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Interview with Hollywood Costume Designer, Janty Yates
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robin-hood.jpgIf you ask her about the latest film she has worked on, Robin Hood, Oscar winning costume designer Janty Yates will tell you she enjoys a challenge. “Yes, clearly I do,” she smiles. “And Robin Hood was one of my biggest challenges.”



It was indeed. The arithmetic involved in Yates’ work for Robin Hood is enough to make your head spin. She had to ‘dress’ four armies, assemble 25,000 different garments for cast and extras, research and design insignia and coats of arms for flags, shields, tunics and oversee the manufacture of 300 sets of specially designed chain mail for the leading actors.  The Gloss team caught up with Janty to see how one woman oversees such a daunting task!

Robin Hood had been planned for a few years before production started. When did it start for you?
I was making Body of Lies with Ridley in Morocco and Charlie (Schlissel, producer) came up to me and said ‘we’re going to do Nottingham...’ as it was called back then. I think that was September 2007. So I started the research for Robin Hood as soon as I could.

You’ve worked in this period before with Kingdom of Heaven. Did that help?
Yes, it did because we had done a huge amount of research, costume wise, for Kingdom of Heaven. Kingdom of Heaven was 1180 and Robin Hood is about 1199 so all the chain mail, the helmets, the armour, were exactly the same period. So what we’ve done on Robin Hood is finesse it all and learn from our mistakes. You always learn from your mistakes. One of the mistakes we made on Kingdom of Heaven was to order aluminium chain mail from India that didn’t arrive, or, when it did, it was six weeks late. But we discovered the marvellous Weta Workshop – where they did all the work for Lord of the Rings – in Wellington and they made all our principal chain mail for Kingdom of Heaven. So when Robin Hood started I got straight on to them. We’ve got about 250 to 300 sets.

Were you able to use anything else from Kingdom of Heaven?
We’d sold a lot of our costumes from Kingdom of Heaven to a Spanish costume house called Conejo so when I knew Robin Hood was happening I got on the phone to them and we were able to use a lot of that - chain mail, helmets, tunics, shirts, trousers and a lot boots – somewhere around 1.500 to 2,000 pieces so that was a big help.

How many pieces did you need for Robin Hood?
Probably about 25,000 garments. Obviously, we can rent from costumes houses for a lot of that.

How does that compare with Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven?
Well, on Gladiator we were dressing 3,000 extras a day and we were making everything for them - tunics, togas - the whole lot.  On Kingdom of Heaven we made the whole lot. We made it in India, we made it in Thailand and we made various things elsewhere as well. This time around, we’ve had four armies to create - we’ve had Richard the Lionheart army, King John’s, the French army, and then we had Godfrey’s military, which were more henchmen. We also had the Northern Barons - what we called ‘Sharon’s Barons.’ My assistant Sharon Long looked after them. Each baron had to have its own crest and tabard (a tunic, often emblazoned with a coat of arms) researched and before we could use a crest, we had to clear it with the relevant family. So there was a huge amount of research before we even started the film. In Kingdom of Heaven we had just two crests to research and clear, this was a lot more complicated.

So the preparation for a film like this starts way before the cameras are rolling?
Absolutely. Even though there was a lot of generic stock we could use – military stock from the Spanish costume house, peasant stock from Italy, Paris and London – we started making our own costumes about a year or so before filming started. Things change so you have to adapt – at one point there were scenes with 50 to 100 men living in the woods and that changed to 50 or 60 feral boys living in the forest. You don’t just make 50 or 60 costumes, you have multiples, what we call ‘repeats.’ You probably need three or four hundred alone for that sequence alone. Once you’ve made them, you’ve then got to make them look lived in.

How do you do that?
We have a breaking down department and it’s essential because their job is to age the costumes. If an army has been away fighting in the Crusades for ten years we can’t have them looking like they’ve just put on a costume that has just been made, looking totally fresh. So we have to devastate the garment -everything has to go through what we call distressing and it is very distressing. At one point we had a team of about thirty people washing them over and over, dyeing them and depending on the fabric, painted or worn down. In the old days, we would take a cheese grater to the collar of some garments to age it. These days we’re a little subtler but it’s still a lot of work.

And how do you do that, do you put them in the washing machine over and over again?
You do that, and I have a team of up to thirty working on spraying them and dyeing the garments. So you wash them and you dye them then you paint into them if they’re leather - paint, spray into them if they are fabric. The old fashioned way was to take a cheese grater to the neck and just scrub away at it but there are much more subtle ways of doing it these days. But you can sham for leather – if you cut it, it’s white, so then you have to rub a dye into it. There are a million different ways.

