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Weaving with Magic: An Interview with Ellis Flyte by Kent Hill

Really awesome it is to interview people who have been a part of the cinematic high water marks of one’s life. But this one was special. Several weeks back my beloved wife, Jennifer, was looking at pictures online from the MoPOP (The Museum of Popular Culture): Jim Henson exhibit. She, as am I, is a fan of the worlds created by Henson and particularly thrilled at seeing Sarah’s ball gown from Labyrinth. She said I needed to track down the costume designer and interview her. So I did. Easier said than done right? Well yeah. I admit, I have had ridiculous luck since joining the crew at podcastingthemsofly.com when it has come to tracking down industry professionals for a chat. During the construction of my anthology trilogy Straight to Video, I had prided myself on getting a hold of filmmakers, some of whom I knew, but many I didn’t. Following that, and in starting my on modest publishing business, I tried to keep the magic going – hoping to secure forewords from filmmakers who were willing to read friend’s books and write introductions for them.

I was so happy to do it this time for my wife, who, while she has tastes that differ from mine, we certainly share a bunch of common cinematic favorites of which Labyrinth is one.

So I am proud to present this brief insight into the life of Ellis Flyte, costume designer on Labyrinth and also part of the creative team that brought us that other Henson spectacular, The Dark Crystal. From humble beginnings, she worked in theater and television but also enjoyed success as a fashion designer in demand. Then there came her work with the Henson Company; on two of its crowning glories. She was also, for a time, married to Henson’s son Brian.

Ellis was very generous to lend some of her time to answer a handful of questions on her contribution to a remarkable film.

So through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to present to you, ladies and gentlemen . . . Ellis Flyte.

 

KH: Could you tell us a little of your origins?

EF: In brief, I am Scottish and as a youth spent a lot of time making clothes out of rugs and similar strange fabrics to everyone’s amusement, but primarily wanted to be a ballet dancer. Following a very severe accident I completed my exams at school and left to London to study fashion instead.

KH: What were your creative aspirations? Was working in the fashion industry or film always your dream?

EF: My first employment during college evenings was in theatre in the costume department which I thoroughly enjoyed. Both fashion and costume would be the two key passions for most of my life, and I worked in many great theatres, contemporary dance studios and television. However I was to become more celebrated in those years as a fashion designer, working from my living room in South London, and selling through Liberty and Browns and Harvey Nichols. Later on in my career I would also design and dress actors, singers and celebrity as well as my collections. Both are really all-consuming creative lifestyles with very little time off but you love it so I have no problems with this!

KH: How did you come to work for the Henson Company?  It must have been so incredible to work with Jim Henson; he seems to have been such a vital spark, a creative genius?

EF: I had taken a television job which was coming to an end and I saw an advert to work in film, so I went along for an interview. You can imagine how astonished I was to be asked if I had ever worked on puppets. My first job was as an assistant to Polly Smith, working on the extraordinary “Dark Crystal”. This was of course a Jim Henson film and also the concept of Brian Froud, where I and a large team of the best artists and technicians worked together in various departments creating the special effects vital to the end result. Long hours but so much fun. We shot the film at Elstree.

Following the release of Dark Crystal six of us were asked to design the “Dark Crystal fashion collection” of gowns based on the movie characters which turned into another totally new and exciting project! So as you can see I had already met the genius Jim Henson and loved working in their company!

KH: Tell us about your experience on the production of Labyrinth? Sarah’s masquerade dress in Labyrinth, indeed all the costumes you did, were based on concepts created by you along with Brian Froud?

EF: Labyrinth was considerably later and a joy to be chosen for the position! Yes it is a Jim Henson film and once again the Conceptual Designer was Brian Froud.

He brought to me many sketches of costumes from which my job would be to create and realise the ideas and also introduce new detail or interpretation. My first responsibility would be to David Bowie and to Jennifer Connelly, and then to the surreal costume ball. It has to be said that I employed a large team of people from  pattern cutters and sewing technicians, screen print and dye specialists, special effect creators, jewellery designers and make-up and hair stylists, amongst others, and it is due to their continued hard work, originality and independent skills that we came to the finished product!

