborah to discuss her incredible career, artistry, and why this medium deserves your attention.

    Beside Kubo, Ms Cook has been involved in the films Box Trolls, ParaNorman, Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox as a costume designer and visual effects artist. (IMDB)

    6a01156f47abbe970c01348026c87f970cWhile her work is astounding in its detail and technical brilliance, we were equally amazed at her endless grace, good humor, and down-to-earth approaches in discussing her work.

    “I love what I do,” Deborah tells us with a laugh. “Anything else is just a bonus.”

    Keep reading for our exclusive interview.


    68e39a6ed5f788cf4c309f2cf792c689OC Screenwriters: : How did you end up in costume design for stop-motion animation?

    It’s bit of an unusual career path, she says after a moment of thought.  And it was definitely a happy accident. It's not originally where I thought I'd find myself.

    Long before I attended art school at Central Saint Martins in London, I taught myself have to pat, cut and drape.

    mrfox2I've had my own sewing machine since I was 12 years old. My poor sister and brother had to wear my design experiments. Constantly thanking them along the way!

    It all became a little bit more elaborate and costume-driven as I became more skilled. My work evolved from sculptures into creating large installation environments that featured costumes and hosted art pieces that always worked with fabrics. Other skills I learned during my degree included welding, carpentry, painting, photography - All of those crafts I incorporated into my artistry.

    OC Screenwriters: Welding?

    (Laughing) It is essential to me now considering how many armatures my costumes must exist with.

    OC Screenwriters:  How did you get into stop-motion film work?

    After leaving college, I was approached by people in the film industry that wanted me to make things. Things such as odd props, costumes for T.V. KUBO Set5commercials and animation. That almost immediately led into stop-motion because people could see I understood how to create the body shape, the armatures and the hair. I could visualize how to make something work for film. It’s evolved from there.

    OC Screenwriters: LAIKA draws audiences in over and over again with their storytelling and craftsmanship. What drew you to work for the studio?

    I think the passion for stop-frame. I’d worked on other films before I came to LAIKA, like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Corpse Bride and other t.v. series for stop-frame in England.  There’s always been a little body of people that have a special affection for the medium.

    In Europe, stop-frame has had a longer history than it has in the states. In the states there was a fascination for stop-frame, but it disappeared a bit with the discovery of CG and the flexibility that offers. In Europe, we kept going with that tradition and our skills evolved more in stop-framing industry.  When Travis Knight set up LAIKA, a lot of us came out here to help. We’d been working from project to project and to have Travis create a company that’s just about stop-frame was kind of a dream. When I first came out to Portland to work with the costume team, I was so amazed at the ready availability of support, ideas, and innovation - It’s truly a gift.

    OC Screenwriters:  For a unique story like Kubo and the Two Strings, where does your creative process start?

    There is a vision we begin with - A varied vision, as we work with lots of other departments. There’s almost a goal of what you’d like to see and as you start experiment, you begin to see other things that work well along the way and you build on those ideas. Where you end up is somewhere very unique. It’s a bit of a discovery process.

    Finding that pathway is also very collaborative - I don’t work in isolation. I’m the designer, but I have a costume team of 15 individuals that include costume fabricators, painters, silicon casters and all kinds of technical people that play into building the costumes. We’ll create drawings and when we reduce them to the scale, we can sometimes lose the significance of the details so you have to play with the sculptures and the body shape to make it readable to an audience. We also work extensively with the armaturists to take the costumes apart and put them back together over and over again until we find a way that it works.

    KUBO Set2I also have a big work space filled with several boards that I use to bring the vision to life.  All our different experiments and textile looks for the film are pinned up in groups as inspiration. It’s like the tip of the iceberg to where we went with the research and development. It’s almost a narrative board - It tells you the story of how the costumes are made.

    OC Screenwriters: How does the script and the characters influence your design decisions?

    Sometimes characters are very much set with what they need to look like, but when it’s an original script it’s much more wide open as to how you think about the look of the characters. We think about  how many costumes changes a character might have, what they might look like with other groups of characters, and how the color language will work through the film. We’ll start with loose ideas in the beginning, almost like keywords or phrases, an image or piece of fabric that could work for the character.

    0607161143a HDR 1024x576We also discuss what elements we want to bring into the costumes that support the narrative, such as Kubo’s armor. We have a lot of meetings about what that time period was like, what materials we can use that existed back then. In creating Kubo’s costume, we looked at everything from Samurai warriors' armor to primitive pottery to try to find which bits we can incorporate. There’s a lot of investigative work and we build the characters slowly.

    We do so much research that we need to edit. And editing is the really the hardest thing for me, because I love every single little thing that I find and I want to wedge it in there somehow. I have to edit it or be edited! Somehow we hone it down to a very very few images to what those costumes may look like. In Kubo and the Two Strings, for example, it was the shape and silhouette of the helmets and the hand-painting on the kimono. Clouds are very relevant to the ancient emblems of Japan and I found an image of a cloud in a old Japanese teapot during our research. I was so inspired by the image, that I drew my own cloud for Kubo’s kimono. All of these ideas follow through and become a big part of the film.  It’s true artistry but also a huge amount of editing.

    tt4302938 7OC Screenwriters: What advice do you have for someone looking to get into costume design, whether it’s on a smaller scale or something much bigger?

    I would say for anyone starting out to just follow your heart in what you want to make and build. There are very few people that are specifically trained in costume in stop-frame. Many people working for us come from different places, different crafts. For example, we have a lot of wonderful jewelry makers that work in the Armature department. We have someone that’s a ceramicist, who has an excellent idea of color-mixing and dyeing. We’ll see something in these artists, almost like a thread of thought through their process and we’ll know that that person can work in our community and our animation world. It’s quite interesting, we have a lot of applicants now which I think speaks to LAIKA’S work.

    OC Screenwriters thanks Deborah Cook and Focus Features for allowing us the opportunity to speak with such an amazing talent!KUBO birds laika focus.0

    For more information on Deborah Cook’s fascinating creative process, you can watch the following video.

    Mark Sevi contributed to this article.



    Already Registered? Login Here
    No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment

    Copyright (c) Orange County Screenwriters Association
    Fair Use Statement

    Fair use refers to the right to reproduce, use and share copyrighted works of cultural production without direct permission from or payment to the original copyright holders. It is a designation that is assigned to projects that use copyrighted materials for purposes that include research, criticism, news reporting and teaching. When a project is protected under fair use provisions, the producers of that project are not subject to sanctions related to copyright infringement. The maintenance of fair use protections is central to many non-profit and education projects, especially those that operate in digital and online spaces.

    This website may contain copyrighted material, the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright holders. The material is made available on this website as a way to advance research and teaching related to critical media literacy and intercultural understanding, among other salient political and social issues. Through context, critical questioning, and educational framing, the Orange County Screenwriters Association, therefore, creates a transformative use of copyrighted media. The material is presented for entirely non-profit educational purposes. There is no reason to believe that the featured media clips will in any way negatively affect the market value of the copyrighted works. For these reasons, we believe that the website is clearly covered under current fair use copyright laws. We do not support any actions in which the materials on this site are used for purposes that extend beyond fair use.