How many people would have working on Robin Hood?
Different numbers at different times. For example, we had five girls just sewing on different crests and coat of arms onto garments for the principal costumes. Then I had another workshop doing Marion’s hand sewn embroidery, Russell’s clothes, King John’s and the royals – they were all dealing with very specific things. I’d have one cutter, who had a team of eight to ten, cutting the clothes for the leading eight actors. But we also had to subcontract out to costume makers that we trust and love because the workload is huge. So the numbers fluctuate. I have David Crossman, who is the military designer, and we worked together on Kingdom of Heaven – he’s fantastic. I also have two assistant designers, Andrea Cripps and Sharon Long.

Presumably comfort is a big factor. You’ve mentioned the chain mail is made of plastic. What about the helmets?
(Laughs) They’re made from car bumper rubber! We actually perfected this when we were making Gladiator. We had a lot of originals cast in steel but that wasn’t going to work because it’s too heavy. The other way to go was to use fibreglass but that can break and shatter so we came up with the idea of using rubber that they normally use for car bumpers. It works perfectly. We get originals made by this wonderful place in Prague – they are still churning out the most beautiful armour in the Czech Republic – and then we have them moulded and make multiples of the helmets we need for our armies. We had about 20 designs from the period and cast them in car bumper rubber. I think we had about 2,000 helmets made for Kingdom of Heaven and when we wanted to rent them back, there were about 500 left because they get used on other shoots, they get lost or damaged. So we probably had to have another 1,000 to 1,500 made.

Do you have to dress a lot of extras for Robin Hood?
Well, not as many as say Gladiator. Every day we filmed in the Coliseum we had around 3,000 local extras. For Robin Hood, because of computer graphics, we don’t have as many. One of the most challenging scenes was the big battle on the beach at the end of Robin Hood where we have about 125 horsemen – and they all needed four to five costumes each. We’ve had about 300 infantry for some scenes, too. But Ridley will shoot it one way and then he’ll turn around and shoot it another way the next day – and they’ll be in their different army uniforms. So really they’re fighting themselves! That actually happened in Wales where we filmed the beach scenes. Some of the stuntmen coming in off the boats were French and then the next day, they were English. I think computer graphic skills have come on leaps and bounds since we made Gladiator.

Presumably when it comes to costumes for the leading actors, you work with each one individually?
Yes. For example if you take Cate’s character, Lady Marion, she is part of the gentry but she runs her estate because her husband has been away at war. She doesn’t have too much money so everything she wears is just a little threadbare, a little worn, but still good quality. In the story she is ploughing the fields and picking the dirt out of her horses’ hooves so her clothes are practical because she works on the land.   In contrast, you have the elaborate costumes worn at the court of King John where everything is beautifully fancy – gold chain mail, gold helmets, and gorgeous, heavily embroidered silk dresses. With the French king, Philip, we had this wonderful cloak made in India embroidered with gold bullion thread, and it looks quite beautiful.

You mentioned Cate’s outfits. Presumably you had to arrange for fittings to be done whilst she was still at home in Australia before she came to England to film…
Actually, everything was made and then I had to fly out for a day or two to fit her. I also flew out to see Russell, too – I was there for just a day or so, which is crazy, but you do it because it’s important, it has to be done and it’s the nature of the work. With Russell, I’d made an array of stuff from leather trousers to leather jerkins to various shirts. It’s collaborative because he always has great ideas of his own, so you work on things together. You know you can watch all the other Robin Hood films – and there have been a lot – and the various TV shows, but in the end I just threw it all away and started with simple lines. I knew that’s what Ridley likes and I know that’s what Russell likes, too. Nothing frothy. There’s not a pair of tights in the whole film! (laughs)

Presumably your designs have to be practical as well…
Exactly. You’re also making costumes for the stuntmen and they need comfort, they need to be able to put pads underneath the clothes as they need to be comfortable in their boots. They need to be more comfortable than the actors, really, because they have to ride for longer, climb walls and jump from trees. They need tender loving care! (laughs).

You clearly enjoy your work…
Oh I love this business. I love what I do. I pinch myself because after 29 years I’m still doing what I love. Working with a director like Ridley is just wonderful. I’m very honoured that he asked me to work with him again.

You made Gladiator ten years before Robin Hood and you filmed in some of the same locations. What was it like going back to places like Bourne Wood?
It was fantastic, it really was. Gladiator was quite terrifying in a way. It was such a huge film and we learned so much and so to go back to that area – which hasn’t changed much at all – and stand in the same place where Ridley filmed the opening sequence of Gladiator, ‘unleash hell...’ was quite special for all of us. We actually had some of the same guys who were in the opening scenes of Gladiator, playing the Germanic hordes, in Wales for the beach scenes in Robin Hood. They’re wonderful. That was a nice piece of symmetry, too.

Robin Hood is available on DVD from 22nd September.

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