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KH: Did the final costumes mirror the concept drawings or we’re the altered as filming commenced, and material did you use? The dress now seems yellowed in photos from the MoPOP exhibit,  is that purely due to age or was that the way it was lit during filming to lend it the ethereal quality of the sequence?

EF: Sarah’s ball gown took a lot of sampling and camera tests to achieve! We wanted her to look like an otherworldly princess and very different to the others at the ball. The ethereal effect was achieved by many secret devices including layers of lace, lame and rainbow paper, spray paint and broken jewels, and then the entire ballroom garments were distressed to look as if they had been dancing forever! Hemlines were broken down and dust was sprayed into the creases – the masks also present a sinister look to the event don’t they? The fabric choice for the ladies was chosen to give depth and colour and also for movement as you say, although of course all dresses were crinoline underneath.

KH: What was your favourite costume to design and which costumes were the most challenging to not only create but to realize in a finished garment?

EF: The ballroom sequence was a terrific challenge but I really enjoyed all of it, my two favourite costumes in that sequence were probably those for Jennifer and David’s jewelled velvet tail coat. The trickiest pieces were most of David’s as they were designed to be highly original and didn’t always transfer from sketch to actual garment! A leather jacket with a special effect finish was particularly tricky but we got there in the end! Plus we had a load of laughs with the stretch trousers over various cod-pieces. We also tried many different hair styles and make-up effects before Jim and Brian made their final selection! To realise the characters and then have the creative freedom to add or expand my ideas is a costume designers dream and when it works it is really wonderful! It was a huge task to put it all together plus detail of jewellery, accessories and hair pieces but I loved the way it was shot.

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KH: Labyrinth is a treasured film of my youth. Looking back at the film and the experience, how do you see the work and the film today?

EF: I think Labyrinth was ahead of its time as was Dark Crystal.

KH: What aspects of costume design do you enjoy the most and do you feel that costume design is an underrated element in films, attaining the recognition it deserves?

EF: To design costume there are so many dynamics – you have to enjoy the ability to multi-task!

You must understand the person you are dressing and their bodies, their favourite parts and their insecurities so that you can give your personal touch and increase their confidence and happiness and never disturb their performance. Also it is important to know how and where to shop for everything from highly individual/ period costume /unusual accessories/ to ordinary base cloth! And then to know how to work many different effects from any base or other fabrics and add the knowledge of what works on-screen in terms of colours, textures and finishes. I enjoy all of this, regardless of the project, and I have been lucky enough to have worked on many very different projects! Each one is challenging in a different way and a lot of research is required before you start. I do think costume is valued especially when it is well done! It is as important as the script or storyline and should help to identify a character, whatever the circumstances. It is now beginning to receive the acclaim it deserves.

KH: Have you ever been approached or would you consider putting out a book of your work?

EF: The book – that seems to be a constant question. I have had several magazine features but not yet a book on my fashion and film work.

 

There you have it. I was just as surprised to get in touch with Ellis as I was to have her participate in this interview, so, I send a big thank you.

I would like to add that the questions for Ellis were prepared by my wife and I was thrilled at her response to the answers. This one’s for you baby and I am here always…

…should you need us.

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STAR WARS: EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE – A REVIEW BY J.D. LAFRANCE

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For many of my generation, the first Star Wars film (1977) was a defining moment of our childhood and so I always look back at it in a nostalgic way. I had the action figures, the coloring book, the calendar, the t-shirt, and so on – all part of the vast merchandising that helped build the George Lucas empire. But as a kid I wasn’t thinking about that – I loved the film and wanted to have everything associated with it, including the comic books and the novelization. The Star Wars I love is the original incarnation unmolested by Lucas’ awkward revisionist CGI makeover. The Star Wars I know and love has Han Solo (Harrison Ford) firing first. The film has been analyzed and written about extensively so I can only look at it from my perspective and offer various observations that always stick out in my mind whenever I watch it.

One of the reasons Star Wars works so well is because of a solid combination of engaging storytelling and groundbreaking (for its time) special effects. The coming-of-age story is as old as the hills and I’m sure that is part of the film’s appeal – its comforting familiarity. Young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) leaves behind his life on a small, insignificant planet and becomes involved in an intergalactic civil war that involves rescuing a princess from the clutches of an evil empire. In the process, he grows up and becomes a man.

