“As a costume designer, I let myself be guided by the script” – Shilpi Agarwal

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Shilpi Agarwal thinks she is currently going through the best phase of her career. The costume designer and stylist, who began her career as an assistant stylist with ‘Rock On!!’ (2008), had a dream run last year, as she won acclaim for her work in Voot’s original series ‘Candy’, audiences reacted positively to the intricate costumes she designed for the Critically acclaimed Marathi feature film ‘Picasso’ which is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

In this interview, she talks about her recent successful projects, what it takes to design films and shows, the importance of formal training for a designer, upcoming projects and more.

You saw a lot of appreciation coming after the release of the web show ‘Candy’ for which you designed the costumes. Many people think that a costume designer can showcase their talent when designing a very glamorous movie or show. What was the costume design process for this show which was essentially a noir thriller?

The biggest challenge in costume design is bringing the character to life according to the creators’ vision. Also, the audience should be able to identify with the appearance of the character. I’ve never been concerned about my clothes looking glamorous. It all depends on what the character needs. I love creating unique yet familiar characters through costumes and that’s what I strive to achieve in all of my projects.

For ‘Candy’, we had to take the extreme weather into consideration as we were filming in Nainital at the height of the winter season. While the costumes had to reflect the mood and theme of the show, the actors also had to be extremely comfortable wearing the clothes.

The first step towards design is to read the script and understand the overall mood, emotions, graphic, and character personalities. As a costume designer, I let myself be guided by the script. As a result, a designer must do the SEO and work around the unique elements and details for each character. At the same time, you have to work on the color palettes with the whole team. While working on the color palette of ‘Candy’, we made an important decision. Even though it was a dark thriller, we didn’t want the palette to look moody. So we used deeper hues and pops of color here and there and layered with neutral grays and blues to balance out the mystical vibe of the show.

The most interesting part of the show was creating the “monster”. We went back and forth and experimented with many different materials, textures, layers and prostheses. After going through several trials, the team finally agreed on the form, shape and appearance of this one. I think that was the hardest part of the show. I had a great team working with me and that’s why we were able to do this despite budget, time and resource constraints.

‘Picasso’ was a completely different project. How was the working process on it?

“Picasso” was a great experience as it was about studying the intricacies of craftsmanship and culture. India has a rich treasure of varied arts and crafts. I like to learn about them wherever and whenever I can. ‘Picasso’ involved the Maharashtra folk dance form called ‘Dashavtar’. I attended various shows, talked to the artists and learned about the costumes and the stories behind them. Each costume has a story based on the character they play on stage when performing. My challenge was to keep the authenticity intact while making it look aesthetically pleasing on screen. I worked around character concepts, refined the embroideries, and put together a palette to make it look plush, bright, in sync, and at the same time resonate with the characters they play on stage while performing. Besides the greatness on stage, we also had to show the struggles of the performers’ daily lives off stage where we went completely muted with raw textures. And this is how we created two worlds of the same character, which are both radically different from each other.

From designer with Pantaloons at the time to designer for films, how do you view your career?

It’s really great when I look back on my background. It took me almost a decade to understand my true calling. I explored various avenues from working in retail to export houses, even launching my own brand. I guess everything happens for a reason and I’m grateful to have been able to work in different industries. It really helped me get technically strong. I am happy and content with where I am today. I hope and aim to keep growing and doing good work.

How did your journey in movies start? Was ‘Rock On!!’ the first film you worked on?

Yes! In 2007, I was working as a designer at Pantaloons and one of my roommates came from the entertainment industry. Being a curious person and someone who has always been fascinated by movies, I would ask him about things like what goes on behind the scenes and how the costumes are taken care of. I really wanted to explore different opportunities to figure out what I really wanted to pursue. One day, when I learned that there was a job as an assistant costume designer for a film, I jumped at the chance without knowing anything about what I was getting into. Crazy working hours, hectic schedules and high-pressure drama were different from my very comfortable 9am-5pm design job. But at the end of the day, it gave me a sense of accomplishment, and when filming was over, I knew this was my path and my happy place. ‘Rock On!!’ is and always will be special because it was my first step into this industry. I assisted Niharika Bhasin Khan on the film and will always be grateful to him for giving me this opportunity.

Many top designers working in the film industry are those who have had no formal training as such. You studied fashion at the prestigious National Institute of Fashion Technology. Do you think formal training is important?

Well, I think studying fashion and design at NIFT has been a plus for me. Taking a formal course at an institute helps you improve your skills and gives you the required exposure. In addition, technical knowledge is always useful and helps you work on fabrics, textures and properties, pattern creation and several other elements. I think you can visualize things more clearly when you know the process behind them. Each individual, of course, has their own design process. Education works as a tool to improve the whole process. I strongly believe that you learn and grow as a person and a designer every day and with every project you work on. Interestingly, during the filming of ‘Candy’, the phrase ‘Learning Everyday’ was like our costume team takia kalam (slogan). We faced many last-minute challenges on set, but somehow we managed to find a way to overcome them every time.

What is the biggest challenge in designing films or shows?

As I mentioned earlier, costumes shouldn’t distract or become an eyesore. They should blend seamlessly into the world created on screen. To work in sync with all departments and get it right, maintaining the balance between simplicity and cinematic appeal is the hardest part.

What has been your most fulfilling project as a designer so far?

For me, the term “fulfilling” means two things. I feel happy when a project gives me creative satisfaction and my work reaches a wide audience. “Candy” was the first mainstream web series I worked on and it brought me great success. So it will always be very special to me. The series had a stellar cast and appealed to a wide audience. It was quite a challenge to get the flavor right. Another project I loved working on was a documentary series for Netflix due out later this year. As a docuseries, we overcame some challenges while bridging the gap between authenticity and cinematic appeal that the narrative needed. I can’t wait to see how my work on this project will be received by the public.

Another equally satisfying and challenging project was the Hindi feature film “Bhagwan Bharose” (currently in post-production). The film was set in a small village in Jharkhand and the period I had to work on costumes was India in the early 90s. I had the best time exploring rural India, sourcing from local markets and borrowing clothes from local residents to make the film feel raw and real. These extra steps helped bring out the authentic textures of the decor. We didn’t use ready-made costumes. Instead, we sewed most of the shirts because at that time people in villages used to get the yardage and have their shirts sewn. The concept of having ready-to-wear clothes did not yet exist in most villages.

Do you have any favorite designers or someone you looked up to when you decided to become one yourself?

Honestly, I didn’t have any favorite designers when I decided to become one. It’s because I had no idea about costume design in movies. Back then, it was just period drama or high fashion movies where costumes were focused or alluded to. Once I got some hands-on experience with the design process, I began to observe and appreciate the work of costume designers on all films. Speaking of my current favorites, I would say that I have always been in awe of Arjun Bhasin’s work on all the films he has worked on. I think he creates magic with his costumes on screen.

In your opinion, what is this quality that distinguishes you from other designers? Do you have a signature style?

I am a team player and a good listener. I am always ready to take on any challenge that is thrown at me. I love playing with colors and textures to enhance cinematic appeal and that’s, I think, my forte. I’ve also been associated with film production, so I understand the value of the time, money and sweat that goes into it. I can’t comment on my style because every project involves a unique creative process and that’s the beauty of working in the film industry.

What projects are you working on at the moment?

I am currently on exciting and diverse projects like sci-fi series for major platform, Hindi drama feature film and short fiction film. I look forward to experimenting as much as possible with the various genres of projects I’m working on this year.


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