Costume Designer: Isis Mussenden

May 31, 2011
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I stumbled across the website of Isis Mussenden by accident. I was following a link from a reputable Narnia fan-site when I noticed where it took me.

If you pay any attention to the names flashing across the screen during the opening credits of Walden Media's adaptions of The Chronicles of Narnia, or if you have watched any behind-the-scenes footage of the films, the name "Isis" will be familiar to you in some way. Ms. Mussenden is the costume designer for the Narnia films, as well as many other blockbuster hits such as the Shrek films, Dante's Peak and Dirty Dancing.

Ms. Mussenden agreed to take time away from her busy schedule to answer a few questions for Teen Ink.

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RH: How much research goes into preparing the wardrobe for a film?

IM: It all depends on the type of project. All films need to be researched, even contemporary films. One needs to research each character not unlike an actor does. Where are they from? What economic level? What do they do for a living? etc. etc. When researching a fantasy or period film there is more extensive research to be done. Hundreds of images are gathered, copied and catalogued throughout the prep and the production. Some research is for historical purposes, and some is done strictly for inspirational purposes.

RH: Describe the process of designing and making a costume from start to filming close.

IM: A costume begins with the script. As mentioned above, the research into the character needs to be explored. Who are they? What state of mind are they in...and on and on. Once the actor is cast, a discussion with the director and the actor take place to collaborate as to how this character is going to be played. From there I come up with ideas of how this particular person would dress and either start to sketch or to pull already made clothing together for a fitting. It is here in the fitting room that the character appears and the actor leaves us.

It is a very exciting moment. It can be a particular dress, a pair of shoes, it can even be a particular belt that says, "Yes, this is what he/she is all about." From there we either make the costume, (choosing fabric, designing the details such as embroidery etc...) and continue to fit the costume to make sure it fits as we wish. From this point the costume goes on camera, and the set costumers care for the costume, as well as keep track of the continuity. When the film is done shooting the costumes are cataloged and stored until the film comes out.

RH: When watching behind-the-scenes on the Narnia DVDs, I noticed that your name popped up often; how closely did you work with the cast and crew?

IM: I work very closely with the cast and crew. I hire my own crew and work in collaboration with many other departments. My position is a "Head of Department" (HOD) as is the Production Designer, the Cinematographer, the Production Manager and several others.
I fit each and every cast member, so as you can imagine, we have lots of time to get to know each other. These fitting are often the highlight of my job.

RH: Tell us about the designing of the White Witch's wardrobe.

IM: The White Witch was the most challenging costume to design in the Narnia series. She was described one way in the book, but once Tilda Swinton was cast, we needed to adjust. Our wish was to maintain the essence of the White Witch, but to not force black hair and red lips on an actress that would make her look anything but regal. I had a very young and talented textile artist working for me, and together we experimented with different techniques to create the "Ice" inspired fabric and lace for her dress based on photographs of glacier cracking. Inspired by my then four year old son's Pokemon cards...I came up with the concept of her evolving throughout the story. The last thing I wanted was for her to feel like she had a closet with clothing in it. (She was not human after all.) As she lost her powers and the ice melted, so did her silhouette and so did her ice crown. It was a long process and many people were involved with the costume.

RH: I was most surprised to find out that you worked on the Shrek films; what exactly does a wardrobe designer do on an animated film?

IM: In the beginning of Computer Generated Images (CGI) being used to create animation, and because this process was 3-D as opposed to two dimensional, the need to know the volume of a costume was necessary. This is why I was called in on the first Shrek. For the first time a costume was moving on it own, not by the anatomy under it, i.e. Fiona's skirt portion of her green dress. I built patterns on a small scale and some larger pieces of moving skirts and capes for the animators to work with when building the costumes in the computer. As far as the rest of the design, it was the same as I always do, story driven costumes for characters; details in embroidery design, texture and color. I would feed the animators button choices, trim and accessories. They were the genius that would put it all together. As the years have gone on, the technology in animation has progressed on every single new film that uses this process. Today there are many, many different software programs that are used to bring the clothing to life in a CGI animated film.

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Ms. Mussenden is a wonderful woman and I was very blessed to have been able to interview her.

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This article has 3 comments. Post your own now!

Lioness_Eyes This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
Sept. 1, 2011 at 2:18 pm
Wow, what a cool thing to find on teenink! I'm a huge Narnia fan myself and of the work Isis has done for the films. This was such a pleasure to read, thank you for sharing! 
TheJust This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Sept. 1, 2011 at 2:21 pm
No problem what so ever! Keep on the look out because I have many more Narnia-related interviews on the way! :D
TheJust This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
Sept. 13, 2011 at 8:04 am
Hey, Lioness, check out my page! There are about five other Narnia interviews that have been posted.
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