I still get goosebumps when I see that opening text, “A long time ago. In a galaxy far, far away…” And then, John Williams’ rousing score kicks in with a sudden blast from the horn section and we’re on our way. We get that iconic shot of the small Rebel Alliance spacecraft being pursued by an Empire Star Destroyer so massive it takes up at least three-quarters of the screen as it rumbles into view. We soon meet two of the film’s most endearing characters – C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), droids that have a sometimes slapstick-y love/hate relationship a la Laurel and Hardy. 3PO is the eternal pessimist as evident from his declaration early on, “We’re doomed.” Of course, this is as the Empire prepares to board the Rebel spacecraft. 3PO and R2 play well off each other – the former whines about danger and complains about the conditions of Tatooine (the planet they escape to), while the latter clearly has a purpose, a mission that he must complete with or without his long-time companion. They bicker like an old married couple and even on his own, 3PO still bitches about R2.

Has there ever been a cooler introduction for a villain than the one for Darth Vader (David Prowse)? Having boarded the Rebel ship by force, he emerges from the smoke to survey the damage done. We immediately hear his ominous breathing, that unsettling raspy respirator sound – awesome! We soon hear James Earl Jones’ booming, authoritative voice (later on the voice of CNN no less!) which, coupled with David Prowse’s intimidating physical presence and the brilliantly black armor, creates an instantly memorable bad guy, a real force of evil. Lucas constantly reminds us what a badass Vader is in scenes like the one where he deals with one of his officers who dares to scoff at the power of the Force compared to the power of Empire’s new battle station, The Death Star. Vader warns him, “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.”

Unconvinced, the guy foolishly insults Vader’s “sad devotion to that ancient religion,” and, in response, the Dark Lord merely raises a hand and chokes the man from afar. Vader coolly and ominously replies, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” Now, how badass is that? It takes Peter Cushing’s bureaucrat Grand Moff Tarkin to step in and call Vader off. As evil as Vader is, Tarkin is on a whole other level. He destroys a planet populated by millions of innocent people just to make a point and teach Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) a lesson. How nasty is that? Vader just chokes a few guys which pales in comparison to what Tarkin does.

I always found it fascinating how the Jawas are basically the used car salesmen of the galaxy and they even try to pawn off a faulty droid to Luke and his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown). Mark Hamill’s take on Luke is right on the money, playing the character as a teenager on the verge of becoming a young man – someone who would rather pick up power converters over at Toschi Station than haggle over the price of droids with Jawas. His uncle sees right through Luke and chastises him, “You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done.” This little moment is one of the reasons why Star Wars appealed to a younger generation – they could relate to Luke’s disinterest in chores and his frustration of being stuck on his uncle’s farm. Who would rather hang out with their friends than get stuck doing boring chores?

This is further reinforced in the scene where Luke talks to Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) and Uncle Owen about transmitting his application to the Academy sooner rather than later but his uncle wants him to stick around for the harvest and another year. After Luke goes off in defeat, his aunt says, “Luke’s just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him,” to which Owen replies, “That’s what I’m afraid of.” This conversation cleverly hints at earth-shattering revelations that come in the next film in the series, The Empire Strikes Back (1980). I just want to say how much I love the little moments of domesticity that Lucas shows here with Luke having a meal with his aunt and uncle or another scene where we see Aunt Beru (who I was always struck by what a kind face she has and what a gentle person she appears to be) preparing some sort of meal. It humanizes these people in a short amount of time so that we care about what happens to them later on.

What I also like about the story is that Lucas makes it personal for Luke. His only reason for staying was to help out his aunt and uncle but when they are killed by Imperial Stormtroopers, his life as a farmboy dies that day. He’s got nothing left to lose and his innocence has been taken away from him forever. Lucas makes sure that we understand just how horrible the Empire is with a lingering shot of the aunt and uncle’s still smoking, charred skeletons, which was pretty shocking to me when I first saw the film at a very young, impressionable age. This scene ups the stakes and reinforces just how ruthless the Empire is and how personal it has gotten for Luke.

The casting of Alec Guinness as Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi was genius on Lucas’ part. With his classic British accent, he gives his dialogue a classy spin, perfect for the expositional dialogue his character imparts throughout the film. For example, early on he explains the nature of the Force to Luke: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his powers. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” What a great way to describe the Force – it’s succinct and doesn’t give too much away, just enough to let our imagination fill in the rest.

