Digital Costume Design and Collaboration: Applications in Academia, Theatre, and Film by Rafael Jaen
Designing in an increasingly digital world with tech-savvy students presents a new set of challenges to an old art form. Students obtain and disseminate information and communicate primarily by digital means. Adapting theatre classes to a digital world is not difficult, but finding a text to suit the needs of a costume design course that still addresses some of the more elementary but critical skills needed of costume designers has not existed. Many costume-design faculty use Liz Covey and Rosemary Ingham’s incredible resource, The Costume Designers Handbook, in their classes. Other foundational texts might be Rebecca Cunningham’s The Magic Garment and Melissa Merz’s The Art and Practice of Costume Design. However, none address the growing need to digitize research, paperwork, and designs not only for practical reasons, but as a way to attract and retain the interest of students. In Digital Costume Design and Collaboration Rafael Jaen addresses many of the same practical approaches to design as these textbooks, but he reveals how to use the digital world to organize, present, and share design basics.
Jaen organizes his book into three parts. In the first, “Foundations,” he lays out design principles with the essential “nuts and bolts” of each story and character, as well as where to start researching and how to create a concept. He includes additional aids to young designers engaged in the process, such as how to talk to actors, the importance of a dramaturg, and how to have a conversation with a director. Jaen shifts from this traditional introduction to design by outlining how to compile the initial research, notes, and measurements, and how to show information digitally in Google (docs, slides, and sheets), Pinterest, and Dropbox. Importantly, he explains in detail how to use each format and share it with others. This form of communication may be the most important part of the digitization of a costume designer’s work, and Jaen is convincing in his argument to adopt it.
In chapter 2, “Preparing Your Digital Costume Bible and Design Studio,” he discusses some of the most practical parts of design: the paperwork. Jaen thoroughly explains a costume plot, piece list, and how to budget for a production, but again argues in favor of creating, storing, and tracking all of this digitally. Especially impressive is the suggestion to take photos of each actor during fittings, and to organize these into a shareable file that is accessible to everyone on the production team from virtually anywhere. No more forgetting measurements when you are out shopping—it is right on your smartphone! Want to share how a fitting went with the director? Send her the file link! Google docs also updates immediately so there are no lost files, and files shared among multiple participants are always the most current. Jaen also discusses what equipment and software a designer would need to work digitally. This book successfully explains the ease of using such platforms for almost any designer, but particularly for those who may be nervous about changing old habits.
In part 2, “Applications,” Jaen presents five chapters focused on the practical skills from researching to rendering to archiving. The primary tool he introduces here is Photoshop, and for designers new to the world of Photoshop, he presents an incredibly easy path for using this multifaceted tool. He sticks to the basics—layers, brushes, color swatching, and creating fabric, and then goes through them step by step. Jaen’s instructions are very clear when discussing basic applications. This is particularly helpful for student and faculty designers who are not familiar with using digital rendering applications, or who are intimidated by the idea of using such a tool. He also provides links to his YouTube channel, which presents the same instructions visually—an important asset for many learners.
The final part of the book, “Digital Design Practice,” presents testimonials from experts about using digital platforms for design. Jaen interviews theatrical directors, designers, and educators about their experiences working in the industry and their individual approaches to their art. The responses are varied and often much less complicated than expected; many stress listening and the value of being able to communicate—important lessons for student designers. Jaen’s interview with costume designer Wendi Zea provides advice on how to use digital platforms for exploring new methods of communicating. I found one of her practices particularly useful: after obtaining the set designer’s permission, she inserts digital renderings of her costumes into a digital rendition of the set so as to allow the director to obtain a complete view of the show.
Digital Costume Design and Collaboration is a valuable addition to the books used for teaching young designers. It takes the processes and functions of practical design into the digital world with easy-to-follow guides and instructions. It is particularly useful for programs with a limited offering of costume-design courses that have students who want to use digital platforms for storing and sharing information or who already do. It will not serve to accentuate courses specifically [End Page 84] designed to teach digital design as a stand-alone course; all of the tools and platforms addressed are purposefully kept at a basic level. But it will also serve veteran designers who would like to move into a digital world, but find themselves a bit intimidated or even simply not knowing where to start. I plan on incorporating the text into my costume-design courses, even though I will still teach hand-rendering methods as well. However, the move from paper to digital, digital research and organization, and design presentations as recommended by Digital Costume Design and Collaboration makes sense, and will be a natural progression for most of our students.