Deborah L. Scott

Deborah L. Scott: “The heart of it is always the same”

Short Profile

Name: Deborah Lynn Scott
DOB: 1954
Place of birth: United States
Occupation: Costume designer

Deborah L. Scott's work appears in James Cameron's Avatar: The Way of Water, in theaters now.

Ms. Scott, as a costume designer, what is it like watching an actor put on their costume and really become their character?

Oh, it’s absolutely a special moment. I can imagine how it must have felt for Judy Garland to step into those ruby slippers for the first time. It must have been like absolute magic, right? The costumes in The Wizard of Oz are amazing to begin with, but that first time was she had to step on set in those ruby slippers must have been absolutely thrilling for everyone in the room. As a costume designer, it’s the most gratifying thing when a costume works. You have all these nerves and then when they put the costume on, it's like opening night, every time. You’ve spent all this time on it, worked on every element, you’ve got all the approvals you need, and as soon as that actor walks on set, you kind of fade back… You're just out of it, and you can see it as a whole picture. It takes your breath away.

I can imagine there’s a lot of magic in that moment, because even though all the elements of a film are important, the costume seems like a crucial step for an actor’s transformation.

In that space is really where the magic happens! I remember when I was young and I was just starting, I was terrified to get in a fitting room because I felt like, “Oh my God, I owe it so much.” It was nerve wracking! But eventually there was a moment where I was like, “This is so fun. Let's get into this world together.” Sometimes you’ll sit in the fitting room for hours because the actor wants to talk about the character, so you’re sculpting that back story and generating all these ideas. When you have that kind of communication, it can be really, really wonderful.

“We tend to do a lot of little sentimental things as costume designers that are meaningful to us that the audience will never know.”

What was it like, for example, seeing Michael J. Fox putting on Marty McFly’s orange vest for the first time in Back To The Future?

That's a funny question, because obviously when you're creating it and you making those decisions, you have no idea that it might become iconic. So it's equally as important as what he'd wear in the next scene or the previous scene, you know? Another example is something like Henry's red hoodie for E.T. — these are very, very simple objects. I’ve probably used red hoodies a dozen or more times in my career, but that particular actor in that particular moment in that wonderful film is what elevates it to that position.

Apparently the bathrobe that E.T. famously wears during one scene actually belonged to your father. It must be very special to have that sentimental piece live on forever in the film.

Yeah, it's good that it's living on the film because it actually got lost, sadly. I mean, E.T. was one of my first films, but I had used that bathrobe consistently for a few film; I don't know why, it was like a good luck charm or something. We tend to do a lot of little sentimental things as costume designers that are meaningful to us that maybe the audience will never know. Even with actors, I'll do something sentimental, like with Spider Man, I had the actors write little notes to each other… So there’s always some things like that that make it feel really personal.

How else do you go about sourcing the pieces for a film’s costume collection? With Titanic, there must have been a lot historical pieces and vintage items that you had to track down.

It was real combination, and Titanic is actually a good example where we made a lot of things from scratch. I did collect a tremendous amount of vintage things for the lead actors, but all of Kate Winslet's things were made. So the pressure to make the made things look as good as the real vintage things, that's the bar, that’s the place we had to get to. Especially during that period, the clothing was so intricate and people spent so much money; there are literally birds that went extinct from the amount of feathers on hats. And that's a real fact! So to reach that level and make it look as amazing as things that were made in a couture house, that's a big undertaking.

And what about creating a costume collection from scratch like you did for Avatar and its sequel, The Way of Water?

Well, it's immensely creative. I was able to let my imagination absolutely run wild, but it’s also about trying to control it and focus it. We spent on average about 200 hours per garment. It was a lot of freedom, but it was also an absolutely wonderful challenge. I used a lot of materials from the natural world, different kinds of flax, shells, leather, manipulating them to look like a leaf or a skin from an animal… I knew that James Cameron would set the bar very high, because even though it's a sequel, he will not repeat himself. So it's always going to be different, better, more advanced. We were lucky that this was a big film that took place over a long time, so we were allowed the time to research everything and figure out how things were going to work, get the design on paper, and work with a team to realize it.

“The genesis of costume design is to create the character that lives in a particular place and time. Your job is the same no matter what the technical side of it looks like.”

How does your job as a costume designer change when the film features not only motion capture performances, but its final version is also in 3D?

The heart of it is always going to be the same, the genesis of costume design and the intent of it is to create the character that lives in a particular place and time. Your job is the same no matter what the technical side of it looks like. So with Avatar: The Way of Water, we were thinking about clans and family and how the new societies we encounter in the film work and live. Working with CGI and motion capture, however, we had to build the costumes to human scale so that we could put them on the actors because the clothing always informs how you move and carry yourself. They needed to feel the weight of the costumes so they would know how to walk or swim in them. Kate Winslet for example wears this skirt and we had to make a duplicate so she would know how it falls when she squatted down or walks… For other characters who had long hair or braids, they had to learn how to move it realistically in motion capture. And then all of this is sent down the digital pipeline.

What does that mean exactly?

The costumes are real, and then they are given over to be scanned so that all the weaving and beading and the landscape of the fabrics are read, and then the actors would go for what I call virtual fittings. We would do tremendous amounts of testing with the costumes in water as well to see how it would behave when it’s animated. The proof of concepts from the real world were really important for the simulators and the animators to ensure the costumes looked real.

What is it like to see your costumes brought to life digitally?

It is different! It’s so deeply visual. They have a different magic being on the screen because you're drawn into that movie. As an audience member, you're so sucked into the world, and you feel like you're standing next to them practically… But I also really believe that the costumes on a mannequin are stunning as well, so there is equal cards!

Are opportunities like this one more rare in the film industry?

Yeah, I think so! It really has to do directly with budget. Everything trickles down from how much money you have to spend to make a movie. So if we had half the time and half money, it would be a different outcome. For twice the time and twice the money, who knows what would have happened, right? Usually we get between three and five percent of the budget, so it's very small for what we do, and I've been probably luckier than most. You have such a major responsibility to fulfill the narrative, yet you also have that responsibility to work within your means — just like any job. But there’s so much fun in figuring all of this out, making the garments for these films, being in the workshop… These have been hardest and the happiest times of my life.