One of the most memorable scenes in Star Wars takes place in the Cantina at Mos Eisley (a place that Obi-Wan warns Luke is a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”), a bar where all sorts of strange and unusual creatures hang out. Of course, the purpose of this sequence is for Luke and Ben to meet and hire Han Solo and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to rescue Leia, but it is also a fantastic showcase for a memorable collection of exotic-looking alien creatures. There’s one that looks a little like Cousin It from The Addams Family, one that looks like the Wolfman, one that kinda looks like a devil with two horns sprouting out of the top of his head, and so on. The diversity of these creatures is so fascinating that I just like rewatching this sequence to check out all of the various creatures. This sequence has gone on to inspire several other films, including Nightbreed (1990), Serenity (2005), and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). The aliens in Star Wars don’t look cute and cuddly but strange and dangerous. Lucas reinforces this by having Luke bullied by two lowlifes until Obi-Wan steps in with his mad lightsaber skills.

How cool is Han Solo? We meet him haggling with Obi-Wan over the price of taking them to Alderaan and Han tries to impress his prospective clients with the speed and reputation of his spacecraft the Millennium Falcon. However, after their meeting, Han runs into Greedo, a bounty hunter collecting a sizable debt that the smuggler owes notorious gangster Jabba the Hutt. Han acts cool and casual, keeping Greedo talking while he quietly unholsters his gun and blasts the bounty hunter before he can shoot him. How badass is Han? Harrison Ford plays it so well – all cool and accommodating to Greedo so that he has time to get the drop on him. It’s this scene that establishes Ford’s character – is he a bad guy or a good guy? You’re never really sure until the end of the film and this is due in large part to Ford’s performance as a cocky smuggler who only looks out for himself.

I also like Han’s simple philosophy, like when he scoffs at the notion of the Force: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side … I’ve flown from one side of the galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff but never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” He provides a lot of the film’s moments of humor, like when Luke tries to convince him to rescue Leia by appealing to his greed, or his constant bickering with her. As he tells Luke at one point, “Wonderful girl. Either I’m gonna kill her or I’m beginning to like her.” Han and Leia end up bantering like a couple in a vintage screwball comedy and this is carried over to an even more memorable degree in The Empire Strikes Back.

Another exciting scene is the one where our heroes escape the Death Star while Han and Luke man the Falcon’s laser cannons. Lucas uses editing and Williams’ stirring score to make this scene even more dynamic. It’s a nice warm-up for the climactic sequence where a squadron of Rebel Alliance X-Wing fighters launch an attack on the Death Star. Not only do the Rebels have to worry about the Imperial TIE Fighters, but also the battle station’s laser cannons. Also adding urgency to the assault is the ever-looming threat of the Death Star on the verge of eradicating the Rebel base located on the moon of Yavin. Luke finally gets to show off his piloting skills while many of his comrades are blown up. It doesn’t hurt that he’s aided by Obi-Wan’s disembodied voice and the Force. The use of models in this sequence gives it a more tangible quality, a realness that is missing from most CGI-heavy science fiction films nowadays. This sequence gets even more exciting when Luke and the surviving Rebel X-Wings descend into the trenches of the Death Star to bomb its weak spot. Lucas is able to convey a real sense of speed and urgency that is thrilling, especially when the Millennium Falcon comes from out of nowhere to give Luke the opportunity to destroy the Death Star.

Some feel that Star Wars looks dated and I would agree but for me that is a large part of its appeal, sideburns and all. Watching it instantly takes me back to when I first saw it and the rush of excitement and wonder that I felt as it unspooled before my eyes. It is one of those pivotal moviegoing experiences that I have never forgotten. While I think that The Empire Strikes Back is the better film in terms of story, pacing, characterization, action, etc., Star Wars is the film I enjoy watching the most for all of the reasons stated above. I think that a review in the now-defunct Sci-Universe magazine sums it up best: “even today, would-be sci-fi franchise-builders haven’t learned the lessons about what made Star Wars a cinematic landmark; compelling, but flawed, characters and attention to the smallest pieces of minutiae.”